Right. I have yet again done London, which, if I may paraphrase my esteemed colleague Dean Jackson, I am now over.

First of all, you may view various Flickr sets:

  1. Brighton type and architecture
  2. London architecture (a symbolically scant two photos)

I would say I am over London because:

  • Cost, whereby every purchase of £x immediately mentally translates to its actual equivalent, $2.2x. One tries especially hard not to calculate that equation when buying double espresso (£1.45) or taking a black cab (£14–£66). As with New York, I simply couldn’t make it there.

  • Distance & crowding. One swims upstream for ages to get from A to B. Oddly, travel times can be equivalent in my own neverendingly-vast city, and actually longer in New York. Yet travel feels longer in London, in part due to the complete lack of air conditioning in the Underground.

  • Too-often-tripwired elemental fear. I grew up on British comedy and produce an interpretation of a British sense of humour. I’m one-quarter each British, Scottish, and Irish (or, as I prefer to express it, I am fully all those things, also French). I asked the lads at the Bulldog – more on this anon – how British I looked, and three out of five said I could pass.

    Well, all that is just peachy, isn’t it? But in both trips to London, each day I passed by one ferociously ugly man (usually several) with a fearsome headshape and brow that I instinctually read as “gaybashing skinhead.” I overreacted to some degree, since many of these lads were in business-casual attire and/or were reading a liberal newspaper and/or were obviously carrying a laptop computer to their place of work.

    But then there were the two old guys, shirtless and covered with vulgar tattoos, sitting unnoticed among, and actually talking to, a cluster of suits eating lunch in a park in the City. Each chillingly sized me up in a single glance. What were they doing there, and how would I have to change what I would naturally have done in the moments after spotting them to make sure I didn’t end up in a foreign hospital?

Calling the British ugly is a cliché. Broadly speaking, they aren’t; they’re merely homely. (Even – especially – the many gingers.) I’m OK with that. The Finns are homely, too. I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve been to England, and too many of the guys there scare me.

We may delve deeper into the psychology: British-origin baldies whose genetic latticework had been filtered through a few generations of Canada are one of my types. But if you give me the real thing, the aboriginal baldy, I say again: they scare me.

Brighton is another story

One’s esteemed colleague Jeremy Keith invited me up to stay at his multi-storey dwelling, where I re-met his missus Jessica. (Apparently a retinue of Web-standards reconnus have made the pilgrimage.) The generosity and hospitality were sobering. We’re usually not that nice in Canada, I’ll tell you that much. You may be aware that other Britpackers reside in Brighton, including the Andy Budd and the Richard Rutter.

I was amazed at how functional this small seaside city truly is. It has at least one of every single thing you need. (Speaking of aboriginal, I actually entered the store from which I mail-ordered my non-leather Doc Martens nearly a decade ago. Sadly, there was nothing else worth buying, but if you want that store, you have to go to Brighton.) It even has two of something – official city logotypes, one in Clearface and another in, of all things, Trebuchet. (The buses, many of them double-decker, tend to be dedicated to Brightonian and/or Hovian luminaries of the past – a nice touch somewhat undone by typesetting their names in Helvetica capitals.) I don’t know a thing about architecture, but I loved the buildings.

Anyway, the thing Brighton has one of that surprised me to most is a fully-functional gay strip. My mind was boggled. St. James’s St. (“Street James’s Saint”?) has all the usual invert shops (a pair of them, including a Clone Zone®), invert-dominated restaurants, and, more importantly, one pub or dance club after another. (The two are distinguished by closing times, an absurd 11:00 in the former case and 2:00 in the latter.) You can walk up and down the strip in 15 minutes or so, which puts the strip in the pale shadow of Montreal’s.

But remember I don’t live in Montreal; I live in the biggest city in Canada, whose gay strip now runs the distance of one major city block (formerly a span of a single traffic light, now three). Bars outside this zone continue to die off, in one case with its owner (the Barn with Janko Naglic). Of course those scrawny, unkempt, poor, drug-addled Parkdale artfag intellectuals want us to believe that remote west-end neighbourhood now has a lot going for it homosexually, but what it has going for it is a theme night once a week at a bar nowhere near any of the other bars with theme nights. Plus you’re still in fucking Parkdale, and you’re still surrounded by them.

No matter how you dress it up, Church St. here is it, and it is pathetic. It is even more pathetic in comparison to Brighton, England, with five percent of the population yet a strip of equivalent size.

So off I went. Only one pub had any action, but I couldn’t see a sign. From across the street, later I did: The Bulldog, which Jeremy had warned me was notorious. For what, I asked myself once inside? For a totally dead upstairs bar? For conventional gay disco music with wailing female vocals? How about for its clientele, which boiled down to one old guy after another? Here we get back to the baldies: I stood at the back and counted nine Nº 1–cut or shaven-headed men, mostly over 35 years of age. (One posse of them stood around trying to remember old Pet Shop Boys lyrics and song titles. Through Herculean self-restraint, I resisted correcting them.) While standing around at front of house, I did a similar count and came up with five.

