In the Shadows

Revellers were drawn to Birmingham’s gay village by the buzz of the bars, pubs and clubs. Just beyond the bright lights, drink fuelled merriment and music are quiet corners, secluded spots and secret places. A nest of backstreet hook-up hideaways. Birmingham’s gay beat… just off the beaten track. The scene unseen.

Cruising sites in the city centre have diminished over recent years, with residential developments encroaching on our gaybourhood. The gays have been driven from their traditional hunting grounds and forced to seek refuge in ever dwindling nooks and crannies, as the shadows recede.


The remnants of Kent Street Baths and its surroundings were once a hive of post club/predawn activity. Dozens of men cruised the alleyways and abandoned spaces, seeking brief encounters.

Gatherings would spontaneously erupt in empty units or behind crumbling walls.

I remember one Christmas shopping expedition concluding in a group session in the shadows of one of the billboards that dominated the corner of a Southside carpark. The number of participants rapidly increased, as sharks circled and joined the feeding frenzy, the inevitable pilot fish floated on the periphery, hoping to pick up scraps. This impromptu happening lost its appeal once someone tried moving the whole affair to the mundane privacy of his flat in Dorothy Towers and it disbanded as quickly as it had begun. Oh well, the alfresco orgy was over, so I scooped up my gift bags and headed home.


Policing in the area has waxed and waned. During liberal administrations, the gay boyz would be left undisturbed. The attitude seemed to be, ‘If it isn’t hurting anyone, let them get on with it, in the same way people turn a blind eye to antics on Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common or in NYC’s Central Park, embracing it as ‘local colour’, and knowing, like Little Red Riding Hood, not to stray from the path.

Other periods would see increased police presence and the word on the street would be to stay vigilant.

An acquaintance and I were disturbed by approaching headlights, so we rearranged ourselves and strolled casually along the cobbles of Henstead Street, a forgotten byway that acted as the express route between the Birmingham scene’s two surviving traditional pubs, The Wellington and The Fountain.

The police car pulled up alongside us and an officer enquired, “Excuse me guys, may I ask what you are doing here?”

“Just talking to this friend that I bumped into,” I replied, innocently.

“Oh, I see,” the officer said, unconvinced. “By the way, your belt is undone.”


In the dying days of that beat, I got the distinct impression that the occasional police presence was there to ensure the safety of the gay community, rather than controlling our moral impropriety.

The area could undoubtedly be risky. My partner was robbed by a gang at knife point. He gave evidence in court but was so disgusted by the system that he never bothered checking in on what became of them.

I myself escaped a mugger by turning on my heels (I wasn’t actually wearing heels) and running hell for leather towards Sherlock Street, hoping to seek sanctuary in Eden, but could see from a distance that the lights were off and the bar had closed for the night, so I turned up Hurst Street and dashed toward Medusa Lodge, a burlesque and gentlemen’s club incongruously located in the gay village.

When I breathlessly explained to the bouncers on the door what had just happened, the four of them immediately formed a protective barrier around me.

“You are safe now,” the towering head bouncer assured me. “Order a taxi and we won’t let anything happen to you.”

I felt like the US President, surrounded by his personal bodyguard (Not THAT president, obviously, but a decent one).


One early morning in Birmingham’s favourite XXX-rated carpark, my partner and I spotted a steamed-up car with a couple of guys heavily petting in the front seats. The driver was a badass dude, while his passenger appeared a timid slip of a thing.

I made eye contact with the driver and received a look, which I interpreted as a come-on, so we both opened the backdoors and jumped in the rear seats.

“GET OUT MY CAR. MAN,” the driver shouted. “WHAT THE FUCK YOU THINK YOU DOIN’?!!!

We leapt straight back out, quickly joined by the lad from the front seat, who had instantly lost his ardour from the driver’s aggressive outburst.

The three of us took one look at each other and exploded with laughter. I was doubled over by the outrageousness of the situation.

Suddenly the driver’s door burst open and he stormed towards us hurling threats and yelling, “DON’T FUCKING LAUGH AT ME!”

This boy from the hood was not someone to tangle with in a desolate carpark, but I stepped forward with my hands raised in contrition.

“We are not laughing at you, honestly,” I explained. “We are laughing at ourselves. We are the idiots who just climbed into a complete stranger’s car.” I offered him my hand to shake, “It was our mistake. I am so sorry.”

“Don’t get closer,” my partner warned, “he may have a knife!”

“It’s fine. He won’t hurt me,” I replied, realisation dawning, “we’ve met before.”

