Queens by Pickles

QPAnyone who was ‘on the scene’ in the mid 1980s will recognise these (stereo)types, like the leather queen who carries a motorcycle helmet but travels by taxi to The Colerherne, the vicar who justifies visiting gay bars as being an opportunity for pastoral work.

One of our members said: I enjoyed Queens in a voyeuristic sort of way and as an historical record of an era. My memories of living in Lambeth predate the time Pickles was writing, being the early 1970s, when my haunts and hunting ground
centred on Kings Road and Vauxhall, but also included The Salisbury in St Martins Lane where much of Queens is based. Such a Grand gay meeting place for intellectual, theatre, church, opera, suited and booted Queens in those days, as well as working class lads and 6th Formers on a day trip to London. There was a wider spread of social and economic class than you could find anywhere else in London.
Members of Parliament, priests of all denominations and lawyers chatting with  builders and soldiers (always lots of soldiers) without any judgement or malice. We were all there for the same reason and it felt safe……but with just a hint of risk.

The descriptions of behaviour and language – high camp as much as Polari – are accurate and bring back wonderful memories. There was an excitement about crossing the threshold of the Salisbury – like emerging from the back of the Wardrobe into another world.
Queens is a surface description of a very special time, after the decriminalization of homosexuality and before AIDS.  The Law had changed, but public opinion was lagging behind. We were free, but still sought the Sanctuary of safe havens (or even Heaven).This book features a diary, some descriptions and some dramatisation of dialogues.

There’s Kevin from Leeds who dislikes London- having lived in Leeds I agree with him.

It was “lambasted by the gay press for its allegedly ‘negative’ portrayal of London’s gay community”. Part of the controversy was due to the depiction of characters in the novel. Many are lonely, bored or superficial. The author’s own interviews contributed to the controversy, both for his insistence that he needn’t present an affirmative picture of gay life in London and also for his unwillingness to publicly come out.

The novel has been described as “a funny, and kind of mean, taxonomy, of gay types in London in the Thatcher years.” Instead of names, the author often refers to characters by their position in gay life: Clone, Opera Queen, Northern Queen, Leather Queen, City Queen, Rent Boy, Insidious Queen. The author also accepts the names that gay men use for each other: Doris Mavis, Gloria.

As our member, above said: The reaction against the book came from the newly politicized wing of the Gay movement – the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) who sought to paint a different public image of homosexuals.  CHE meetings were not meant to be about sex or finding a fuck; they were sometimes quite serious; a sort of WI for Puffs,   The agendas were about Campaigning and Politics, but there was also a fair smattering of exchanging knitting patterns and cooking recipes, CHE resented Pickles picture of homosexuality based 100% on sex,

Queens is an important social history; a Picture Post painting; an accurate record of a small centre of homosexual life in London at the time. In the rest of the country. there was no Salisbury and cottaging was the easiest way to meet and to pick up guys,
It does not matter that Pickles avoids any deep analysis or intellectual debate.
Enjoy it for what it is. I did.

However, not all ‘Opera queens’ are Tories – one of our former members was rabidly socialist. Mind you, he did claim that ‘Opera is the highest art form.’ (Elsewhere, the author wrote: Opera lovers are to opera what rioting football fans are to the Cup Final: an undesirable element. Almost all of them are boring to distraction, bourgeois vultures so utterly sedentary in their theatrical tastes that it is not surprising to hear their unconsidered applause acknowledging the most dreadful performances. An evening at the opera is still regarded as a special treat, something to do whether informed about it or not. Thus it is that the audience presents a bizarre conjunction of total ignorance and programmed knowledge: the young merchant bankers striving to impress some pale English virgin, as if Covent Garden were on the same circuit as Ascot and the fourth of June; old Tory crows, bejewelled as if it were an official reception or exclusive fascist function.)

It’s relentlessly ‘vinegary’, insidiously snide and I didn’t care much for ‘the plates’ – pictures.

Most of the pubs described have gone. Maybe there should be pink plaques.

Despite the many desperate people described, we get a happy ending. However, although Ben’s diaries started well we can predict that it will become depressing f his romance breaks up and he goes back on the scene.

