Last One Out Please Turn Off the Lights

With ever tightening restrictions on hospitality, job losses and venue closures were inevitable, but I was deeply saddened to hear the announcement that Eden Bar was closing its doors for business after 13 fabulous years. I suspect, it will not be the last to fall.

Grindr has noticeably had an impact on the gay scene over the last decade, with many preferring to cruise from their sofas rather than socialise in bars, which is the equivalent of ordering in a convenient takeaway, compared to going out for a good meal. Apps remove the thrill of the chase, while takeout results in soggy calamari. Either way, both lose their bite.

Birmingham’s scene was facing further pressure from inner city development, with a glut of generic apartment builds encroaching on Southside and driving established gay businesses out. The fact that the vivacious nightlife was what made that area so attractive to buyers doesn’t seem to register with planners or the landed gentry that apparently owns the area. More money in real estate than the pink pound.

Many venues had seen customers dwindle and several had closed already. Unit 2 and The Core were early victims of those building developments, while Boltz had been served notice in preparation for demolition next year. The Jester had died a lingering death and the owners of The Wellington had sold up, leaving that charming Victorian corner pub, with the cheapest hotel rooms in town (including breakfast) and its own backroom theatre, empty and boarded up.

The first lockdown hiatus hit hard, but the scene bounded back, adapting to government restrictions and tempting people in with promotional offers and innovative socially distanced events. They even negotiated permission to close the crossroads of Hurst Street and Bromsgrove Street at weekends so The Loft and Missing could increase capacity by spilling out onto the streets for alfresco dinning and drinking. Shame Birmingham council dithered about giving the go ahead until the end of the uncommonly good summer, when the weather had started to turn.

The terrible knife attack that hit national headlines back in September and a less widely reported incident where crumpling masonry fell from the façade of Equator and Sidewalk, much to the surprise of afternoon drinkers chatting on the pavement below, did little to bolster footfall, but the area was surviving.

In October, the scene was dealt another blow, when the UK government classified Birmingham as Tier 2, introducing additional restrictions on the hospitality industry. Households were now banned from mixing and a crippling 10pm curfew was imposed. We were now regularly home well before midnight, getting an unwelcome glimpse of what straight people’s lives are like. It’ll be fidelity next.

Unlike its straight equivalent, where people think they have had a lovely night out if they have managed to catch an early bird special in their local Toby Carvery, the gay scene barely got started until 9 o’clock. Glamorous didn’t even open its doors until midnight. When you walked through the doors of a busy gay venue you were hit by a tsunami of noise and heat, laughter, passion, music and often a tirade of abuse from the resident drag queen, but Tier 2 meant that the gay scene had effectively been neutered. This latest lockdown is the ultimate kick in those, already tender, bollocks.

Eden Bar, one of the Birmingham scene’s most popular venues (Sssshhh, don’t tell the others), announced its impending closure on Thursday 22nd October, ‘Like many small businesses, 2020 has stretched Eden beyond belief,’ the owners, Garry and Cal, said in a statement. ‘A reduced capacity to 25% then further reduced to 10% under Region Tier 2 has meant we have decided to bite the bullet.’

There was an outpouring of shock and support on social media. We have lost something special. A sparkle has fallen from the gaybourhood’s Rhinestone Rhino (which is a real thing by the way and stands atop Wynner House, from where it keeps a twinkling eye on the antics below).

I had been an irregular visitor to Eden since the days it was the traditional White Swan, but truly fell in love with the place several years ago when we got to know the bar’s brilliantly bolshy barmaid Marie… and her legendary mother Moira.

My partner and Marie were casually chatting over a fag (they were smoking, not just astride one) in the garden of Eden, when she tutted, “Oh, I’ve got to go. There is a customer at the bar.” She returned moments later, explaining, “Its ok, he was just stood at the window watching Asian guys arriving at the wedding venue opposite.”

“Was he ginger?” he asked.

“Yes. How did you know?”

He rolled his eyes, “That’d be my other half.”

From then on we looked forward to her banter and incomparable crudeness, although Marie did confess several months down the line, that she had formerly been on her best behaviour, as she thought we were gentlemen. Ha! How little she knew.

Last summer, my partner underwent a major operation. When he had sufficiently recovered for a gentle outing, Eden was the first place we went.

I had just settled him into chair in the garden when Marie appeared and grabbed his shoulders from behind with affectionate gusto, causing him to jump out of his skin.

“He has just had open heart surgery,” I remonstrated her.

“Oh my God,” she apologised, enveloping him in a robust hug, causing him to yelp in pain.

