If you’re like me (and if so, I sympathise) this lockdown is the pits. It’s just making everything grey and mundane, there’s no fun; I miss the smells of the Tube in London, I miss bad coffee from Starbucks, bad coffee from Costa, bad pubs, bad service in bad pubs. All the things that drove me nuts now seem to be the spice I need on a day to day basis. But enough of that, we’re all in the same boat, I thought a quick post with some pictures will tide me, and you of course dear reader, over until I get a chance to frock up again (for the record, Cindy at BWBG is re-opening, government allowing, on the 12th April).
I’m suffering from insomnia now as a result of the wonderful fun we’ve all been having for the last year (and a bit for me; if you follow this blog you’ll remember I had a session cancelled at the very last moment when I woke up in the London hotel, shaved and ready for action, with viral conjunctivitis, one of the rarer symptoms of Covid, so I was self-isolating from mid-Feb on and just as I finished that we fell into the first lockdown period in the UK) which gives me a lot of time to think at night.
Most of it is the usual ‘damn it, I’m getting old’ or ‘that ache is new’ but sometimes I dredge up long forgotten memories, and given I listen to Classic FM to relax at night sometimes those memories are deliciously pleasant (and sometimes not, of course).
Earlier this week when I was staring at the Alexa’s subtle green pulse as Borodin banged out (Steppes of Central Asia, what a glorious piece of music) and remembered one of my very first memories and, surprise surprise, it was all to do with the little fetish that has driven me around the bend and back.
I actually mentioned this a long time ago but given lockdown has allowed me to strip everything away and look at my internal mechanics with a more focused view I was intrigued at the memory. The memory itself gave me one of those dark delicious shudders; if you’ve never let yourself think about your fetishes or acted upon them you won’t know what I mean, but to describe it badly it’s like someone pours hot ice down your spine; your arms and legs goosebump up, your inner self giggles and there’s this almost indescribable rush of what can only be described as liquid-joy.
Anyway, I digress as per normal. When I was a young kid, age nine and a half, I did a Gang Show. For those who don’t know what that is, the Scouts and Cub Scouts in the UK used to put on these shows that were amateur entertainment, music numbers, dance numbers, sketches, the works. Normally they were done in village halls with a single person playing a piano while the kids murdered show tunes. I was lucky enough to grow up in Bristol and they had a central Gang Show at the Bristol Hippodrome.
Now the Hippodrome was and is massive. I think it sits between one and two thousand people; it’s a proper old-school Victorian theatre. All the Cub and Scout groups in the region would put their best singers/dancers forward, through auditions, and then the chosen would get to do a Gang Show on the BIG STAGE.
Now, you have to remember I was a precocious child. High IQ, top of the class, fastest runner, fastest swimmer, the works. Basically I was the kid everyone hated for being the top of the class; don’t worry, it didn’t last. In secondary school they made me take an IQ test, I had a stupidly high one and they decided to move me up a year which destroyed pretty much everything; imagine a child approaching puberty who is confused about gender (obsessed with frocks at age 9 for reasons I will explain) being moved up into a class where everyone else has gone through the growth spurt. Bullied doesn’t start to describe that situation; I basically had all the over-acheiver beaten out of me.
I also had a good voice so my parents pushed me into auditioning. And I got a part in the show, which made me feel over the moon. Part of the vague sexuality and urge to be loud made me want to go into the entertainment industry (again don’t worry, after the rude awakening of being moved up a year in school I grew a hard skin, pulled myself inward and ended up in the army, which lead to discovering beer, putting on weight and pretending to be a red-blooded man for thirty odd years) so the idea of doing this kind of thing was great.
If you’ve never been on a stage it’s a gloriously heady experience. For a start it’s hot; the lights make the whole stage feel like a warm summer afternoon. And the lights mean you can’t see the audience; you feel them, like a large growling beast, and when they applaud, and cheer, the wave you get is indescribable.
