The Siege of Dennis Road

Residents didn’t know what was happening… until the first volley of eggs hit their windows.

Inhabitants of an inner-city suburb of Birmingham had endured months of protests on their doorstep (See ‘Veil of Ignorance’ – 14th June 2020). Division had crept into this diverse, but previously cohesive neighbourhood, with households taking opposing sides on the ongoing debate about LGBTQ inclusion at Anderton Park Primary School.

Whilst relations between actual neighbours remained cordial, there had been several heated clashes with protestors from the wider area and any discussion with the lead agitator inevitably resulted in him engaging his standard tactic of aggressively dismissing any opinion that contradicted him. His antagonistic approach to debate was clearly in evidence during a widely broadcast exchange between he and Yardley MP Jess Philips, where he shouted over her at length then immediately accused her of being hostile when she was forced to raise her voice to be heard.

An earlier exchange between a female neighbour and the head protester, resulted in the police being called, when he and his supporter’s behaviour became threatening and they essentially ordered her to shut up and go back into her house, like a good woman. The men didn’t like being challenged by a female, whom, in the words of one of their mob, was ‘created for man’s pleasure’ and nothing more.

It was amusing to witness Sparkhill’s ‘poster boy for fundamentalism’ damper his bullishness, during a showdown with Holly and Phil on ITV’s This Morning. He was clearly unhappy having his views questioned and at points could be seen literally biting his lip to control his anger. It looked like he had been advised by cohorts not to lose his cool in front of the cameras. This usually arrogant aggressor seemed uncomfortable without his megaphone and entourage. His nervous demeanour wasn’t helped by the fresh haircut he had got especially for his appearance on national television. The unfortunate style choice of teasing every strand into gravity defying spikes, standing straight up from his head, only served to make him look even more scared, like something from a cartoon.

The inhabitants of Dennis Road could be forgiven for thinking that the drama on their doorstep couldn’t get any worse… until Katie Hopkins (a reviled far-right media parasite) turned up for a sneak photo opportunity on school grounds. Staff didn’t even know that she had been there until the images appeared on social media! Yet, even that wannabe Nazi’s sly intrusion paled into insignificance compared to the evening thirty masked thugs launched an attack on the road.

Residents didn’t know what was happening… until the first volley of eggs hit their windows.

One half of an openly gay couple living on the street, had stepped out into their back garden for a post dinner cigarette and was perplexed to hear the sound of familiar protest chants. At first, he thought that he had got so used to hearing the slogans that he was now imaging them when they weren’t there.

His partner wandered through to the front room to investigate, just as an egg exploded on the window, followed by another!

He dashed out of the front door, to be confronted by mayhem.

There were shouts and screams coming from far end of the street, vehicles screeching into the cul-de-sac, and masked men were yelling insults and hurling eggs at the houses and cars of those that dared display the rainbow flag (See ‘Flying the Flag’ – 26th July 2020), while that ‘General in a war’ agitator (and spiky headed star of morning television) was orchestrating the ‘battle’ from a conveniently deniable distance.

The screams were coming from a group of women and their children who were trapped at the closed school gates by masked men. One woman had collapsed to the floor. Her colleagues were trying to help her, while the goons bellowed abuse and pelted them with more eggs.

Suddenly, the front door of a house close to the school burst open and a neighbour dashed out. This diminutive, mild mannered woman, with a mop of grey hair, launched herself at the assailants, slapping, punching and pulling them away from their victims. If they hadn’t been wearing balaclavas, I am sure she would have had them by their ears, like naughty children. The gang didn’t know what had hit them and took flight. They didn’t know how to react to this tiny Tasmanian devil at their heels. It was like their mother and all their ‘aunties’ were after them.

Apparently, a group of activists from an LGBTQ organisation had volunteered to decorate the school gates in preparation for a VIP visit on Monday morning. They had been tying flags, ribbon, artwork, banners and posters in support of the besieged school, that bore messages such as “Love is the answer” and “Love Unites Us”. One heart-shaped motto read: “No to Islamophobia; No to homophobia; No to Transphobia”.

The masked men, or ‘just the boys’ as a sympathiser later described them to the press, had received a tip off that the LGBTQ activists were on the street and stormed in to intimidate and destroy their work.

One of the men shouted, “This is for coming into OUR area,” a sentiment stated by their ‘General’ several weeks earlier, when he had pointed out every Pakistani owned house on the road and boasted, “We own that one and that one and that one etc.”