“And my chest is still healing,” he gasped weakly.

Marie dropped her head, held up her hands and slowly back away, muttering, “I’m so sorry. I’m going now… I’m going.”

We love her.

We went along for Eden’s bittersweet last hurrah, hosted by the brilliant La Voix, who is one of the best drag acts I have ever seen. Glamorous and sassy, as to be expected, but also a talented singer and mimic, with genuinely funny material and banter to rival a stand-up comedian. Britain’s got talent indeed.

She welcomed the audience with, “Well, here we are in Birmingham… at three in the afternoon.” Then dropped the mic from her generously painted lips and mouthed an exaggerated, “What the fuck?!”

We could all relate to this sentiment, being a crowd more comfortable partying at 3 in the morning than 3 in the afternoon, but, despite the early doors, it felt like old times.

The most blistering barb came when La Voix caught venue owners, Garry and Cal, glancing at their phones, between operating sound and lighting, “Thank you for your full attention. What are you two looking at? You on Rightmove searching for a new pub?”

We were regaled with anecdotes about past antics in the venue, reminiscing about the time they hosted a Birmingham fetish night, “We got into the spirit of things and all tried to dress accordingly, but the only rubberwear Gary owned was a verruca sock and swimming cap. It wasn’t a good look. I won’t tell you where he wore the sock.”

She targeted one audience member, emulating his gothic Eastern European accent, then mimed rapping on a door and hollered, “Housekeeping,” causing a guy several seats up from me to choke on his drink and spray the fella in front with a shower of beer. Don’t worry, I am sure the alcohol killed the Covid, besides Corona is the last virus I’m worried about contracting in a room full of that many gay men.

Social distancing was adhered to by the letter and all tables were situated two meters apart, as per government guidelines. As for the spaces in between…

“It’s like a Trump rally in here,” my partner commented as we entered the marquee.

Two police officers did wander in to perform a spot check, gave a cursory glance around and left. It was a wise move not to be too pedantic. Emotions were running high and I suspect if they had quibbled over social distancing the place could have gone off like another Stonewall.

La Voix ensured that those emotions were ramped-up for the end of her set, with a tear-jerking rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart. The lyric, ‘Together we can make it to the end of the line’ had never been so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Paradise lost. The end of an Eden.

Ironically, Eden was packed to its restricted capacity from the moment it announced its closure until tearfully ringing their final last orders.

I assume, barfly and quiz night devotee, Kelvin Bacciochi is still chained to Eden’s bar, refusing to leave, like a suffragette, but belting out show tunes. In truth, Kelvin has sadly claimed that he can’t see the point of returning to Brum now Eden has gone, but I don’t think we have seen the last of him. He is like Jason from Friday the 13th, he just keeps coming back. He prefers to think of himself as Cher, forever doing a farewell tour, or as he is fond of saying, “I am like syphilis, once you have me you have me forever.” I wish the same could have been said for Eden. X

If the gay community wants the rest of these places to be there when this Hell is over, then we need to keep showing support. From December 2nd (or whenever those goal posts move to) go to afternoon drag at The Village Inn, enjoy the Sunday roast at The Loft, gather at Equator and Sidewalk again, catch weekend cabaret at the Nightingale, munch on muffins at The Fox (That’s not a typo, I do really mean muffins, they do baked goods… besides it’s not just a bar for ladies that like ladies anymore). The power of the pink pound will be more important than ever.

Hard times are ahead, but the Birmingham gay scene will rise again, like Coventry from the ashes. No, better than Coventry, cos Coventry is a bit shite. Sorry, anyone that lives there, but you know it’s true.

Let us hope the twinks of the future ask what it was like during the pandemic, not before. We want and need the scene to be around for us and the next generation.

At the point of publishing, the British government have announced an extension of the furlough scheme, paying 80%. of the wages of employees adversely effected by lockdown, until March next year. Fantastic news, but If this had been decided a few weeks earlier, maybe Eden and others would still be in business.

Nishant Mallick and the Apartment of Fire

Previous stories may have given the impression that my friendship with Nishant was purely platonic (See ‘Finding the Gems’ – 4th Jan  and ‘Nishant Mallick and the Half-Baked Scheme’ – 17 May), but anyone who knows me will realise that the likelihood of that is nil to zero. There is no way I would be able to resist the charms of a cute, sweet natured, funny Asian lad with big eyes, broad smile and a delectably wobbly head. Besides, he is filth, total filth!