But I get ahead of myself. I was lying in bed and all these memories were filtering back in one by one and I started to remember some of the other stuff.
We rehearsed in a big building around the back of Temple Meads station; I can still remember the odd, school-like smell. The choreographer was a classic stereotypical ‘camp’ man; this was 1979 and it was an odd time in England to be outwardly gay, so he was just a little, well, fey in that ‘of the stage’ kind of way, a mix between John Inman from ‘Are you being served’ and a disgruntled drill sergeant.
The first time we arrived for rehearsals I was terrified. On the outside I was a confident kid but inside I already felt different and couldn’t put my finger on why. So I walked in by myself, having been dropped off by my father, and stood at the edge of the room feeling awkward. The place filled up with about forty scouts, a mixture of the younger Cubs, of which I was one, and the older Scouts. Again, I was little then, hadn’t had the growth spurt that took me to 6ft 7in when I put on proper stilettos, and I felt shy and very uncomfortable.
The choreographer was joined by a couple of women, the costumers, and he called us all to stand in a group.
I remember the next bit clearly because, at the age of nine, I was about to get that fetish rush. I seriously believe now, looking back, that this single moment triggered my gender confusion, or rather my love of the feminine.
He walked amongst us and would touch the shoulder of one of the group and ask them to stand at the front. When he got to me he touched me and I joined the others at the front. When he was finished there was probably about fifteen kids standing out in front and I noticed that we were all shorter than the rest.
He then went back to the front and announced:
“These are the ladies of the troupe.”
See, this was back when this kind of drag, the all-male review, was still high entertainment in the UK. For all of the routines, the sketches, the dances, the songs, us poor few fifteen were going to be the girls.
It hit me like nothing I’d ever experienced. I literally blushed, a rush of, sorry to say it, shame. The idea of being up on a stage in front of thousand of people dressed as a girl was, well, err.
And all the seventies mentality and attitudes made me feel wretched about my reaction. Inside I was cheering; no, that’s not enough. The very idea of being the ‘girl’ made me want to shout out loud. I’d never had that reaction to anything; it was like a floodgate opening and being washed away in a rush of honey.
But I knew my parents would be appalled. They were convinced I was a ‘nancy-boy’ already, so bits of me were shrivelling in shame whilst other bits, the bits that eventually became Sarah, were ecstatic.
But it gets worse, or better if you like this kind of thing (and yeah, I do. This is why this memory, when it came back, was such an enjoyable one).
The next three or four weeks were full of introductions to the pieces we’d be doing; one of them was a dance number where the ‘girls’ were dressed as Brownies (and again, one of the most embarrassing moments I had was my mother taking her nine year old son into a shop and asking them to fit me for a brownie uniform, all the while boasting about my position in the Gang Show and bemoaning the fact I was acting as a girl – if you can imagine what effect that has on an impressionable nine year old kid perhaps you can start to understand how I turned out so wonderful). In another we were dressed as playing cards and of course I got picked to be a Queen (Hearts, not Spades).
Surprisingly there weren’t that many of the sketches where we were girls and that was, gasp, somewhat of a disappointment. Until they started to tell us about the grand finale.
This is where it started to cross that unspoken barrier of odd sexuality practises in the seventies. The choreographer had a ‘vision’ for the last scene, where he wanted a proper Hollywood dance number involving couples.
When they described the scene my blood went cold; even typing it now my fingers are chilling. The idea of acting as a girl on stage was wonderfully enticing but this felt somewhat wrong.
It was a dance number where the girls would be dressed as flappers, the ‘boys’ as gangsters, and we’d be paired up with a suitable partner that would be taller than us to keep up the illusion. I remember them making us, the girls, stand in a line and then lining up the ‘boys’ behind us and pairing us up.
To pile further indignity onto us the song we had to sing was ‘When you’re dancing with the one you love’.
I remember getting home after they told us about this one and sitting in the toilet, aged nine years old, hyperventilating. I still remember the feel of the toilet seat.