He should turn on Grindr and see just how many gay profiles pop up within 200 meters. On Dennis Road alone, there are three openly gay men, one bi-curious individual, at least two closet cases (although as they both come from religious families, I can’t see them coming out anytime soon), one house at the T-junction that is gay owned and exclusively rented to LGBTQ tenants and a few dozen queer acquaintances and fuck buddies I could certainly introduce him to in the surrounding area.

Finally, police with dogs and riot vans arrived. The remaining hooligans skulked away, while their leader claimed that his presence was just a coincidence.

‘My friend’ stood watching the aftermath in disbelief.

A police officer approached him and asked, “Are you ok? You look shellshocked.”

“No, I’m not OK. I feel like I’m in a soap opera. I’m expecting a tram to come crashing off the viaduct at any moment… If we had trams… or a viaduct for that matter.”

The officer apologised for not getting there sooner, “We are desperately under resourced and understaffed,” he feebly explained. “We didn’t have any officers in the area. We had to come over from the other side of the city.”

Eventually, things calmed down. The LGBTQ activists were escorted to safety, damage was cleared up and residents drifted back into their homes.

The police had one last task to perform before they left. They knocked on every house with a rainbow flag in their window and warned the occupants that there may be further reprisals, “We have heard they plan to brick any houses with flags still up after we leave. We can’t tell you what to do, but only advise that it may be in your best interests to remove them. I’m so sorry.”

With heavy hearts, they took the flags down. They had been on display for several weeks. No need to court more trouble.

On the plus side, that terrible night did mark a turning point in the story. The situation had gone from peaceful protests to violent attacks. National papers ran prominent articles on the incident and local authorities could no longer watch impotently. Within weeks the courts had imposed an exclusion zone around the school and the protesters were banished to the outskirts of the neighbourhood, out of sight and earshot of the classrooms, to a muddy grass verge… where my dog used to shit.

The anti-inclusion protests soon ran out of momentum and fizzled out. Neighbourly relations began to heal. With a little understanding, they found the perfect blend.

One of those articles in the national press had stated that the lead agitator accused the LGBTQ group as being responsible for the attacks on that Hellacious Sunday night, “They were provocative, turning up as night fell, disturbing residents and causing intimidation by putting up rainbow flags and inflammatory messages.”

No, the residents weren’t intimidated by ribbons and hearts, it was thirty masked thugs, bringing threats and violence to the road, that did that.

Voice of the Nightingale

The Nightingale Club has been at the heart and in the hearts of the Birmingham gay community for over 50 years.

The Gale, as it is affectionately known, was one of the first two venues that I ever visited on the scene (See ‘To Sir, With Thanks X’ – 16th Jan 20) and it remained part of my social life for many years. I have seen more strippers gyrating on the stage wearing nothing but a liberal dousing of baby lotion than I care to remember and have embarrassed myself on those dancefloors far too often!

On a night out with a new boyfriend (the man that has now been my partner for 20 years), we bound onto one of the plinths that were a feature of the main dancefloor at the time and, emboldened by beer, vigorously showed off our moves. I lost my balance and tipped backwards off the platform, automatically grabbing hold of my partner for support, which merely resulted in the pair of us toppling together and crashing to the floor with a duet of shrieks! We were too humiliated to stand and face the revellers around us, so chose instead to crawl on our hands and knees through their forest of legs until we reached the safety of the bar.

On another occasion, myself and two female friends were stood on the pavement outside the Nightingale, debating whether to call it a night or go into the club.

I was expressing my desire to carry on the night by singing the pop song ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’. I was giving it all that night, when suddenly, I stopped singing mid-song and announced, “The Nolans!!”

My friends just looked at me incredulously, so I repeated myself, but more emphatically.

“Yes, we know who sung it,” they said, assuming that I was just randomly informing them of the name of the Irish girl band that recorded the 80s hit.

Exasperated, I grabbed them by the shoulders and spun them on their heels to face the road. A taxi had just pulled up at the curb and the Nolan Sisters were getting out. Unbeknown to us, they were headlining the venue that night. Well, that made up our minds and we hit the club… and let our bodies sway.

My next celebrity encounter at the Nightingale Club came as a cringeworthy surprise.

At the time, I worked at one of Birmingham’s main theatres. There was a mutual arrangement that staff members from the theatre and club were entitled to discounts and free tickets to each other’s venues.