Within half an hour of our first meeting in my favourite men-only club, Nishant and I bound into an empty cubical, but after only fifteen minutes he asked, “Would you mind if we took a break?” It happens when people realise that they have abandoned their friends or partners for too long, want another drink or just want to see what else is on offer.

Forty minutes later, we had reconnected, chatted some more and dived into another cubical, but again, before the party was over, he asked to take another break.

Reading my perplexed expression, this time he explained, “I am sorry. It is not you. I am claustrophobic and can only manage fifteen minutes at a time in a confined space.”

This quirk made him even more adorable.


The next time we met was at his student digs. It was conveniently located on my route home on a Tuesday and the size of his bedroom was less likely to bring on a panic attack.

When I arrived at the 1970s estate where Nishant lived, I was greeted by emergency services and a small crowd of residents making appreciative Ooooooh and Aaaaaah noises, of the type that tend to accompany a fireworks display. I joined the crowd and watched events for a while, equally enjoying the spectacle, then headed over to Nishant’s apartment and rang his buzzer.

“Do you know that the block next door is on fire?” I asked when he came to the door.

“No, I did not know this,” he replied, barely registering interest in the information or even glancing in the direction of the unfolding drama.

He motioned me to come in.

“How’s your head?” I asked as we walked up the stairs, as he had posted a sorry looking picture of himself, with dried blood all over this hair, on social media a few days earlier.

“It is very much better, thank you.”

“So, what happened to you?”

“It was all so ridiculous,” he exclaimed.

I sensed a monologue coming on (Please read the following in a rapid Indian accent. It works better!).

“A friend had come over and we were planning on going into Birmingham for a night out. I decided to go to the shop around the corner first. I left my friend in my room and ran down the stairs. I have a habit of jumping over the handrail at the bottom of the stairs and landing in the hall in front of the entrance. I must have banged my head on the underside of the stairway and blacked out. The next thing I know, I wake up lying on the floor with blood pouring from my head!”

Apparently, this had all happened in the space of a few minutes. Up he got and off did trot as fast as he could caper and his friend was surprised to see Nishant stagger back into the flat, looking like something from the conclusion of Carrie, when he had only popped out to get a few snacks.

Instead of a night out, painting the town pink, they had spent the rest of the evening in A&E, making the swabs red.

“Soon, I was getting messages from my family in India,” Nishant continued. “My cousins were texting me to say, ‘Hahaha. We have heard that you got drunk and banged your head.’ I told them, ‘No, I was not drunk.’”

“My Uncle then messaged me to tell me to be careful how much I am drinking, but I told him, ‘I was not drunk! I had not been drinking.’”

“Then my mother phones me and is shouting, ‘Nishy, you are getting too drunk and hurting yourself!’ She is very angry. Oh my goodness! Where are they getting their information?!”

By the conclusion of Nishant’s story, we had walked up the offending stairs to his second floor flat and were stood in his hallway.

I had been warned by a mutual friend, not to expect a tidy flat, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of mess that greeted me. It was like there had been a significant and highly localised seismic event in his bedroom… and the carpet was filthy!

I didn’t want to be one of those guys that has sex with his socks on, but I didn’t even want to take my shoes off! If I did go barefoot, I would have to determine a way to get from doorway to bed without touching the floor, like I used to amuse myself as a kid. I would weave a convoluted path across my bedroom, rolling on an office chair, swinging from wardrobe doors and balancing on a chest of draws, pretending there were sharks in the carpet. Other people did that, right? Right?!

Oh well. I would just have to kick my shoes off on the bed and worry about retrieving them later.

We had been playing on the bed for a while, when Nishant’s phone buzzed. He picked it up and read a message.

“It is a friend,” he said. “He is just around the corner. Do you mind if he joins us?”

“Is he cute?”

“Yes. I think he is very handsome.”

“Sounds good. I’m up for it.”

Several minutes later, the door buzzer sounded and Nishant slipped out to let his mate in.

The guy walked into the bedroom, mumbled a cursory greeting and proceeded to sit in the corner of the room playing games on his phone. When Nishant had asked if his friend could join us, I had expected a hot threesome, not an audience! Although, ‘audience’ would be overstating it, as he barely looked up from his mobile device. It was all a bit weird.

At one point, something in my repertoire caught his attention, because he glanced up, watched briefly, subtly nodded his approval then returned his attention to the game he was playing.

All in all, it was a very odd last encounter with Nishant before he returned home to India, but I wish there had been more meetings. I enjoyed his quirky company and would have loved to have known him for longer. I am sure there would have been plenty more tales to tell.

