In which The Author reveals his legs and inner thoughts
I was out on Friday night a couple of weeks ago with a gang of old friends, some of whom I don’t see very often. Ross lives in London, Stu works on the Falkland Islands (seriously!), and the others are pretty quiet these days. We first met twenty years or so ago, and have been friends ever since.
Ross has been in a long-term relationship with another guy for over ten years. Some of the lads were shocked when he first told them he was gay. I wasn’t at all surprised. Even though he’d been seeing Kathleen for a long time, I’d always suspected that he swung both ways. I didn’t let it worry me either. In my line of work, you can’t possibly be homophobic – you’d be unable to deal with authors, publishers, colleagues or customers if you were. In fact, Ross told me on Friday night that (apart from his brother) I was the first person he felt confident enough to come out to.
I felt strangely honoured that he would trust me with such an important piece of information, but then again I guess we’ve both been fairly ‘out on the edge’ when it comes to issues of sexuality.
When I was about eight, one of the lads in school (who had an older brother) took it upon himself to decide that I was a ‘bummer’. He didn’t know what it meant, of course – none of us did – but he thought it would be sufficiently cruel a slight to hurt me forever. He was wrong.
By the time I got to grammar school, it was pretty much a universal statement of belief that I wasn’t interested in girls. I was interested all right, but I was also (to quote the great Morrissey) ‘the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’. Besides, it was an all-boys’ school, so my contact with girls my own age was pretty limited.
There was Caroline up the street, but we didn’t really get on for some reason (we’re great friends now, by the way). There were Elizabeth and Karen around the corner, but they were my brother’s age and still technically little girls. Sharon from school was nice, but only as a friend. (If I had a pound for every time a girl said she ‘just liked me as a friend’ I could have retired years ago!) Also, I didn’t socialise much outside school, so opportunities for meeting girls were pretty limited.
By the time I turned seventeen, I was a ‘poof’ (or worse) in the eyes of pretty much all the younger boys in school. (My mates accepted me for what I was, of course – the benefit of our greater maturity and intelligence.) For one thing, I was a voracious reader, and only girls read books. I was also interested in music and writing, and hated sport with a vengeance. If I’d been into Heavy Metal, like so many of my friends, I might at least have had a fighting chance of being considered straight.
Instead, I liked early Roxy Music, David Bowie, Eno (before and after ‘Brian’), and Talking Heads. I’d come in on the fag-end of the Industrial scene (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane) and the burgeoning synth-electro-New Romantic scene was the next best thing. I didn’t wear the outfits, of course, but I did make a bit of a statement in my clothes. White trousers, a black shirt, white tie, black boots … Think Bowie circa Let’s Dance and you’ve got the idea. I never dyed my hair, though, or wore make-up. My hair was pretty ordinary – although there was rather more of it in those days, of course.
I was in school with a chap named Matthew D., who wore make-up and copied Boy George’s image religiously. He almost certainly was gay – but for some reason he didn’t get the same abuse I did. Maybe the bullies thought I was in denial, and therefore even more deserving of their contempt. Who knows?
I wasn’t identifiable with any particular subculture, and therefore didn’t fit into any of the cliques. I still don’t. I have several groups of friends, none of whom would likely have come into contact except through me. It’s the way I am.
At this time, a guy called Tony Mitchell was writing for the British music paper Sounds; at the same time, in another life, he was one of the founders of the legendary fetish magazine Skin Two. His two interests overlapped in his day job – he used to run photos of Toyah, or Siouxsie, or Jeanette Landray of the Glove, dressed in fetish gear.
I’d liked the punk style since it first hit the UK papers in 1977, when I was eleven. According to Timothy Leary’s theory of neurological development, that’s the age when the Fourth Circuit is being imprinted. That’s where we get our sexual desires fixed in our brains, according to Dr Leary. Well, I imprinted girls in weird leather outfits, studded collars, spiky hair, dyed hair, big boots, fishnets … Suddenly a music paper I bought regularly was providing me with some decent porn pictures. It didn’t even live on the top shelf. I used to jerk off to those pictures when I was at home on my own.