I would regularly finish an evening shift at the theatre and then wander over to the Nightingale for a few late-night drinks. As one of the few city centre venues open post-midnight back then, it was always busy after the theatre had closed.

One time, I forgot to take my exclusive pass with me, so tried to blag my way in at the door. The guy at the ticket booth was surprisingly sympathetic and simply asked me to prove that I worked at the theatre by naming some colleagues who frequented the club that he might know. Alas, he hadn’t heard of any of the likely suspects that I suggested so, in desperation, I decided to namedrop a well-known soap actor that was an associate artist at the theatre.

“Michael Cashman,” I said. “I know Michael Cashman.”

Baron Cashman, or ‘Colin from Eastenders’ as he was better known, was openly gay and performing at the theatre that season and I knew he was a regular customer of the Nightingale. Despite having seen him around the theatre on occasions, it was a huge overstatement to say that I actually knew him, and he certainly wouldn’t recognise me.

The ticket clerk listened to my claim then immediately looked over my shoulder and called out, “Hey Michael, do you know this guy?”

Michael Cashman was stood several places behind me in the queue. I was mortified.

To his credit, he tried valiantly to collaborate my story and replied, “Yes, I know him.”

Unfortunately, he said it while looking at the person stood next to me and I was rumbled.

Seeing my embarrassment, the clerk kindly gave me the benefit of the doubt and let me in anyway, making me promise to show him my pass next time.

Later, I found myself stood next to Michael Cashman in the piano lounge. I apologised for earlier, explained why I had used his name and thanked him for doing his best to back up my story. He was charming about it.

I don’t remember, but I do hope that I bought him a drink.

Back in Business

The pubs reopened in England on the 4th July and Birmingham’s gay scene took its first tentative steps back to normality.

Ruru (See ‘The Boy with Hearts in His Eyes’ – 7th June 2020) had reserved a table for the reopening afternoon at Missing within minutes of their online booking system going live. I suspect Ru was like an excited child on Christmas morning (well, Eid in his case) when that Saturday arrived. I imagine him up at the crack of dawn, washed, dressed, sprayed with far too much cologne, man-bag packed and sat on the bottom step of the stairs, impatiently counting down the minutes until his pre-booked Uber arrived to take him to our 4 o’clock slot at his beloved home from home.

My partner and I went into the city centre early ourselves, but only so we could experience a sense of normality by reviving our semi-regular weekend routine of shopping in the Bullring markets and Chinatown. We were reassured to see that everything was as we had left it, although quieter, and all the familiar faces were where they should be. We were served with characteristic severity by the women at the Polish supermarket, our favourite Romanian fruit & veg seller (See ‘The Art of the Flirt’ – 5th July 2020) greeted us with an enthusiastic handshake, which morphed into a more reserved fist-bump as he remembered current etiquette (We got free tomatoes btw.) and chatted amiably with the stout woman with the deadpan demeanour at the cheese stall. Our world was back in business!

At the indoor market, my partner rushed off to check that the handsome lad with the caramel eyes was back where he should be, while I stopped for a favourite snack.

I was asked, “Are you eating these in?”

“Erm… Yeeeees,” I replied hesitantly, thinking, Does being stood at a flimsy shelf, two foot from the counter, constitute ‘eating in’?

“Then I will have to take your contact details.”

“Really?” I grinned, “Just for a pot of whelks?”

She smiled back. “I know! Welcome to the new normal.”

We finished our shopping over an hour earlier than expected, so headed to Missing to see if it we could possibly gain entry ahead of schedule, only to find that Ruru had beaten us to it!  He was sat on display at a table set up on the redundant stage. Although he claimed to feel self-conscious, being so prominently in the spotlight (literally, as some of the stage lighting was turned on), I suspect that he loved the attention it guaranteed.

Customers at Missing were now greeted at the door and their details taken. A one-way system was in place around the bar and you were politely, but firmly stopped in your tracks if you absentmindedly went against the flow. You were assigned a table and table service was recommended, although you could still order at the bar, as long as you did not linger.

“The staff aren’t smiling much,” Ruru remarked.

“This is all new to them too,” I replied. “They are scared of getting something wrong, I think they are too nervous to smile.”

This went for the customers as well. Initially, you felt like you daren’t even look at the people on the next table, let alone speak to them and certainly not leave your seat, but it didn’t take long for people to loosen up. Smiles and laughter soon returned, and banter began to bounce between the various bubbles sat in their assigned spots.