I sat on the bed, pulled on my clothes, managing to retrieve my shoes without too much difficulty, and thought, I wonder if the flat next door is still on fire?

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.

The Boy with Hearts in His Eyes

Many a middle-aged man in Missing has gazed into his eyes and seen their feelings reflected… then been flicked in the bollocks and called a ‘Dirty Bitch’.

Meet Ruru… the Marmite of the Birmingham gay scene. Love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. A beguiling Yemini, capable of going from sweet boy to sassy bitch in just one of his faint heartbeats.

To misquote the Sisters of Nonnberg Abbey from The Sound of Music:

‘Unpredictable as weather

He’s as flighty as a feather

He’s a darling! He’s a demon! He’s a laaaamb!’

I originally met Ruru on… well, I’ll say a popular gay networking app. He came over several times then spent one long sunny afternoon sat in my back garden… and stayed… and stayed… and stayed. He wouldn’t leave. He stayed so long that day that I started wondered if he had moved in, but had just failed to mention it to me.

He chatted occasionally, but mainly spent the time making me ‘go live’ on social media and trying to take selfies with my aging dog.

I had a bottle of wine cooling in the fridge and after the fifth time I had unwillingly featured on MyFace or Twatter (look at me ‘getting down’ wiv da’kids), I really needed a drink. #timetogetpissed

As Ruru was Muslim, I didn’t want to offend him by drinking alcohol, but after a couple of parched hours, I finally gasped, “Would you mind if I had a glass of wine?”

“No, but just a small one,” he replied.

“No, no, no,” I blathered apologetically, “I wouldn’t get drunk in front of you.”

He gave me a coy look, “I meant, I’ll only have a small one.”

“You Drink?!” I spluttered in exasperation, “I’ve been sat here gagging for hours but didn’t want to insult you by drinking in your company.”

We polished off the bottle of wine (admittedly I had most of it, as he was a lightweight) then reached for a bottle of Prosecco. Midway through releasing the cork, I got particularly animated while telling a story and set the bottle on the kitchen counter as I gesticulated. Unexpectedly and dramatically, the bottle erupted in a geyser of sweet effervescence and the cork ricocheted from ceiling, sink and fridge in startling fury. I screamed and Ruru dropped into a lithe Spiderman crouch. Spidey-senses all of a tingle! Ru has subsequently discovered he has a fluttery heart. It could have killed him.

Several weeks later, I was strolling by the expansive windows of Loft Lounge and was attracted by Ruru’s frantic waving. He was sat inside on a sofa (Ah… Those comfortable days when Loft Lounge still had furniture you could sit on without getting splinters! This was before they ditched the Friends inspired Central Perk look for industrial chic) and motioning me to join him.

He had an untouched glass of red wine and three beer bottles in front of him, two of which were empty. It turns out that he had only wanted the wine but had bought a beer to take him over the £5 card limit at the bar. He had never had beer before and necked it. Now having a taste for it, he immediately returned to the bar to buy another, but of course the card limit meant he bought two more to bring him up to the required amount. Why he didn’t just buy a bag of crisps like a normal person I will never know.

By the time I walked in, he was absolutely spannered.

Ruru just sat, consumed by an oversized sofa, gazing around in dazed contentment and occasional blowing out of his mouth, producing a sound like a gently neighing horse.

Whenever his eyes met mine, a dopey smile spread across his face and he emphatically poked me in my chest with a fickle finger, exclaiming a meaningless, “You… You… Yoooooooooou!”

He was in a right pickle.

I had been on my way to meet a friend, so had to leave. It was all a bit of a rush.

“I’ve got to go. Are you going to be OK?”

Ruru rolled his eyes in indignation and harrumphed, “Offff coursssse!”

I left him basking in his newfound love of beer and staring around the bar like a new-born calf trying to make sense of this strange new world it found itself in.

He survived the night (I did text him several times, just to check he wasn’t sprawled in the gutter).

Five years later and he is still an adorable lightweight and complete Muppet. Missing Bar is now his second home, where he regularly flirts with and winds up the other regulars, broadcasts live karaoke on social media and once got so drunk that he came out to his Muslim family in a text message then promptly ran away to Scotland to hide in the heather with a herd of wild haggis… but that is a whole other story.

One night, I was describing Ruru to someone that I assumed must know him.

They asked, “Is he small, really cute… and a nightmare after three pints?”

“That’s him.”

The radiant Ruru! How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Xxx

Birmingham Pride. Part 2 – For the Love of Cock

I own a T-shirt that only comes out once a year for Pride.