I didn’t get to know any girls my own age or thereabouts until our sixth form in school – age 17 or so. As Art and Music A levels were so under-subscribed at our school, the guys who wanted to study them had to commute to the girls’ school a couple of miles away. For the same reason, girls studying Maths or Geology at A level came to us. Suddenly, we had a female presence of our own age within the building.
It was also a time of eighteenth birthday parties, and a lot of the guys (who were already out in town, or who had sisters, and so met girls through them) were starting to have girlfriends.
At the same time, my mother knew a family in the nearby town with a daughter a school year younger than me. She was resitting her Maths O level, and my mother suggested that I could give her some extra tuition at weekends. It seemed a logical solution to a couple of problems. Lisa wasn’t socialising outside school, and neither was I. We were similar ages, and both in similar predicaments as regarded the opposite sex: ‘Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match …’
When we walked into Dai Evans’s birthday party together, it was like a scene from a bad Western – all that was needed was for the pianist to stop playing. It had the desired effect. I had a girlfriend, and the scoffers could go fuck themselves!
Lisa and I stayed together for a couple of months, during which time we went to a few more parties in the rugby club. They were ritualised gatherings of lads and girls from all the local schools and some older folk, who of course knew the guests from the pubs around town. It was only then that I got to know some of the local girls.
There was a stunning punkette named Alison B. who lived nearby. I used to see her when I was on the way to school in the morning. She toned her image down for school, but at weekends she was Siouxsie’s little sister. One morning, in the newsagent’s on the way to school, I plucked up the courage to ask her to come to my mate Paul E.’s birthday party. She refused point-blank. I was gutted, but I didn’t tell anyone in school what had happened. On the Friday night, we were in the club when she walked in. I was devastated. I just left my drink and walked home.
Another girl who used to come to these occasions was the younger sister of a schoolfriend of mine – a cute little thing who was into the punky/New Romantic fashion. I liked Annette B. a lot. She went out with my friend Keith for a while, but even after they split up, we were never more than friends. After Lisa and I split up, I was single until I met Sam, over a decade later.
Anyway, this all came back to mind for various reasons over the weekend. First, the conversation with Ross got me thinking about the time when everyone used to think I was gay. (A lot of people still do!)
This afternoon, I was preparing a music quiz for a birthday party in a few weeks’ time. I ended up watching the video of ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam and the Ants on YouTube, and it took me right back to that period in school, before I got to know any girls. It just wasn’t acceptable to like Adam and the Ants if you were a guy. Girls loved him, of course, and I used to get told in school that if I put the make-up on, I could be a passable Adam Ant. It didn’t convince me.
Deep down I wanted to glam up and go out looking as cool and as outrageous as Adam Ant, or David Bowie, or David Sylvian, or Bryan Ferry, or (Brian) Eno, and really take this little town by storm. I wanted to find a girl whose taste in music would chime with my own, a cute punky girl whom I could walk into the Black Lion with and say, ‘Eat shit, you fuckers!’ to the guys who’d called me gay.
In reality, I’d have had the living shit beaten out of me by the time I got to the end of the street. Anyway, my parents would have rather died than allow their firstborn to walk the streets of Aberdare looking like that. I had to be content with the fantasy.
In 1983 a gang of us from school went to see The Cult in Cardiff’s New Ocean Club. It was a great gig, and for the first time I saw people who weren’t afraid to dress in this outrageous style. Matthew was a lone voice in the wilderness in Aberdare, but in a big city, surely I could dress in any way I wanted to.
This feeling was reinforced a few months later when we went to see the Cure in Bristol. Out came the freaks! What an eye-opener that was, for some youngsters from a small town in South Wales. Darren, Justin and Paul had put some fairly trendy clothes on for the occasion. Ellen and Debbie wore pretty straight clothes. I think I had my ‘Bowie’ outfit on. There are no photos of that day, alas. I bet we must have looked like what we were – small town kids on their first visit to the Big City, and hopelessly out of our depth. On a visit to Bath that summer, I bought a studded collar. It was weeks before I had the courage to wear it outside the house, and even longer before any of my family saw it.
