I never set out to infiltrate the hidden Black gay underground scene in 1970s London. My ‘affiliation’ happened out of genuine admiration and friendship. I checked the date: the Victoria tube line extension to South London and Brixton station was opened by the Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra, on July 23, 1971. I muse now why they didn’t send a more senior royal to do the honours. But this was long before the famed gentrification of Brixton began, and maybe the royal household just didn’t place much stock in the value of its largely commonwealth citizens who peopled Brixton in 1971.
Underground to the Underground
Inquisitive stares accompanied my ascent, a few months later, as I walked out of the newly-built, freshly-painted underground station for the first time. The heads of Brixton’s mostly Caribbean immigrant community turned…
A 23-year old Caucasian sporting a mass of very curly brown hair provoked comments not just from cheeky queens, but also from complete strangers wondering whether my first-generation-British-born mother might have ‘strayed’ nine months before my birth.
That I looked lost, the very first time I made the journey from my North London Finsbury Park home, didn’t allay the suspicious glances: and an unspoken, ‘Wah this white bwoy with de Black man ‘fro doing ’round here?’ looks. While my presence in Brixton may have provoked open curiosity-laced-with-wariness, it was far from my first exposure to Britain’s West Indian community.
To earn pocket money, aged 16, I worked at Musicland on Saturday mornings in 1964. It was a small record shop located on Willesden Lane, around the corner from the fish-and-chip shop on Kilburn High Street that my father managed, and above which I lived with my mother, sister and dad’s Irish ‘other woman.’
A musical connection
Musicland was the brainchild of Lee Gopthal, an enterprising Jamaican entrepreneur of Indian origin who quickly realized that a burgeoning population of young men and women who had arrived in xenophobic Britain from various Caribbean islands in the sun sought connection with ‘home’ through music.
Importing 45s from Jamaica and the USA became one of Musicland’s specialities. What better place for a teenager hooked on the music of a new generation of black American hitmakers to earn a few shillings each Saturday than a record store filled with the vinyl recordings of Dionne Warwick, Martha & The Vandellas, Inez & Charlie Foxx, Doris Troy, and many others? I got paid the few shillings each week only to spend them all in the very same shop on imported LPs by Aretha Franklin albeit with a staff discount thrown in.
It was mostly men in their early twenties who made Musicland a must-check-it stop on Saturdays for the latest 45s just arrived in that week from Kingston. I soon became familiar with the Caribbean lilt. Pre-reggae, the fellas were hooked on calypso-based bluebeat and the ever-popular Ska from the likes of Prince Buster, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, Laurel Aiken, and The Maytals.
Within two years, I had started a record shop of my own with two partners on Deptford High Street. The suitably named ‘Soul City’ was dedicated to American R&B and many of our loyal Saturday customers were asking for hard-to-get US imports like Willie Tee’s ‘Walking Up A One-Way Street,’ ‘Letter to Mommy & Daddy’ by Barbara Lynn and Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’. All records our West Indian patrons had eagerly hoped we could get them at the time, but sadly, to no avail.
Then, one evening in January 1967, I walked into a home on Albert Square in Stockwell as a boy and came out as a man, albeit with the uncomfortable assistance of one light-skinned Jamaican fella whose nickname, ‘Jack the Ripper’, referenced the famed East London murderer, and said all there was to be said about the events of that fateful night-turned-morning.
In the very same house, a few weeks later, I attended my first all-male party. Young black men in their twenties and thirties were dancing together, but I was acutely aware of my skin colour and my youth. Aged only 18 in 1967, I was technically still a minor, and jailbait.
A few other white guys were dotted around the large living room, but on the staircase, I met Franklin, a short, and handsome man from Dominica. He smiled when I told him his first name was the last name of my then-favourite American singer and asked if I’d come to his modest flat in Finsbury Park to listen to Aretha Franklin records.