This T-shirt features a picture of a hand with index finger pointing to my left and declaring, ‘THIS MAN… LIKES COCK.’ It essentially ‘outs’ anyone stood on the side of me that the fickle finger points… and goes down a storm with Pride revellers. It has proven to be a real asset, giving me the excuse to approach the best-looking guys, far out of my league and cheekily ask, “Are you man enough for a photo with this T-shirt?”

Over Pride weekend, I am constantly approached by strangers, asking to have their photo taken with the T-shirt. Often it is women, who shove their embarrassed looking husbands and boyfriends into position for the photograph. It is great, as I get to have the craic with dozens of inebriated people.

The first year I wore the ‘This Man Likes Cock’ T-shirt, I was skirting around the perimeter of the Pride enclosure (I don’t tend to buy tickets for the main event anymore, choosing instead to troll between the half dozen or so venues that are on the periphery of the scene.), when I was clocked by a group of policemen.

One of the officers nodded in my direction, muttered something to his colleagues and then all four of them headed in my direction.

Oh no, I thought, surely, they aren’t going to tell me to cover it up? Freedom of speech and all that! Besides, it is Pride, anything goes! There are guys walking around with their arses hanging out of their chaps, my humble T-shirt can’t be causing offense.

“Excuse me sir,” said one of the offers, as he approached, “we couldn’t help but notice your T-shirt.”

“Errrrm… yes?”

“Could we have our photos taken with you?”

The next thing, all four of them were taking turns to pose next to me with the accusing finger pointing in their direction.

When it came to the turn of the fourth and final police officer to take position for the photo, his colleague pointed at him and commented, “By the way, just for the record, of the four of us… he actually does like it.”

They all giggled, and the officer stood next to me with his arm slung around my waist, rolled his eyes and nodded that it was true.

From then on it became my mission to have my photo taken wearing that T-shirt with as many official types as possible. I managed to get shots with security guards, vendors, barmen, bouncers, first aiders, some woman off Gogglebox, that fireman with the cute diastema and even got inadvertently ‘papped’ with the Mayor of the West Midlands.

I had the most fun trying to take surreptitious photos with characters, who were the least likely to like cock and were clearly only at Pride to do a job.

At one point, I approached a strapping young armed police officer, decked out in flak jacket and a utility belt that Batman would be envious of. I had my arm casually draped across my chest to hide the print on, which surprisingly worked, and he obliviously agreed to pose.

His colleague offered to do the honours with the camera, but just as he was about to take the photo, he noticed the statement embossed on my clothing and went to point it out to my unaware victim. I quickly and subtly moved my finger to my lips and silenced him. The photographer smirked and proceeded to take the photo. Only once the image was captured, did he gleefully draw his mate’s attention to the wording I was wearing.

The posse of armed police officers burst out laughing and gave me contact details to send the photo to, while my quarry performed a resigned facepalm.

The following day, I attempted the same trick on another armed officer, but even better, this one was stood in front of an impressively armoured police vehicle.

Before I could get close enough to even ask the officer to pose for a photo, he started shaking his head and said, “No, no, no, you are not having your photo taken with me in THAT T-shirt!”

“But why?” I asked, innocently. “You not man enough?!” Which, thinking about it, was an audacious question to ask a man holding a semiautomatic weapon!

“The one you took yesterday is all over social media,” he replied. “They’ve even posted it on the West Midlands Police website!”

Finally, he did agree to have his photo taken with me, but only if I stood on the other side of him, with the offending finger pointing in the wrong direction… which sort of missed the point.

Oh well. The one that got away.

To be continued…

Nishant Mallick and the Half-Baked Scheme

Back at the start of January, I opened this blogsite with the touching tale of an international student called Nishant, who had embraced the opportunity to study baking in Birmingham to flee family outrage in India, after he was outed by a bitter ex and how his brother had been protecting his secret for years (See ‘Finding the Gems’ – 4th Jan 2020).

I can see Film4 producing the movie version of Nishant’s story… with that lad from Blinded by the Light in the lead role and Dev Patel as his brother. I think Film4 are obliged to include Patel in every movie they make. I hope so, he’s great!

Every time our paths crossed on the scene, Nishant would tickle me with some yarn about his life or antics at the Birmingham College of Food, all told in his sing-song accent and with an endearing wiggle of the head, so characteristic of South Asia.

One time, he told me how he had arrived unprepared for a seminar, where students were expected to announce their creative concepts for original baking projects. He sat, with mounting apprehension, as each student delivered their brilliant idea to the lecturer but feeling no such inspiration himself.