When I went to London in 1984, it crossed my mind a few times to experiment with my appearance. I contented myself with buying some bondage trousers, some boots, and a pair of lace gloves, which I wore to a couple of gigs. There were some lovely women at the Andi Sex Gang gig in Heaven, at the end of October. At Marc Almond’s gig in Hammersmith Palais a few weeks later, I was surrounded by gorgeous punky/Gothic punk (as it was termed at the time) girls. I was in heaven – this time, not the legendary club beneath Charing Cross Station, but metaphorically speaking.
I often wondered about going to the Batcave, the first Goth club in Oxford Street, or one of the fetish clubs which were springing up at the same time. My shyness got the better of me every time. I couldn’t have done the full make-up and fishnets thing, and then ridden back to Uxbridge on the night bus on my own. I might as well have jumped off Hungerford Bridge – it would have a quicker way to take my own life.
Time went by and I found myself back in Wales, never having dared to experiment further than dyeing my hair black and wearing my collar to a party in the Students’ Union.
And, although I bought a pair of latex gloves which I wore out and about regularly, I still knew deep inside that the idea of ever turning up to a fetish club was not only impractical, but highly unlikely. First of all, I’d need a girl to go with me, and I wasn’t going to find one in Aberdare in the late 1980s.
Or was I …?
By that time, the punk/goth scene had reached even this backwater of civilisation, and the Carpenters Arms became the gathering place for all sorts of subcultures. My friend Alyson B. was a Gothic Punk, and we got on very well – as usual, without my imagining that it could ever come to anything more.
Apparently, one night when we were walking her home before going our separate ways, Alyson confided to Ross that she was going to steal my virginity if it was the last thing she did. She didn’t, of course, and married her long-term girlfriend in one of Wales’s first civil partnerships a couple of years ago.
There was a small girl who used to drink in the Carpenters, named Sam E. Her brother was a well-known face in the town; he was brave enough to dress and act in the way I’d fantasised about when I was seventeen – he looked like a member of Sigue Sigue Sputnik.
It seemed that the younger guys and girls weren’t inhibited about the way they dressed. They were dope smokers, speed freaks and pill-poppers. They didn’t seem to care about conventional morality. It was an exciting time, and they were an exciting crowd to be around.
(Incidentally, I think it was at about that time I started developing my theory of so-called ‘mental illness’ which I discuss in Inhibitions and Exhibitions.)
Anyway, Sam was short, slim, dark-haired, punky, cute and very much my type, and used to wear quite kinky outfits when she was out and about. We’d spoken a few times, but only passing the time of day. One night I was sitting at the bar and the ash from her cigarette fell onto my leg.
Sam brushed it off, and I said, ‘Thank you, Sam – do it again, only harder!’
Her face lit up for a split second, and Gary the landlord laughed. Contact. Small but vital contact …
Sam left Aberdare to do performing arts in London. She’s now a burlesque dancer married to the lead singer from Alabama 3.
Then I met Sam H., but there’s a whole lot more about this other Sam which will occupy further chapters of this rambling story.
The real turning point in my life came about five years ago. Gema and I had split up. Emma the Australian Girl (see From a Land Down Under) had come and gone, a brilliant comet who lit up my dull life for a few brief days. The pub down the road started hosting bands, and then branched into ‘theme nights’. One of these strange evenings was a fetish night. Brilliant! Now I didn’t need to schlep into Cardiff or Bristol for an opportunity to strut my stuff.
Gema, Helen R. and I were obvious names to turn up. The girls already had PVC nurses’ outfits, and liked going out in Cardiff in kinky gear. Now I needed to round up some people. I contacted Alyson and Josie, Ed and Karen J., Claire M., and a couple of other people who’d expressed an interest in kinky stuff. I put the word out on the grapevine to see who else would come.
I went into Cardiff and bought a PVC nurse’s outfit of my own – except that mine was black, of course. I needed something to wear with my outfit. Helen’s only just covers her arse and she’s five foot and a fart, so I bought a PVC miniskirt as well. I had a rubber hood, which I’d bought a few years before, and long PVC gloves. I’d been buying this stuff gradually, with no real idea of when or where I was going to wear any of it. Now I had a golden opportunity.