The guy looked puzzled momentarily then a smile of recognition broke through the scowl, showing a cute gap in his two front teeth, “Hey man, how are you?”

We shook hands and I introduced him to my partner, “I know this guy, we have hooked up in a few places,” I explained.

He smirked and asked, “Can I come back to yours?”

This time with an invitation, my partner and I jumped back into his car and the three of us drove off, with a scrape of gravel, leaving the other chap stood abandoned in the carpark, bewildered by this sudden and unexpected turn of events.


Hot boy from the hood became a semiregular nocturnal visitor to our home, although turning up at ridiculously inappropriate times of the night.

Sometimes, on weeknights, we would ignore his knocks and pretend to be asleep, which in retrospect, I can’t believe we did, as he possessed the physique of a superhero, with muscles that I didn’t even know existed beyond the pages of a comic book.

The first time I saw his abs, I gasped, “Oh my God, I could grate cheese on those!”

He looked like he had been carved from marble, with a hue of darkest midnight, which had the unfortunate drawback of vividly showing up light pet hairs if his visit coincided with our dog’s moulting season. There were occasions when we would have to brush down his ripped torso to prevent him leaving the house looking like the Abominable Snowman, which, to be honest, was hardly a chore.


We hadn’t seen our superhero for many years but did recently discover that a cherished friend is now the recipient of those unannounced late-night visits.

“He will do anything you ask him,” our friend told us. “I make him perform naked press-ups, so I can watch those muscles at work.”

Coincidentally, a few days after learning of our shared connection, I ran into Superman on Lower Essex Street. He was the most gregarious I had ever seen him. Giddy with excitement that he had just been talking about us with our mutual friend only the day before, he bound over the road, with a wide beam that showed off that delectable gap.


Although not highlighted in the brochure, those dark corners are a vital part of any gay scene and usually the reason that they became established where they did in the first place. There is a reason that the scattered venues of Liverpool’s scene are hidden down dumpster strewn alleyways; and what would Canal Street have been without those bridges?

I recently took part in a research project on how Birmingham town planners could consider the needs of the city’s gay community. Along with conventional suggestions, I stressed the necessity for fabulous dark corners, and suggested incorporating them into plans for the gentrified gaybourhood. I would love to be in the council chambers when that is proposed.

Apparently, when a Mayor of Brighton was approached about installing CCTV along the beach front to curb cruising, he refused, stating that he came to Brighton thirty years earlier to cruise men and that was part of gay culture. He was not going to be the guy who put an end to it (so there is a president…from Brighton’s President). 

He knew, only too well, that it may be the lure of the bright lights and the beat of the music that attracts the punters… but it’s the dark shadows of the beat that keeps the lifeblood of the scene pumping.

Urinal Encounters: Revised and Relieved

Originally published last year as four separate blogs, this reedited version is presented here as one ‘Eastenders’ omnibus.

I’ve had some odd encounters at urinals.

No, not like that!

Well… Yes, like that, but not always.


Once, I was stod at a pub toilet, getting on with the job in hand, 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 talk while taking a pee. The same rule of awkward silence that applies to lifts and the waiting room of an STD clinic applies. The urinals are not the place for idle chitchat. Yet, on this occasion, I became aware that the bearded guy kept casting glances in my direction. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the lavatories of a gay bar, in fact it’s pretty much standard practice. The unwritten rulebook of gay toilets deems talk forbidden, but peeking and downright lechery perfectly acceptable.

Unexpectedly, my urinal companion dared to disregard the convention of not talking and, in a strong Middle Eastern accent, commented, “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, which I like to think of as ‘Salt and Paprika’.

“Yes,” he continued. “Very pink!”

He now had my full attention, “Pink?!”

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

Being fair haired and light skinned, I do develop flushed cheeks after a few beers. It was undoubtedly the oddest compliment I have received, but 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 holiday on the nude beaches of Italy, surrounded by his naked countrymen.

“It sounds like heaven,” I swooned.

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

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


One another occasion, my partner and I were visiting Brighton and were having a meal in The Lion & Lobster, a large corner pub situated on the opposite side of town from the city’s famous gay scene. Inevitably, after a few pints, I needed to use the bathroom.

There were only two porcelain urinals in the Gents, tucked into a compact alcove.

I was immediately struck by the management’s curious choice of décor. Each of the three walls that made up the nook were covered in an assortment of mirrors, of all shapes, sizes and styles. They filled the walls from just below waist height to ceiling. It looked like the designer had raided every Poundshop and thrift store in Brighton and Hove for mirrors.

As I stood there, admiring the eclectic collection, another customer entered the gents and squeezed in at my side, awkwardly brushing against me in the tight space.