Jonathan Black wrote: Stephen Pickles keeps on cropping up in my life. When I arrived in Oxford he was already a star. Out of all the scores of dandified young men milling around the Radcliffe Camera and the King’s Arms, trying to draw attention to themselves and to promote themselves as the new Brian Howard – model for Anthony Blanche, the flamboyant one in Brideshead Revisited – Pickles was IT. Very handsome in an Italian sort of way with a great leonine mane, he was decidedly glamorous and very famous – known always as just ‘Pickles’. His waspish witticisms were widely repeated and it was rumored that he’s already designed the sets for an opera in London. I hardly dared speak to him.

Years later we’d see each other in Soho. We shared a fascination for Soho and Fitzrovia bohemianism – Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Derek Jarman, Julian Mclaren-Ross – the model for Xavier Trapnel in Dance to the Music of Time – Dan Farson and Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard. Pickles was right at the centre of this – he had a flat above a delicatessen in Old Compton St and a regular seat at the right end of the bar in the Coach and Horses while I was the  boy from the provinces with his nose up against the window. – though I did get some kind of foothold when I became Farson’s publisher.

Pickles then published a book, a book of conversations overheard in pubs, called Queens. It showed an ear for dialogue like, say, Michael Frayn, Julian Mclaren-Ross or Alan Bennett. It’s a kind of masterpiece. (That’s a phrase Colin Wilson used of my own book. I don’t know if he meant to damn with faint praise, but that’s not what I mean – merely that Queens is unclassifiable. It’s not clear what kind of book it is at all.)

Georgia de Chamberet wrote: When I changed jobs, Pickles became my boss. He was a tough but inspirational teacher, and a perfectionist when it came to editing. ickles was divinely charming and witty — and fiercely protective of his privacy. His wickedly funny book, Queens, published in 1984 by Quartet, featured a photo of him on the cover as a wildly handsome young man. I remember a bleak period when Pickles lost friends to AIDS. Derek Jarman came to visit once or twice; he had incredibly clear, almost electric blue eyes, and was beautiful and gaunt like an effigy on a tomb. Pickles was a Soho man, and a regular at the Coach and Horses pub, immortalised in the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

QP2 Quotations:

 Young queens have a special affection for these visits, using the loo as a convenient meeting place where they can lisp and giggle while helping their friends with cosmetic advice. It is also the centre of operations for many queens, a place to review tactics and commiserate over failures. In the queen’s world the lavatory is no mere convenience: it is almost a shrine.

Queens have become so used to standing around that the shock of a verbal approach finds them with only one idea they can articulate — sex. Queens who want to talk have something wrong with them, and it is probably that they are attempting to give casual sex a little more significance.

 OPERA QUEEN. You like Wagner! What a surprise. I thought you’d prefer disco music, actually. From your appearance, that is. Appearances can be very deceiving though, can’t they?

Have you seen The Ring?

If he asks where the bike is, I’ll say it’s at the garage, or I had a bad smash-up!

Beer guts or pigeon chests — who would want to go to bed with that? What’s the point of being gay if you’re ugly?

At other times they linger beneath fluorescent light, thinking it makes them look tanned and glamorous — especially if they are wearing white. These areas are avoided by queens with dandruff. Otherwise they would have to endure remarks like ‘Is it snowing outside?’

Barmen are the most popular queens in Heaven, and their queenery knows no bounds. Like all people in a position to serve, they can choose to oblige or not, as the mood takes them. It is this aspect of the job which they relish. The slightest offence may be taken, whether it be at your waving a twenty-pound note, or informing him that you have been waiting ten minutes and the guy he is serving has just walked in. The fact that the lucky guy is some American porn star’s double explains but does not help matters. Nostrils flaring, your public servant will either make very heavy weather of slamming down a can of Colt, or simply never look in your direction again and go about his chores. These involve emptying ashtrays and wiping down the counter, neither of which is done too frequently, unless he likes domestic order. Some barmen are trained little housewives, some are not. But if their lacking efficiency does not commend them, which is quite unlikely since they all turn into efficiency queens, their looks cannot fail. Almost all the barmen are handsome, chunky or cute. It is a prerequisite, and accounts for some of their arrogance. If you are going to trap a few individuals behind a bar knowing that everybody is going to have to look at them at least once in a night, it shows impeccable taste and good business sense to employ attractive men and boys. Given the amount of attention they receive, it is hardly surprising that it goes to their heads, along with the power they wield. Most of them would gladly wear T-shirts bearing the slogan: ‘If I’m not perfect, throw me away’ — some with more justification than others.