When his turn inevitably came, he improvised, “I am going to bake… erm… a loaf that contains…. uuuhhh… (then inspiration struck) every meal of the day in each separate slice. (He had an idea and he was off… with gusto!!!) The first slice would contain eggs, bacon and the ingredients of a traditional English breakfast, the second would be a suitable lunch, followed by a full dinner and the last slice would contain some form of dessert.”

A feast in a loaf. A banquet in a bun! Genius.

Nishant and his stories completely charmed me, even though I only met him a handful of times before his course concluded and he returned home, thankfully to much improved circumstances.

I was delighted to learn that his family issues in India had been resolved. His mother had finally accepted her son’s sexuality and they now Skyped several times a week. She was desperate to see him in person, but he had hatched a daft plan to make his homecoming even more of an event. He had kept his impending return a secret, going as far as telling his mother a white lie about how he had secured a job and intended to remain permanently in the UK.

“She was so upset and crying on the phone,” He told me. “She wants me to come home so badly.”

My jaw dropped, “Nishant!!! That’s cruel!”

“No, no, no,” he assured me, his head wobbling excitedly, “It will be sooooooo funny.”

He went on to explain how his mother worked at the same place as her best friend, so this friend and Nishant had colluded on a plan. His mother would be told that there was a delivery for her at reception and when she went to collect it, she would be confronted by a large box. Naturally, Nishant would have concealed his slim frame inside the box and planned to burst out and surprise her.

“She will be so shocked,” he beamed. “She will probably cry all over again!”

“You are a baker,” I pointed out. “You could have baked a cake and jumped out of that.”

Nishant’s expression became momentarily serious, “No. That would have required too many ingredients and been very expensive.”

“Hang on,” I said. “Don’t tell me you actually considered that as an option?”

The wide grin returned, along with a proud wiggly Indian nod.

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson

I am proud to have Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’s number in my phone.

The majority are now thinking, Who the hell is Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson? or maybe a softer, Where do I know that name from? Others will be thinking, Was she on TOWIE? or Did she have an affair with Arthur Fowler? But some will recognise her name as the Headmistress of Anderton Park School, one of the two Birmingham schools that found themselves besieged by anti-LGBTQ protests last year.

Sarah is a vibrant, dynamic, caring, progressive, determined woman, with her own striking style. Imagine Mrs McClusky with a dash of Sue Pollard. No, not Sue Pollard that sounds like an insult. Janet Street-Porter? Christ no, that is even worse! Vivian Westwood? Dame Zandra Rhodes? Again, no. Both fabulous, but too extreme. Sarah Jessica Parker? Oooooh, that could work. ‘Mrs McClusky with a dash of Sarah Jessica Parker’. She would love that, and their names even have a similar ring to them.

Last year, two primary schools in Birmingham became the focus of a prolonged campaign protesting their policies of tolerance and equality. Children, as young as three were being educated and nurtured in an environment that recognized difference and diversity. Children were told that there were no outsiders, everyone was respected.

Unfortunately, the strongly religious parents at both schools, located in majority Muslim areas of the city, objected to the fact this policy of tolerance should be extended to the LGBTQ community. The parents did not like the idea that their children were being told, if the subject came up, that there were many different family units out there, including some households where children had two mummies or two daddies.

Parents decided that they didn’t want their children to know that some of their friends may go home to a house where two men or two women shared a bedroom. They would get confused, the parents claimed.

Demonstrations began to take place outside both schools. Every weeknight, crowds would gather (usually several dozen, but culminating in over three hundred on one occasion) to wave banners, chant slogans and call for the Head’s resignation! Parents would holler, “Our children. Our choice”, “Let Kids Be Kids”, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and accuse the Headmistress of having a paedophile agenda (May I suggest that, if you don’t want your innocent children to know that queers exist, don’t turn up outside their primary school, just before home time, and start shouting about it through a megaphone!).

Mind you, this was not the first time Sarah had found herself the target of abuse. Several years earlier, she had been involved in exposing, what the national press christened the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, which revealed there was an organised attempt to introduce a radical Islamist ethos into several schools in the area.

In retaliation for her involvement, dead cats were slung into the school playground and a dog was slit from throat to groin, splayed and attached to the main gates, like something from a canine version of Hellraiser.

On a more positive note, although to be honest anything would be more positive than an eviscerated dog corpse crucified at the entrance of a primary school, Sir Ian McKellen, movie star and gay activist, has become Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’s number one fan on Twitter. Gandalf reads her Tweets!

Sarah was even invited to Sir Ian’s surprise 80th birthday party, which was organised by Baron Michael Cashman (Yes, Colin from Eastenders).