That Friday, Alyson and Josie came along dressed from head to foot in leather. I wore my outfit (but I took the hood off after a while as it was too hot!). Mal P., a nutter who drinks in the pub, was wearing a long wig. And that was it. Dean and Carole, Jon R. and Claire B., and Leighton L. just sat around in normal clothes and laughed. My first and last fetish night.
But now I’d got a taste for wearing a skirt. I knew I had long slim legs, and I enjoyed the sensation of showing them off. I used to go to the same pub on band nights, wearing a skirt – either my PVC skirt or my tartan miniskirt – and after a while everyone got used to it.
One Sunday morning a few years, feeling totally headshot for no reason, I decided to wear my skirt all day. I walked from my house to town, not knowing what to expect from passers-by. I’d already typed out Aleister Crowley’s famous words, and had them in my pocket in case anyone decided to ask why I was wearing it:
Man has the right to live by his own law;
to live in the way that he wills to do;
to work as he will;
to play as he will;
to rest as he will;
to die when and how he will.
Man has the right to eat what he will;
to drink what he will;
to dwell where he will;
to move as he will upon the face of the earth.
Man has the right to think what he will;
to speak what he will;
to write what he will;
to draw, paint, carve, etch, mould, build as he will;
to dress as he will.
Man has the right to love as he will.
Man has the right to kill those who would thwart these rights.
That was my justification: ‘Man has the right to dress as he will.’
The first person I saw after leaving the house was my pal Sion, on his way to our local. I met him on the hill, he was heading up and I was heading down. At first I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that he’d seen me and it was too late to duck down the side street. I kept on walking and looked him in the eye as we neared each other.
‘All right, Steve?’
And that was it.
He didn’t bat an eyelid, or say anything more. He just kept on walking and so did I.
I strolled casually into the pub and asked for a pint as usual. Della, Chris R. and the rest of the gang were gobsmacked, and I had twenty questions. I produced my little piece of paper and offered it around as a sort of FAQ. I had a few beers, did the crossword with Chris, and carried on chatting to the gang just as I would have if I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I saw no reason to act any differently.
I wore my long gypsy-style skirt to another pub one night, and again the reaction from the crowd in there was pleasantly agreeable. Oddly enough, that night Judith H. and Debbie B. called me over to talk.
Debbie said she remembered me from the Carpenters (but I honestly didn’t remember her. She was in the Heavy Metal clique, which I only tangentially connected with). Debbie had called me over largely because I was wearing a skirt, and her curiosity was sufficiently aroused to ask me directly about it. While we were talking, she told me that one of her friends used to tell them all about the times she came to my house, to listen to David Bowie and play with make-up.
She turned out to be talking about Annette. Yes, that Annette! The girl who I used to have the hots for when I was 18 or 19 turns out to have had the hots for me as well! Why the actual fuck didn’t she tell me at the time? I was in desperate need of a punky girl to call my own, and she was fantasising about listening to Ziggy Stardust and playing with Boots No. 7 in my bedroom. Now I find out! She’s living away, and married with three kids.
It’s only the chavvy youngsters who seem to have a problem with my legs on display. I think my friends know me so well now that they’re not even slightly surprised when I wear a skirt or a sweater-dress to the pub. Some of the girls have been amazingly supportive – a few have actually offered to make me up and help with my hair so we can go out together one night. Even in work I’ve made offhand comments about wearing a skirt. I think some of the girls know I’m not joking …
Which long, drawn-out discourse brings me back to Friday night, when Ross told me that I was the first person he’d come out to.
‘I wasn’t surprised when Rob told me you came to the quiz in a dress one night,’ he said. ‘I think I always knew were going to do it one day. I’m just surprised it took you this long.’
Which is exactly what Amanda N. told me, several months ago, when we were reminiscing about the good old days of eighteenth birthday parties and the Black Lion. Maybe sometimes your true friends know you better than you know yourself.