I wish Sam or somebody would turn up. Heaven’s such hell when there’s no one to talk to.

KATE. They’re foreigners, from America. Here to see the sights.
BLANCHE. Well, they haven’t seen me yet, dear.

KATE. I said the sights, love. Not the ruins!

But I just couldn’t have done it! So we got up quite early, because he had to do some work, and went out for breakfast to a cafe in Soho. I must say I don’t like them cwasson things. French rubbish. There’s nowt like jam on toast, is there?!! It was full of trendy types, right stuck up. I can live without all that at nine in the morning!

GEOFFREY. Oh! That fairy thing — Undine, wasn’t it?

OPERA QUEEN. ‘Undone’, more like. Appalling! All those old bags rolling about on Bakofoil, with bits of tinsel in their wigs, trying to be water-nymphs! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!.

GEOFFREY. Wasn’t the hero called Hildebrand, or something? I can remember the bit where she goes to the wedding.

OPERA QUEEN. It was a few tatty banners and shields, wasn’t it?

GEOFFREY. And he turns into ice — do you remember? That heap of see-through plastic was thrown over him when the lights went out, and when they came on we were supposed to know he’d turned into ice! Talk about tat!

They have a shop in the West End, but keep a lot of stuff at home. So it’s a bit like a shop, really. At the weekends they toddle off to their country cottage — well, not cottage, but converted church or something. Very House and Garden, dear!

GEOFFREY. I’ve never liked antique dealers. There’s something vulgar about them, isn’t there? And they always think they’re a cut above everybody else. They’re only shopkeepers, when all’s said and done!

It all looks so bleak when the lights go up, and everybody ages about twenty years!

THOMAS. Good evening!

CHRISTOPHER. Hello!

THOMAS. May I join you? You look rather alone, and out of place here.

CHRISTOPHER. I was just finishing my drink. I wouldn’t say you had a great deal in common with the clientele. It’s not exactly a synod, is it?

THOMAS. Ah! Now there you’d be correct. You’re obviously an educated sort of man. A teacher? Or perhaps a journalist, I’d say!

CHRISTOPHER. Quite close, really. And yourself?

THOMAS. The church!

CHRISTOPHER. Really?

THOMAS. You sound surprised. I suppose it is rather odd, meeting a cleric in here, but I duck in occasionally for a G and T.

CHRISTOPHER. You’ve been here before, then?

THOMAS. Heavens, yes! It’s one of my little haunts, after choir practice, you see!

CHRISTOPHER. I see!

THOMAS. Do you sing? You look very musical, I don’t know why — but you do.

CHRISTOPHER. At university I did.

THOMAS. Ah! A choral scholar, eh? Cambridge, or Oxford? I’d say Cam!

CHRISTOPHER. Right.

THOMAS. And King’s, was it? The school for spies!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m afraid so. Although it’s quite some time ago now.

THOMAS. Well, well! You are in a different world, here. I know it’s naughty, but I can’t help thinking you’re a happily married man. Am I right?

CHRISTOPHER. Well — yes, as a matter of fact I am.

THOMAS. I get a little forward after two of these, I’m afraid. So you’ll have to forgive me. I wonder what brings you here, then. Eh?

CHRISTOPHER. I already told you — I was having a drink before dinner.

THOMAS. Ah, yes! So am I. But we both know what sort of person comes here, don’t we? I mean, the sort of person you are perhaps struggling against becoming. Forgive my being so presumptuous, dear chap.

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure it’s any of your business, actually.

THOMAS. Come, come. We can be friends, can’t we? I went to Durham, actually. I suppose that’s a touch redbrick for you, but if you count the Venerable Bede, I think we go quite far back. One doesn’t often find someone in here one can make conversation with. Have the boys left, do you know?

CHRISTOPHER. The boys?