He glanced around at the walls and immediately commented, “What’s with all the mirrors?!”

“I was just wondering the same,” I said. “I’ve never seen myself pee from so many different angles before,” then added with a wink, “or other people for that matter.”

The guy smirked uncomfortably and starred resolutely ahead.

I must have been feeling particularly emboldened by those two pints, as this wasn’t a gay venue, yet I still flattered him with, “By the way, Not bad!”

The guy gave an uncomfortable laugh, “I’m laughing mate, but you know it’s with fear, right?”

“That’s alright,” I responded. “I’m blushing… and I can see it in every mirror.”

We exchanged pleasantries as we washed our hands then both left the toilets, chuckling as we returned to our respective partners. I bet his girlfriend didn’t let him out of her sight again.

I never did confess that the angle of the mirrors meant that I couldn’t really see anything. I didn’t want to disappoint him.


On another night out at The Golden Cross in Cardiff, I barrelled into the pub toilets and stepped into the only available space at the long communal urinal.

A friend’s boyfriend was stood on my immediate right, so I greeted him with a friendly, “Hello… no peeking!” I glanced to my left and noticed that the lad stood there was very cute, so leaned over and cheekily told him, “You can peek if you want… I’ve just peeked at you.”

The lad let out an exasperated, but good-humoured sigh, and said, “Now I’m not going to be able to go!”

We men are a delicate bunch and can be so easily put off our stride.

“Come on,” I teased, “you can do it.”

“Nothing’s going to happen with you stood there.”

“There’s a que forming.”

“Now I’m under pressure!”

“Let’s see who manages to pee first,” I suggested.

He rolled his eyes, “Great, now it’s a competition!” I started to urinate, my amber stream rattling noisily off the metal trough. “A competition that I’ve just lost.”

He still hadn’t managed to go even as I zipped up and left.

A short while later, I spotted the lad emerge from the Gent’s toilet and we gave each other mischievous grins. I weaved my way across the busy pub to introduce myself properly, shook the lad’s (hopefully washed) hand and told him my name.

He responded, “I suck,”

Taken aback by his unexpected candour, I countered, “Well, that’s good to know, but more information than I was expecting.”

He looked puzzled and replied, “It’s only my name.”

“Your name is ‘I Suck’?!!!’

He was Welsh, but this was one regional name that I was not familiar with.

“NOOOOO!!!” He cried, “Not ‘I Suck’! My name is Issac.”

That made far more sense, although I must confess to feeling a tad disappointed.


The most farcical predicament I have found myself in, happened back home in Birmingham.

We all know that nightclub toilets aren’t always used for the purpose for which they are provided. It doesn’t matter whether the club is gay or straight, there will be people taking advantage of the facilities for a quick sexual encounter.

The guy stood next to me at the urinal of this particular club, made it quite apparent that he was up for fun. He didn’t have to say anything… it was out there and obvious.

I nodded my head towards an empty cubical and raised a suggestive eyebrow.

“I am shy,” the guy muttered.

I glanced back down at his aroused crotch and said, “Not that shy, clearly!”

He considered for a moment then nodded his consent and we both stepped into the waiting cubicle.

Afterwards, as we readjusted our clothes, the guy motioned for me to remain quiet and listened at the thin door. He looked concerned and whispered, “There is someone out there.”

“Don’t worry,” I whispered back. “I’ll stand behind the door when you open it then you leave and I’ll slip out once the coast is clear.”

He nodded and we executed our simple plan.

The door opened inwards and was on the side of cubical, rather than facing the toilet, so it was easy to flatten myself against the wall and remain concealed.

Unfortunately, as my brief acquaintance made his escape, another guy immediately walked into the cubical to take his place! This new fella closed the door and bolted it without turning around or giving my feeble hiding place a glance. He didn’t notice that I was there and started to relieve himself. This stranger was completely oblivious to the fact that I was stood, flattened against the wall, merely feet behind him in what should have been his private space!

Well, this is a bit awkward, I thought. I’ve got to reveal my presence, but without scaring this poor man to death.

In the least threatening tone I could muster, I gently said, “Don’t be afraid, but I’m behind you.”

He reacted with amazing composure. I get startled if someone so much as speaks to me unexpectedly while focused on something as mundane as doing the washing-up, let alone being surprised by someone when I think I am alone in a confined space.

After that encounter, I’ll be staying out of toilet cubicles, try to avoid further sitcom scenario and stop talking to strange men at the urinals…. Oh, hang on, maybe I’m the strange man?!