“I feel like I’m in a retirement village,” I commented, “where everyone is too infirm to move.”

A guy on the next table overheard me and, indicating someone he knew on the opposite side of the room, bellowed, “The gentleman on table twelve needs his bag changing.”

Friends and acquaintances began to drift in.

I spotted Kev and popped over for a brief, socially distanced, chat. He is an amiable regular on the scene, who speaks with a hypnotically soft Brummie drawl, peppered with long pregnant pauses as he considers every phrase. I had last seen him on that long-ago evening when the bars had closed for Lockdown.

“You said we would be back in a couple of weeks,” I reminded him.

“Hmmmm…,” he pondered, lips pursed. “Did I… saaaaaay… that?” He paused for another eternity. “It did… last… a… little bit… looooonger… than I… expec-ted.”

His sentences can be so protracted that it is possible that he had only just come to the end of the previous thing he was saying on that closing night, mere moments before the pubs re-opened.

Meanwhile, at our spot-lit table, Ruru was proudly showing off his meticulously groomed beard.

Knowing that Ruru has a technique for getting the line so fastidiously sharp, I asked, “Did you use Sellotape?”

“No, I used masculine tape,” he told me.

“What is masculine tape?”

“You know, masculine tape! That white tape you can rip.”

“That’s ‘masking tape’ you muppet!”

“I knew that really,” he unconvincingly replied, looking sheepish.

It makes his beard look more masculine. Love it!

I excused myself and went upstairs to use the toilet. Only one person was admitted to the toilets at any time. Where is the fun in that?

On the way back down, I stuck my head around the door of the function room, where additional seating had been laid out. I spotted my mate Joe sat on his own, so automatically invited him to join us at our table.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to, am I?” Joe asked, all a fluster.

“Oh, good point,” I conceded, “but surely you count as my ‘social bubble’?”

“Best not. I don’t want to get barred in the first hour of being let back in.”

Fair enough, I thought, especially as he’d only just been allowed back into Missing, a few days before lockdown commenced, following a previous barring for an incident that he doesn’t even remember.

It turns out that Joe was right, the new guidelines meant that he couldn’t join us.

“You could all go outside, rebook and then come back in as a group,” I was informed.

“Thanks,” I replied, “but that’s too much bother. He can stay upstairs.”

It was good to see Missing in action once again.

We moved on to Sidewalk, with its pavement seating now extended down the street, then the last port of call for the day was Eden, a popular pub that faces Hurst Street with cocky independence.

We were greeted at the entrance by Eden’s joint owner and silver fox, a guy who is universally fancied by every man, straight woman and twink on the scene. We were escorted to a table in the corner with designated areas and pathways through the bar clearly marked out in that black and yellow hazard tape you see at crime scenes (Now, that is ‘masculine tape’).

Because of the pitstop at Sidewalk, the first thing I did in Eden was dash for the toilets. Every other urinal basin was sealed off to ensure social distancing. As I took up position and unzipped, I asked the guy one urinal along from me, “Would you say that this is a meter?” I quickly added, “I mean the distance between us, I’m not bragging.”

The whole of our day out had been about reassuring ourselves that the world we knew was on its way back after its four month hiatus, that things hadn’t changed beyond all recognition and that we would indeed all meet again, so we were delighted to see the final piece in the puzzle stood in her rightful place behind Eden’s bar. This cherished matriarch, force to reckoned with, Brum’s answer to Corrie’s Betty Turpin and runner up in last year’s Best Bar Staff category in the Zone Magazine poll, was where she should be, pulling pints and maintaining order with stolid expertise.

“Maura,” I called out, “I want to give you a hug, but I can’t.”

“I don’t think that she’s the hugging type,” my partner cautioned me.

I suspect that he is right, but in different circumstances I would have given it a damn good go, I was so pleased to see her.

It was good to be back. This ‘new normal’ would take a little getting used to, but the new systems and restrictions were enforced and adhered to with good humour. It was as easy as buying a pot of whelks.

A Babe in the Woods

My sleep patterns go haywire when I am off work for long periods. My freelance profession means that I get regular weeks off throughout the year. During these breaks I find myself waking in the early hours and going downstairs to read or watch TV, even sometimes cooking a pre-dawn breakfast, only to then crash on the sofa and sleep until late morning.