Eighty guests had been invited to signify the birthday boy’s age. Sarah and her husband found themselves sat at one of the eight tables of ten, surrounded by the great and the gay. “At my table alone were Derek Jacobi and Graham Norton. I was sat next to Frances Barber!” Sarah told me.

At the end of the night, Ian McKellen (I can’t keep calling him ‘Sir Ian’, it just sounds so pretentious and far too Downton), stood up and told anecdotes about various friends in attendance. He wandered from table to table, incorporating stories about his gathered friends.

He concluded, “There is one person here, whom I have never actually met in person, but I admire greatly.” Turning to Sarah, he introduced her to the room, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, Head of Anderton Park Scho…” but before he could complete the sentence, everyone in the room rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.

“I’m getting choked up,” I told Sarah when she told me this.

“You should have seen the state of me,” she replied. “I was sobbing. I had make-up running down my face!”

As the night came to an end and the guests made a move to leave, Sir Ian (I’ve slipped back into that again) made a point of finding Sarah and her husband to thank them for coming.

“If I can do anything to help you and your school, anything at all, then please do not hesitate to get in touch,” he told her.

How lovely.

“Well…”, I said to Sarah, as she reached the conclusion of her story and I wiped a tear from my eye, “if he’s kept the beard from Lord of the Rings, that’s your Christmas Santa sorted.”

Play It Again… Max

There is one regular barfly on the scene who stands out precisely because of his determination to keep to himself.

This reserved customer always sits on his own at the bar, focused on his phone and resolutely refusing to engage with anyone. He gives off clear vibes that he is content and does not want anyone approaching him. It is not until he has consumed enough Dutch courage that he will rise from his stool and head into the dark room in pursuit of company… on his own terms.

I had always thought that he was kind of cute, but he steadfastly ignored any of my attempts at eye contact.

I have only once seen him in the real world. I was shopping in Birmingham city centre and spotted him in the middle of New Street, confidently singing his heart out. He was busking with a guitar and sound system.

I stood and watched, until my partner lost interest and tried to move on.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “I want to listen to him play it again. I’ve near heard this guy speak, let alone sing.”

Next time I saw him back at the bar, I took a moment to tell him what good a singer I thought he was. He seemed uncomfortable that someone had invaded his space, but still graciously thanked me and I left him smiling in proud silence.

Several weeks later our paths crossed again in the more shadowy corners of a private men-only club, but this time he unexpectedly gave me ‘that’ look and we bolted into an empty cubical.

Afterwards, as we tucked ourselves away, he told me his name and said, “Next time I see you in here, remind me that you are a good fuck and we should do it again.” He intended on staying until closing time and knew that by morning he would have no recollection of the night before.

So, the next time I saw him, I dutifully strolled up and said, “Hello Max.”

As predicted, he did not remember our previous encounter and was startled that I knew his name, although not as surprised as I was. I am usually terrible with names and only recalled his, because it was the same as my dog.

“I have a message for you,” I continued. “I’ve been told to tell you I am a good fuck.”

Max nearly spat out his drink and stared at me in bug-eyed surprise, “Who told you to tell me that?!!”

“Well…,” I paused, teasing out the suspense and feeling like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, “you did. You also told me to tell you that we should do it again and I believe that you should always follow your own advice.”

Several months later, I saw Max again and brought up the subject of our second meeting. Max just looked at me blankly. He had absolutely no memory of this encounter either! He must live his whole life like a goldfish, coasting around the bars of Birmingham with no lasting memory of anything that occurs. He can keep doing the same things, with the same people, over and over again and each time is like the first time. The perpetual virgin.

Mind you, I am just as bad if I watch TV after too many beers. My partner tells me that I can re-watch the very same episode and make identical noises, laughs, gasps and comments, at all the same places I did the first time, as though I have never seen the programme before. Double the enjoyment, worth buying the boxset.

I now make a point of always greeting Max with a friendly hello and gentle hand on his shoulder. I am honoured by the fact that I am one of the few people that he tolerates interrupting his contented solitude. I am treating it as personal challenge to get Max to one day engage in a full conversation with me. I feel like a gardener who is patiently taming a skittish squirrel, wary of not overwhelming him and causing him to bolt.

I should be simply contented that this introvert even remembers me. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn’t?

CRACKANORY: Nanny’s Fanny

We all have stories to tell, so this is the first of a sporadic series where I recount the tales of others.