THOMAS. Oh, you won’t have missed them if they were here. And they always are. Rather an effeminate lot, and always talking dirty and swearing too much. But actually they’re quite amusing. They call me Mother Teresa!

CHRISTOPHER. I see. Well, actually, some young men answering to that description have just left.

THOMAS. What a pity! Never mind, though. You’re here. My name’s Thomas. And yours?

CHRISTOPHER. Christopher.

THOMAS. Like the saint! A charming name. I can just see you wading through water! That’s a very elegant tweed suit, Christopher. Rather posh for this place. What do you make of the gay boys, then? Very sweet, some of them, don’t you think?

CHRISTOPHER. I think they’re rather a miserable lot. I was just thinking what a profound waste of time, actually.

THOMAS. And I came and rescued you from disillusionment. The good Samaritan!

CHRISTOPHER. I wouldn’t say it was an act of rescue.

THOMAS. Well, pity perhaps. I know how hard it is, you see. When you’re not on the scene, I mean. This is what they call the ‘scene’, you know.

CHRISTOPHER. I didn’t.

THOMAS. Well, it is, Christopher. This is a way of life for most of the people here. Every night, most of them. It’s a little overwhelming the first time, isn’t it? I remember how I felt ­lonely and out of place. Then someone came up and spoke, and it was like unlocking a grand piano — Chekhov, you know. And now I’m speaking to you.

CHRISTOPHER. Actually, I don’t feel at all like a grand piano ­locked or otherwise. I feel mildly sick, if you really want to know.

THOMAS. Understandable. I understand, Christopher. You mustn’t worry about it, dear chap. It must be very hard, leading a secret life. Do you suffer from feelings of guilt and anguish? That’s very common among people of our kind, you know. It takes such courage to break out, doesn’t it. To find the places to go, and dare to walk through the awesome portals, in search of unnatural love. Oh, I know what it’s like, Christopher!

CHRISTOPHER. I’m not sure that you do. I mean, you appear to be quite a celebrity here — Mother Teresa, and all that! You’re not exactly an outsider, are you? I think it’s rather disgusting, considering what you do! It’s just the sort of seedy involvement I couldn’t bear.

THOMAS. Dear, dear! We are in a prickly mood, aren’t we? You’re just struggling to find your real voice, Christopher. I’ve seen it all before. You’re happy with your family, but you want something more — something forbidden. And I can help you. Make no mistake, dear chap — what you need is help!

CHRISTOPHER. Can you stop talking to me as if I were some kind of patient! I find it utterly ridiculous. We’ve only just met, and you’re engaging in some ludicrous in-depth analysis. I was perfectly happy standing on my own, thank you.

THOMAS. But you weren’t, now were you? What you must do is give up struggling and start to live! Let things happen, if they’re going to. Don’t resist, or you’ll be unfulfilled for the rest of your life.

CHRISTOPHER. I can’t believe it!! Do you talk to everyone in this extraordinary way? Have you tried listening to yourself? It’s appalling!

THOMAS. I’ve listened to my heart, Christopher. And I’ve taken my questions to God. And He answered. And now I am hearing what your heart is trying to tell you. And I’m trying to give some help.

CHRISTOPHER. But you’re wrong. I’m not like that — like these people. Like you! I’m just curious, that’s all. Just curious!

THOMAS. And have you wondered why, Christopher? You’re alone, like most of these people! All, all alone. And I am extending the hand of friendship. Are you going to brush it away — you, a choral scholar with an unsung song? I want you to sing, Christopher. I want us to sing together!

CHRISTOPHER. Look! — Oh, what’s the use! Perhaps you’d like a drink?

THOMAS. Another G and T would be awfully nice! And then we can talk about the organ stops at King’s. Ah! That glorious Great Swell! What majesty! We have so much in common, you and I, Christopher. We have so much to talk about. Who would have thought it possible that we might meet here, in

this den of iniquity?

CHRISTOPHER. Who indeed? It’s a pity I have to dash, but

otherwise I’ll be late for dinner. Still, I’ll get your G and T. THOMAS. It really doesn’t matter, thank you. Not if you’re going.

CHRISTOPHER. Oh, I am. I must!

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