At the costume fitting I got to wear satin for the first time; the dress was a short (mid-thigh) tight orange flapper number, black Mary Jane shoes with orange ribbons and a page-boy wig with an orange ribbon around it. Going to be honest; I *loved* that outfit, but I was dreading the number. My parents were in two minds about me taking part because it really messed with their opinion of what a boy should do and the idea of doing a romantic dance with a male partner with, yes, a mock kiss at the end (courtesy of the choreographer who appeared to be living out his own unreachable fantasies through the medium of 1970s all male reviews.
Fast forward to the first night of the show. The Brownie number was a laugh and went down a storm (because it was done in a funny way). The other numbers went well. Before the last number they had a set piece involving some guest stars from Radio Bristol which the crowd loved.
A little behind the scenes view for you; during the little set piece they had to the costume change for us, so I found myself sat in front of a mirror next to the other ‘girls’, all of which were doing that standard squirming ‘I don’t want to be here’ pose. I sat there, my satin dress tight against my legs, my feet smarting in the slightly too tight Mary Janes, looking at me in the mirror; a nine year old boy looking, for all intents and purposes, like a 15 or 16 year old girl going to her first dance. What’s more, they added lipstick to the look; our faces were painted very pale (for the lights) and they overdid the lips to make them stand out.
I looked like a doll.
The dressing room (shared) was beneath the stage, and to get up onto it you had to walk up a staircase, very narrow, right at the back, which brought you up behind the backdrops. Two minutes before the number started they had us pair up and wait, holding hands.
So, you’ve got a mildly gender confused young boy completely made up and dressed as a woman, identically dressed to all the other ‘girls’ in the chorus line, standing on a set of stair beneath a hot stage, holding hands with a boy who is a foot taller than you, wearing the suit of a gangster, with a pencilled on moustache.
Come on, did I ever have a chance?
When the time came all the fear went away, we walked up the step, to the side of the stage, and when the music started we all traipsed out as dancing couples, him leading, her following, singing the song. Two minutes of spins, hugs, a little Charleston in the middle and finishing off with the couples kissing, the girl lifting up one leg behind her in that classic pose. Curtain comes down. We all walk off stage, the girls slightly slower as none of us was used to Mary Janes.
Down the stairs. A little congratulation party with lemonade and cake after the makeup artists had wiped the lipstick and powder from our faces. My parent picked me up outside the stage door, gushing praise. Showing me the programme with the picture of me posing with the Radio Bristol people (in drab) and a wide shot of the ‘dancing with the one you love’ number.
I still remember the flush in my face when I saw that; I could clearly see me, third girl from the left, my dance partner with his arms around me.
Yeah. That actually happened. I don’t think there could have been more of an important and stunning point in my development as the person (note person, not man) I became later in life.
Thing is, when I got home, exhausted because I’d never really stayed up past midnight yet still exhilarated from the whole rush of everything, it was that dance number and, interestingly, that moment on the stairs that stuck with me.
We did the show four times if I remember rightly and I have no real memories of the other nights at all, but that one sticks.
And the kicker? All the other ‘girls’ were obviously a little uncomfortable; as we dressed and waited for the cue to start queuing on the stairs they were kicking a football around, amusingly given they had Mary Janes on. Whereas I just stood there delighting in the feel but more importantly delighting in the *idea* of what I was about to do. It felt wonderfully, well, naughty. The idea of pretending, and it wasn’t drag, to be a girl with the help of a male partner and the proper male/female roles was intoxicating.
Being completely honest I’ve craved that situation ever since. At some point I’d love to do a photoshoot with a male model, just to recreate that situation. I didn’t know it then, and it’s very telling that before puberty, before experience, that was the one thing that lit me up like a bloody Christmas tree, but that situation was, for me, the best feeling in the world.
As I said, insomnia gives me way too much time to think.
Anyway, stay beautiful and I hope you can find that situation; that one place that gives you the feeling of love and completeness that I got. September 1979.