One pleasant Sunday afternoon, I was sat in Eden Bar with a good friend. The bright sun failed to penetrate the comfortingly dim interior, with its dark walls and heavy velvet drapes, that wouldn’t look out of place in Miss Havisham’s Dickensian drawing room. It was the perfect setting for my friend to tell me a story, although maybe a ghost story would have been more appropriate. In fact, any story would have been more appropriate that this most inappropriate of tales.

My friend and I have a mutual mate called Luke, who speaks his mind with uncompromising directness and is armed with a hilariously sick sense of humour, a character trait that he has possessed since childhood, apparently.

Back when Luke and his brother Jack where aged 11 and 15 respectively, they were staying overnight at their grandmother’s home. There was only the one bed available, so their nan dutifully allowed the boys to sleep in it, while she fashioned herself a nest on the floor from spare blankets and pillows.

During the night, Luke woke up and glanced down at where his nan was slumbering. In her bid to get comfortable, Nan had discarded her sheets and was sprawled uncovered on her makeshift bed. Luke was horrified to see that her nocturnal squirming had caused her nightie to ride up and expose Nanny’s naked nether regions, out there and glistening in the moonlight.

Luke frantically woke his brother, and the two boys descended into a stifled fit of adolescent giggles, as they peered over the edge of the bed at the startling sight.

“Look, look, look… Nanny’s fanny!” Luke sniggered. Suddenly, a twisted idea came to him and, seizing an opportunity to torment his brother in a way that only a sibling could, Luke challenged, “I bet it stinks. Dare you to sniff it!”

Jack refused.

“Go on, sniff it. I dare you!”

“I’m not doing it!!”

“You’ve got to, it’s a dare. Sniff Nanny’s fanny.”

“No!”

“If you don’t sniff Nanny’s fanny, you are a chicken.”

“No way!”

“Chicken… chicken… chicken.”

Finally, after much taunting and goading, Luke managed to pressure his older brother into complying.

Jack crept stealthily off the bed and over to their grandmother’s sleeping form. Egged on by his younger brother, he knelt and lowered his head until his nose hovered just above the exposed region.

Suddenly, quick as a flash, Luke thrust out his arm, grabbed the back of his brother’s head and shoved him face first into the crotch.

Nan awoke in confusion to find her grandson nose deep in her vagina and pandemonium naturally ensued. Jack the ‘Vagina Miner’ vigorously claimed that he had got up to use the bathroom and tripped, while Luke feigned innocence and pretended that the commotion had just woken him up.

So wrong, but so funny.

A few months after being told this tale, I had the pleasure of hearing Luke tell it himself on a packed train to London… much to the distain of the elderly gentleman sat across the aisle from us.

Back on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Eden Bar, my friend and I raised a glass to, “The original Fanny Chmelar”.

Urinal Encounters: Pretty in Pink

I’ve had some odd encounters at urinals over the years. No, not like that! Well… Yes, like that, but not on this occasion.

I was stood at a pub urinal, getting on with the job in hand, so to speak, when an olive-skinned guy with a heavy dark beard came and stood next to me.

Even in gay venues the etiquette is that men don’t tend to engage in conversation while stood next to each other having a pee. It’s the same rule of awkward silence that applies to lifts, bus stops and the waiting room of an STD clinic. They are not the places for chitchat.

I quickly became aware that the bearded guy kept casting, not so subtle, glances in my direction. This certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the lavatories of a gay bar, in fact it’s pretty much standard practice. The unwritten rule book of gay toilet etiquette seems to have deemed that talk is forbidden, but peeking, flirtation and downright lechery are perfectly acceptable or even to be encouraged.

Unexpectedly, my urinal companion dared to disregard convention and said, in a strong Middle Eastern accent, “I like your colour.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Your colour, I like.”

I thanked him, assuming he was referring to my hair, as I am ginger with flecks of grey. More ‘Salt and Paprika’ than ‘Salt and Pepper.’

“Yes,” he continued. “Very pink!”

“Pink?!”

He now had my full attention.

“Your face is very pink. I like very much.”

Being fair haired and light skinned, I do develop a flush in my cheeks after a few beers. It was undoubtedly one the least common compliments I have received, but it was so sincerely meant that I was happy to take it.

They say that opposites attract, so it makes sense that someone with his swarthy looks would be intrigued by my pink blush.

A Sicilian friend once told me about spending a summer holiday on the nude beaches of Italy, surrounded by his naked countrymen.

“It sounds like heaven,” I sighed.

“No, it was boring,” he replied. “They all looked like me!”

To each their own. For me it would be a beach full of exotic looking men, for him it was like looking into an infinity mirror.