House parties defined the gay underground
That party, which is where I met my first boyfriend, was a true shock-to-the-system: my awareness of ‘queer’ life was then minimal. Female impersonator, Danny La Rue and comedians such as Frankie Howard, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, were my only public points of references for the homosexual male. In my own life, my married, dressmaking uncle Charlie with a lisp and the ‘effeminate’ speaking voice of one of my partners at the record shop in Deptford, were definitely suspect, but they were all Caucasian.
I had no idea that these men of Caribbean descent, grinding to Ska chunes, and slow dancing to the latest soul ballads in the house on Albert Square, were not only under-the-radar but deeply-deeply underground. The vehement homophobia, much of which stemmed from the Bible-thumping-righteousness that was a tenet of organized religion throughout the Caribbean, made any revelation to family, friends and co-workers their greatest fear in life. Being called a “battyman” was no joke and discovery of any homosexual tendencies could lead to violence, ostracisation or worse.
While the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 set the age of consent at 21 between two consenting male adults in private some six months after I attended my first house party on Albert Square, it didn’t change the ridicule and derision that could be lobbed in public at homosexual men of any age or race. By the time I broke up with my second boyfriend, a co-worker of Franklin’s also from Dominica, in the summer of 1968, I had been to more than a few house parties were the men in attendance were predominantly of West Indian background.
There was still a smattering of white men at such functions whose attraction and interest in black men would often elicit disdain from other Brit gays with stereotypically racist cock-size references. True to say, we’d be met with glares and sniggers going out to one the burgeoning openly gay pubs and dance clubs like By Appointment in Bayswater or The Colherne in Earl’s Court where the punters were generally all-white.
If you happen to have a preference for men of Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian descent, going to a private party in a house or flat provided the primary setting for meeting a prospective new boyfriend or to find yourself in an “I like you. You like me. Let’s go home.” scenario if only for one night.
Coming of age with the age of consent
In the wake of the 1967 decriminalization of homosexual acts, a younger generation of gay men emerged in public for the first time. But still, the stigma of being both gay and black showed no signs of abating for a social circle of friends from Zanzibar, Guyana, Peru, Monserrat, Grenada and various parts of the Caribbean. The terror and shame of being ‘outed’ were palpable and far more pervasive than in the wider society where white gay men were coming out of the closet with increasing frequency by the 1970s.
Ska had morphed into reggae; soul music was all over the British charts, and parties were now for dancing! No standing around for idle chit-chat, which would later become the standard for same-sex functions in private homes during the 1980s-90s. We danced, man. Jean Knight’s ‘Mr Big Stuff,’ Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and Johnny Nash’s ‘Stir It Up’ mixed in with Desmond Dekker’s 1968 anthem ‘The Israelites’. New tracks by Judge Dread, Bob Marley, Lloyd Charmers and The Upsetters were the soundtrack for a tighter-than-tight grind that could last over five or six records with increasing sexual tension!
I sigh and smile now at the memories. Parties full of thirty, maybe forty men, crammed into living rooms transformed into Saturday night hot spots, with the ‘bring-your-own-bottle’ proviso, oftentimes in council flats in Clapham, Finsbury Park and Ladbroke Grove.
As the 1970s rolled in, brave young warriors of all races could be seen at the increasing number of gay venues like The Sombrero (on Kensington High Street), Chaguaramas and The Catacombs in Earl’s Court, but yet and still, there were the house parties, where a subset of West Indian men ruled and reigned in a thriving black gay underground scene sprinkled with a few of us, white soul boys. And, like all good queendoms, there was a monarch.
The Brixton black gay underground scene
I don’t know how I first met Patrick, but I do know I had to be ‘approved’ by him to be ushered into the inner sanctum of twenty-something guys gathered together to find out where the latest Saturday night house party was being held. I was, after all, often one of only two white guys accepted into a close-knit group of black gay men that fiercely guarded its very existence.