During these bouts of insomnia, I often distract myself by scrolling through Grindr and chatting to anyone else that is up. These interactions never lead to night-time hook-ups, as I am unwashed, crusty eyed and have midnight dog breath (Yes, quite the catch!) and besides, my partner is upstairs mumbling to himself in his sleep.

On one occasion though, I received a set of pictures that were irresistible. He had darkly handsome face pics staring with bad boy attitude into the camera, toned body shots of a guy who knew his way around a gym and the other shots were… well, average to be honest, but meticulously well groomed.

We exchanged messages for a while then he said he could accommodate and sent his location. Only a couple of roads away! I was understandably cautious about heading out to meet a stranger at 2am. Although the guy was hot, he exuded an air of brooding danger.

YOU COMING? he messaged.

I hesitated. Was this a good idea? Probably not. I should be sensible and stay safe… but those pecs, … that tough-guy scowl, … that fastidiously shaved scrotum.

YES. GIVE ME 15 MIN

I quickly washed, brushed my teeth and threw on some clothes. I paused to write a note for my partner should he wake up and find me gone, which I left in a prominent spot in the lounge. ‘Gone to meet a Grindr shag. Back soon. Don’t wait up… well, just go back to bed! X’

I really shouldn’t be doing this, I thought as I walked up the silent street. I have heard of incidents of men being lured into an attack or mugging on Grindr!

Moments later, I was back home. I decided to leave my wallet behind, just in case this was a set up and to take my phone instead, so I could call for help if necessary.

By the time I arrived at the guy’s flat, I was a jitter of nerves, having considered numerous unpleasant scenarios that could await me.

This is ridiculous. Anything could happen. Why am I not under a blanket on the sofa, watching Sharknado 3 on the Horror Channel or, even better, asleep in bed… like everyone else? I should turn around and just go back home.

He was stood in the illuminated entrance of the flats beckoning me in.

Shit, too late now, I thought.

Alarm bells really started to ring when he explained that we couldn’t use the flat after all, as he was staying with a friend.

He motioned me towards a doorway under the communal stairs.

Oh my God, I panicked, I am going to end up like one of those missing schoolgirls that spend fifteen years locked in a basement and eventually emerge, blinking into the light, with a litter of children/siblings!

It turned out that my imagination was getting away with me and the door didn’t lead into basement dungeon. It was just a dusty store cupboard containing the gas meter, fuse box and a long-irrelevant copy of the Yellow Pages.

“We can’t have sex in here,” I told him. “There’s no lock… and besides, it has a glass door!”

“My car is outside. We could drive somewhere.”

This could have been my opportunity to backout, but he was menacingly good looking with a rugged beard and… seriously, those biceps.

I suggested a local park.

As we drove there, I introduced myself and made a point of repeating my name several times, as I had heard somewhere that assailants are less inclined to attack if they can relate to you as a person rather than just a victim. I think I had picked that up from watching Silence of the Lambs. He listened to me in ominous silence (just like those lambs) and didn’t smile.

It took little time to navigate the empty roads to where we were going and soon we were stood at the threshold of the ominously pitch-black park.

If he intended me harm, then I had enabled it to happen. I had agreed to meet this risky looking stranger and even suggested we go to this deserted spot in the dead of night. ‘He only had himself to blame,’ my epitaph would read… but those abs were too good to resist.

As I led the way into the darkness, I was suddenly aware of a quick movement behind me. Had he got a knife?!

The guy abruptly called out my name.

I turned to see him stood there with his arm extended towards me, his eyes wide with fear. He was scared of the dark and wanted me to hold his hand and lead him down the uneven path.

Suddenly, there was a flutter above us.

He jumped and whimpered, “What was that?!”

“Just a bird,” I reassured him.

I took his hand.

We walked through the foreboding canopy of trees, like Hansel and Gretel… well, more Hansel and Hansel.

“There’s something over there,” he whispered nervously, at the sound of rustling in the foliage.

“It’s fine, you are safe,” I told him, pulling him close. “It’s just nocturnal animals. We are disturbing them. It is probably just a fox.”

“A FOX!!!” He practically screamed. He looked terrified, “I’m too nervous! I don’t think I can do this.”

I now saw it from his perspective. I was the stranger who had turned up on his doorstep in the dead of night and tempted him to an isolated spot full of eery shadows and wild creatures.

I cupped his face with my free hand, stroked that beard and we kissed.