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.

To Sir, With Thanks. X

Being sat at a bar with my form teacher wasn’t exactly how I had expected my first night on the Birmingham gay scene to turn out… but I could not have wanted for a better introduction.

It was a relief to finally have another gay man to confide in and even better that it was a familiar and trusted figure. Here was an opportunity to talk to someone with experience of a world I was taking my first steps into and who had no agenda other than just being there to listen and support.

Although being caught in a gay bar by Mr. G had been a shock, I myself had not been surprised that he frequented such establishments, as rumours about his sexuality had circulated around school for years. The shaved head, handlebar moustache, penchant for a leather jacket and the general ‘Village People’ vibe had always been a bit of a giveaway.

Predictably, I was not the first (or presumably the last) pupil that Mr. G had encountered on the scene during his decades of teaching. It even transpired that only a few weeks earlier a fellow classmate had come to see him in school to confess that he was gay and ask for advice.

Mr. G never revealed the identity of this mystery pupil, as he had been approached in confidence, but several years later I would discover that it had been a good friend and someone on whom I had a schoolboy crush. How different things could have been if we had both come out to each other while still at school. First kiss? Secret affair? Fuck buddy? Prom date?!

As the evening progressed, it was suggested that we move on to ‘The Nightingale’, the city’s only night club in the 1980s. Mr. G was a member of the club and offered to sign me in as his guest.

At this point in ‘The Gales’ history it was a single level venue situated near the stage door of the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre. It was accessed through a heavy door set at the end of a short alleyway. You had to ring the bell, wait until a pair of eyes were revealed behind a sliding slot and then confirm that you knew what type of bar it was, before being admitted.

Once inside, I recall an entrance space with a cloakroom, a small bar and I think a gaudy fountain, but I may be mistaken about the water feature. The main room had a large dancefloor at its heart, another bar and plenty of seating. On the far side of the dancefloor was a more private dimly lit area, partitioned off from prying eyes. I remember being baffled as to why anyone would want to disappear into a dark subdivision of a busy nightclub. How naive! So much to learn… and so much fun learning.

At the end of the night, Mr. G drove me home. He dropped me off a few streets away from where I lived, so as not to arouse the suspicions of potentially insomniac parents, awaiting their son’s late-night return.

I am eternally grateful to Mr. G (not actual name) for looking after me on my first night out on the Birmingham gay scene. He was the perfect gentleman… and continues to be so to this day.

Here’s to 30 years and counting. X