Of indeterminate age, and likely in his late thirties then, dark-skinned “Patrick Liverpool” was the funny, sly, charming – and legendary ‘matriarch/patriarch’ of our thriving black gay underground scene in 1970s London.
Maybe it was in part because he owned the spacious house on Morval Road to which I was headed on that first trip via Brixton Underground station in late 1971, and where I would spend many uproarious and hilarious Saturday evenings from thereon. He wasn’t answerable to a landlord, so no fear of eviction when he hosted many an all-nighter at the outwardly nondescript two-storey building.
While the wider gay community was starting to flourish with a new level of permissiveness and the arrival of ‘disco’ music from America providing the backdrop for meet-ups at pubs like The Union Tavern in Oval, the black gay underground scene remained very much a minority-within-a-minority. Interracial gay relationships were still a consistent rarity.
Fear of being accidentally ‘outed’ in public continued to haunt men like Bajan-born Bert, who worked with the British police force at the time, and others. Bert, who ‘stole’ my heart, albeit, briefly, was fondly known as “Bet Lynch” after the fiery character played by Julie Goodyear on Britain’s popular soap opera, ‘Coronation Street’ – and was himself a star.
Nothing much had changed in attitudes among ardent family members and co-workers who could quote verbatim Leviticus chapter-and-verse from the King James Bible:
18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” and
18:30: “For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.”
Bad enough to be ‘discovered’ black-and-gay, but worse to be black-and-gay with a white lover, who was most times considered the source of such ‘corruption’ leading to ‘unnatural’ acts.
The boys in the band
Whether it was my work in music as a journalist with ‘Blues & Soul’ (and I remember taking a couple of Patrick’s ‘crew’ to meet excitedly with the American trio known as Labelle – think ‘Lady Marmalade’ – or the ‘yes-it’s-my-real-hair’ afro that brought home a sense of kinship, Patrick Liverpool sanctioned my presence at Morval Road from the first day I entered his home.
Bert, Jimmy, Tyrone, Cuthbert, Trevor, Nicholas (particularly ‘favoured’ by Patrick), Obrey, Mervyn, mixed-race Mark, and on occasions, the sexy and ever-popular Gary, were among those who also gathered regularly at Patrick Liverpool’s palace.
If we couldn’t ‘find’ a house party to invade as a group, Patrick would decree that we’d host our own and the word would go out to others in our outer circle that Morval Road was the place to be that particular Saturday. In those days, most of us didn’t drive or have our own vehicles, and night buses were infrequent. As the party wound down, other than Patrick’s ‘chosen’ young ‘newbie,’ we’d end up all sleeping sprawled out on the living room floor.
Jimmy and Tyrone, the group’s on-and-off couple, until constant drama drove them apart, would be wrapped in each other’s arms. Most of us were single – and we carved out space for ourselves using our coats as blankets. Sunday morning and a big vat of rice-n-peas prepared in the kitchen was our breakfast. I didn’t cook. So, I became part of the clean-up and dish-washing brigade.
The bitchy gossip, the question of who was the new ‘chicken’ who had stolen Patrick’s heart and was laid up in his king-size bed with him, all became fodder for us as we laughed and wondered when we would meet our prince. Often looking for love in every possible wrong place with emotionally-unavailable men, but we were young, foolish, and somehow, happy.
A debt of gratitude
Stepping out of the London Underground and walking into the ‘real’ black gay underground world over which Patrick Liverpool and others held sway, provided comfort and camaraderie in ways I can never fully verbalize.
I was already an outsider; a stranger-in-a-strange-land, the grandson of turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish immigrants from Europe: but it was there at Morval Road among the sons of a Windrush generation, brave men who risked alienation and condemnation for the right to love other men, that I gained a cherished acceptance while dancing the night away.
Now, almost fifty years later, I reflect with a deep sense of gratitude on how being included in that black gay underground scene in London had prepared me to board a plane for New York to begin a new American adventure in 1975, but that’s an even longer story, waiting to be told.