I modified my Sydney approach. I waited till I was visible out of the corner of the eye and said, to no one in particular, “I’m over from Canada. What, or who, is interesting?” The deprecating answer was “not much,” but we did have quite the discussion about where to go at 11:01. One fellow (full head of hair) had lived for a long time in San Francisco, for which he was clearly wistful, and knew many Canadians, and was peevish; another (ditto) stood 6′5″ and had just returned from 15 years in South Africa. (You know what I think of the whiny white South Africans and Zimbabweans who move here. Well, they even annoy each other. This guy told me the Sithifricans had their own word for their whiny neighbours – when-wes. “When we had a farm in Zimbabwe—”)

So where does one go at 11:01? “You could always try [unintelligible],” the San Francisco expat told me. He was uttering some kind of front vowel I couldn’t understand. “What?” He repeated it. “Spell it,” I told him. “German for ‘black,’ ” he replied, annoyed. “Schwarz?” I said, trying to pronounce it right. Yipper. “It’s kind of a sex club.” It is?

I relived my Sydney experience in another way, walking around for 20 minutes trying to find the damned place. (Some annoying effeminate Indic kept following me until I asked him why he didn’t fuck off.) Eventually I found the well-maintained blond-wood bar called Legends, filled with well-maintained blonds and the occasional transvestite. Schwarz was supposed to be downstairs. Downstairs where? My first reconnoiter found nothing. I took a walk to save face, came back, and actually asked the doorman, who brought me upstairs and pointed it out to me (and me to the entire bar). You go through the unmarked door (rather, it’s marked “Toilets”), then go through the other unmarked door (rather, it’s marked with a dress code). Voilà: £4 ($8.80) later, you’re happy as a pig in Schwarz.

It turns out to be a fully-functioning leather bar. Almost from a kit, really (die Schwarz und Firkin?), complete with logotype in a stencil font.

Dark photo shows two guys at a bar whose bright blue sign reads SCHWARZ BAR in stenciled letters

There’s some kind of back room that I guess passes for a “sex club,” where I mostly stood around impassively with my arms crossed. That went over great. (Actually, some elementary-school music teacher [inevitable in a leather bar] had been chatting me up before, and he told me to relax. That was me relaxed. What? Ever seen me uptight?)

I don’t want to give invert Brighton too much of a sell job. I fancied one lad, who ignored me; the general phenotype held true in the specific. (A garden-gnome type and the music teacher fancied me, which is actually more attention than I get back home. But I kept my arms crossed, thank you.) Then of course there is the detail I failed to mention thus far: St. James’s St. also has many a straight pub, and they all close at the same time the gay ones do. It’s like Oxford St., actually, and it made me nervous for a while, until I noticed a police van parked on the sidewalk.

I modified my line a bit. “I’m over from Canada,” I told the uniformed man in what should have been the driver’s seat. “You’re sort of like Sydney here with the gay bars and straight bars on the same street. Do you have much of a problem with gaybashing?” “You mean ‘homophobic assaults’?” corrected the officer in some kind of accent. “I do mean that.” “Well, that’s obviously something we take very seriously,” he told me, in that policeman’s I-can-handle-anything Teflon style of bouncing back whatever you give them. (The best-ever practitioner of this style is a gay cop here in Toronto.) I told him I was sure he did, but I was asking about the prevalence. “Well, it’s much less of a problem than maybe three years ago,” he said, “though we do still have a few occurrences.” (He actually also said a couple of things I could not understand at all and had to just glide over. A British accent I can’t understand? What is this?)

At that point, a textbook lesbian cop (width approximately equalling height; hair shorter than male cops’) walked up to the van, whose door mysteriously slid open. She popped in, and the policeman I was talking to opened his door almost bodily into me and headed down the street. My chat was over.

I never, ever talk to the Toronto cops, who also scare me and whom, apart from the Emergency Task Force, I do not trust. I say this even after knowing a few police officers over the years. And it would be simply unthinkable for a police vehicle to be parked in full view of everyone on Church St. (In fairness, they’re all too busy policing the straight bars downtown, unwisely packed together in a single block that turns into a zoo of drunken unfulfilled heterosexualism and riced-out economy cars at 2:00 A.M.)

Brighton is a nice place to visit and I wouldn’t mind living there. London, meanwhile, isn’t and I would. Our white guys look different and our black guys certainly do. (They’re the only ones I notice or care about.) I get back here and my popularity hasn’t changed; I have all the influence on these lads of a neutrino passing through the earth, but at least it is home, is it not?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.09.11 13:25. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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