Gay Up Me Duck
To the surprise of many, a 2004 report named Nottingham as having the seventh highest gay population in the country. Who, us? Could that really be true? After all, we hardly enjoy the high profile of gay destinations such as Manchester, Brighton or Blackpool. Our scene may be reasonably sized, but it makes few waves.
For a whole generation of misty-eyed middle-aged queens (trust me, for I know of what I speak), things have never been the same since the early 1980s glory days of La Chic: Part Two. Recognised in its day as possibly the best gay club outside London, Part Two mixed old-school glamour with a new-school aesthetic, in a way that was unique for its time. It was the first club in town to embrace beat-mixing, with an upfront policy that Graeme Park has cited as a key influence. On a typical night, you might find Su Pollard whooping it up on the floor to the latest American imports, while Justin Fashanu silently prowled the cruising alley and a regal Noelle “Nolly” Gordon – the Crossroads matriarch herself – wafted around in a diaphanous evening gown, flanked by stage-door johnnies. In the upstairs bar, you could even avail yourself of the services of a resident chaplain, on hand to dispense spiritual advice to the morally bewildered (as well they might have been, given the pitch-black sex room round the back). From sin to absolution in the space of one evening, Part Two had it all.
Following its 1985 demise, a long dark night of the soul descended upon our club scene, punctuated only by the ground-breaking, long-running and massively popular mega-discos (ooh, we had coach parties) at Barry Noble’s Astoria (later MGM and Ocean), on the first Monday of every month. Sure, there was something faintly demeaning about being shipped in under sufferance on the quietest night of the week – but in the absence of anything better, we were grateful for small mercies.
At weekends, the late 1980s were dominated by the twin scourges of Gatsby’s – possibly the grimmest gay bar in human history, and proof that ‘Gay’ stopped meaning ‘bright and colourful’ a long time ago – and its equally joyless sister venue on St James’s Street: Club 69, later renamed L’Amour. By the early 1990s, the place had upgraded itself to Nero’s, more or less scraping the lower levels of basic acceptability in the process. It was succeeded by the altogether groovier Kitsch on Greyhound Street, which surfed the handbag house boom before coming to an ignominious end, thanks to Donal Macintyre’s televised exposé of the city’s drug trade. While it took months of patient undercover work to nail the Evil Mister Bigs of the day, all it took to land the hapless Kitsch in the doo-doo was for McIntyre to walk in, approach the front desk, and bellow his request. (“HELLO! CAN I BUY ANY DRUGS IN HERE, PLEASE?”)
In the wake of Kitsch’s demise, the Admiral Duncan on Lower Parliament Street enjoyed a riotous renaissance, just ahead of its rebirth as “stylish pre-club feeder bar” @d2. Sure, the Dunc was a skanky old cesspit – but it was our skanky old cesspit, and some of us became rather fond of lurching around to Insomnia in pools of spilt beer and broken glass on the tiny, ever-rammed dance floor. Sundays were particularly weird. At 10:15, the place would be virtually deserted. By 10:30, when that week’s stripper took to the floor, it would be jam-packed with folk who had “just popped in for a quick one”, none admitting their true motives (“I’ve not copped off all weekend and I’m gagging for a glimpse of cock”). By 11:00, the place would be empty all over again. Tsk – men, eh?
This plucky make-do-and-mend spirit served us well, but by the time that the 750-capacity NG1 club opened in 2000 – a symphony in clean surfaces and sleek modernism – grateful gays from all over the East Midlands flocked there in droves. Seven years on, the place is still going strong, despite the increasing threat posed by online hook-up sites such as Gaydar, and their brutally pragmatic ethos of “why go out when you can order in”.
(Indeed – and I shouldn’t really be telling you this, so not a word – NG1 is actually one of the best places in town for heterosexual males to cop off with the opposite sex. Like most decent gay clubs, it represents a safe haven for women who want a hassle-free night out – and while this is only right and proper, it also affords a certain window of opportunity to those with sufficient reserves of patience, subtlety and stealth. That’s all I’m saying. You didn’t hear it from me.)
Ironically, the other potential threat to the established scene is posed by the very social advances that we had been crying out for – as in these newly non-judgemental times, there is consequently less need for separate gay spaces. Gone are the days when we were an oppressed minority, huddling together for warmth. The only trouble is that some of us rather liked being part of a shadowy twilight subculture, and it’s tempting to feel that by emerging into the light, something has been lost along the way.
Then again, maybe our status as a gay-friendly city has less to do with the size of our commercial scene, and more to do with the strength of our community. By and large, we’re not overtly cliquey, bitchy or ridden with up-ourselves attitude, and our roost is not ruled by gaggles of vicious queens slagging off anyone with a slight paunch, a receding hairline, or sub-optimal pecs-n-abs. (“What’s she come as? Scar-eh!”)
Away from the scene, we flourish as a community. Special interest groups cover everything from badminton players to “bears”, from historians to hill-walkers, and from church-goers to SHAGGERS (that’s apparently the “Stately Homes Appreciation Group for Gay Enthusiasts in Rural Settings”, although one has one’s doubts). The long-running Breakout group provides an ideal starting place for newcomers and the newly “out”, and indeed for anyone who might baulk at the prospect of propping up the bar alone, straining to look “friendly and approachable” rather than nervous and desperate. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) Situated inside the Health Shop on Broad Street, The GAi Project provides sexual health counselling, Hepatitis B jabs and anonymous HIV testing, as well as free condoms and lube. Our annual Pride festival remains truer to the event’s original spirit than most, displaying all the homespun charm of a mildly sexed-up village fete, complete with market stalls and bandstand. We even have our own ghettos: Forest Fields for the lady-lovers, and the Viccy Centre flats (aka “Fairy Towers”) for the metropolitan poof on a budget. Oh, and there’s also the Vic Centre Tesco Metro, whose immediate catchment area makes it Nottingham’s cruisiest supermarket…
But more than that, there’s an all-pervading and reassuring sense of relaxed openness about Nottingham’s gay life. We can nurse our pints of Flowers in the Lord Roberts (yes, there’s even a gay pub with decent beer), just a few doors down from raucous circuit bars such as Revolution, and not feel remotely threatened. And even if we did, we’re fortunate enough to have a dedicated police hotline for homophobic incidents (0800 085 8522), manned by specially trained staff. As we stroll through Hockley on a Saturday night, without a thought to editing our public conversations, the city centre’s reputation for violence and intimidation scarcely registers on our radar. Or maybe we’re just tougher little cookies than some might give us credit for.