Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 24


"It must have been great living in the sixties," students would sigh as the nineteen eighties ploughed into the mire of political correctness, hijackings, over-population, multitudes of localised wars, birth-pangs of globalisation, deregulation of currencies, Reagan-Thatcher inspired dismantling of publicly owned social services and unions, and the privatisation of everything.

For nostalgia-merchants yearning for a return to a 'golden age', the sixties had become a symbol of freedom, social liberation and carefree sex, in which the potential for humans to live harmoniously together in flower-power love and harmony had been virtually realized.

Well, maybe. It just seemed normal to us – the only life we knew, so we lived it; ignoring the constant threat of nuclear annihilation if we could; marching to Aldermaston if we couldn't. The adventurous grabbed hold of life while everyone else played 'follow the leader' as usual.

Compared to today, people tended to be participants rather than observers; creators of their own fun rather than consumers of pre-packaged entertainment, probably because TV had not yet taken over their lives and the electronic revolution of PCs, CDs, DVDs, mobile phones, iPods, web-cams, and video games, was years in the future.

In retrospect, the sixties were like the opening of a tiny window, through the dark glass of which a few philosophers and dreamers had glimpsed a life liberated from the constraints of religion, social class, and oppressive law. A sweet, innocent, emancipating breeze drifted in, transporting us through the seventies, blissfully unaware that entrepreneurs were already commercialising, cheapening, and destroying the innocence, while religions were re-grouping.

By the nineties, the 'window' had become a TV/computer screen where 'beautiful' people acted out our dreams for us, turning us into a population of voyeurs instead of actors, and sex into a second-hand, vicarious commodity so omnipresent it's become banal; in the process emasculating men because their bodies can't compete with the godlike virility of porno studs, while encouraging women to dress and act like porno chicks.

A parcel awaited me when I returned from my holiday south – a 21st birthday cake from Mother that had spent 3 months in the sweaty hold of a ship. I tossed the moist mound of mould into the bin in case Edgar thought I wanted to celebrate. When I turned twelve, Mother had insisted I have a party. She baked for two days and invited a dozen boys from my class. I left the house immediately after breakfast and spent the day alone at the beach. If she invited people without consulting me she could entertain them. My explanation that either every day is worth celebrating, or no day is, was met with incomprehension. She never suggested I have another.

Our short-lived experiment as an all-male troupe ended when three 'resting' actors from Alwyn's Horsham Repertory days arrived to fill the gaps – Valerie, a blonde of thirty-five who could pass for twenty as long as she stayed behind the proscenium; William, a gaunt but well-made queer in his forties; and Ruth, who looked like Hansel and Gretel's witch. This term we were performing at schools within an hour's drive north of London, so I picked the others up at pre-arranged tube stations on the way. Most of the schools were single-sex grammar schools, with a sprinkling of the new co-educational Secondary Moderns – those much-maligned institutions of social, intellectual, and cultural deprivation.

Both Rolando and William looked good shirtless, and had the legs for kilts, tunics, and tights. Valerie, sans brassiere in a flimsy nightdress as Lady Macbeth, sent waves of testosterone wafting onto the stage at boys' schools. As Ruth remarked wryly, at least our costumes kept the audience's attention, even if the immortal words of the bard passed over their heads.

The highlight for me that term was five performances of The Tempest for the drama classes of two Technical Institutes in South London. The students took my nudity in their stride and were just as appreciative as those in Bristol, and as with the students of that university, they were invited on stage immediately after each show to discuss whatever they liked. It was about then I realised teaching might be a pleasant alternative to acting. A dozen years later it had become more than pleasant; it was just as rewarding, more secure, and very much better paid.

With no 'adult' plays, my nights were free, but options were limited because too much of my meagre wage was returned to Alwyn for board and lodging. Needing part time work to replenish my nest egg, I applied for a job as waiter at the Piccadilly Lyons Corner House.

The personnel manager was pleasant, and we discussed sheep. I can't remember anything else. He promised to contact me and three days later I received an offer of employment – head chef at a Lyons Steak-House in Blackheath. I knew I'd impressed him, but that was ridiculous.

London County Council was a generous provider of free night classes from flower arranging to hypnotism. Valerie supplemented her income by posing for life-drawing classes and when I told her I'd done it before, gave me a few addresses. It was good money, but each class only needed you for four sessions, so after exhausting all the nearby classes I tried the Royal Academy of Art – more prestigious but the pay wasn't any higher.

"Are you smooth?" the secretary demanded when I handed in my application form. I nearly cracked up. It was like Beyond the Fringe when the preacher keeps quoting Cain's plaint, "I am an hairy man and my brother is an smooth man.'

"The tutor of the only class available prefers his models smooth," she explained. I said I was, which was true because of Alwyn's insistence I be hairless for Ferdinand. In the studio I was sent behind a screen to disrobe and handed a brown paper bag that, as I wasn't feeling sick, I tossed in the bin and stepped out to applause.

The tutor, André, a disturbingly thin young Frenchman with floppy black hair, sidled up and whispered, "Ze bag is for ze genitals.' I whispered back, 'It was too small.' He grinned. "And where are ze pubic hairs?"

"The secretary said you wanted me hairless." He laughed aloud and got on with the lesson. Pretty soon after that, males were no longer required to cover up. Whether I had anything to do with it I've no idea.

After the session he asked if at the next lesson I would allow him to take measurements so the students could compare the proportions of my body with those in a recent women's magazine survey on the 'ideal' male, and those favoured by Renaissance artists. Naturally I didn't mind and was heartened to discover I was reasonably close to the magazine's ideal, although puny when compared to Renaissance nudes, showing that great Art is inspired by nature, not a copy of it.

André and I hit it off rather well and before his return to Paris at the end of term to marry his sweetheart, we made several sorties together into the countryside in his deux chevaux, visiting stately homes and gardens.

There's a myth that life drawing is about sex. It definitely isn't. The model is too busy keeping still and not 'sagging'; the students are too busy concentrating on drawing and giving 'life' to their renderings. There's no time to think of sex. Of course, there are people who join just to see nudity, but they don't stay long. Most bodies are not very attractive and after a couple of hours of scrutiny in fairly unflattering light, some become repellent.

Strip-tease, on the other hand, is all about sex. The audience is primed with alcohol and fantasies, the stripper has a better than usual body that's been primped and prepared, and there's no time to see faults as he or she gyrates in a sexually provocative dance. Lighting is filtered to hide blemishes and not bright enough to see faults, and loud throbbing music removes inhibitions.

I enjoyed modelling because it's relaxing, you're not worried about your body not being perfect, and there is the chance of social contact with the students who sometimes invited me to go with them afterwards for a coffee. Stripping, on the other hand, can be nerve-wracking if you've a pimple or don't look as good as the previous bloke, but it's exciting and can be as creative as you want. I loved both.

Without realising it, I'd joined Quentin Crisp's ranks of "Naked Civil Servants". He was still working at the R.A. but hadn't written his book, so I didn't know of his existence and never met him, which was lucky as I'd have run a mile from his queenly presence – fearful someone might think I was like that! The number of famous people living in London I never met is astronomical.

One of the students who cheered at my exposed shaven genitals shouted, "At last! Bones," pleased at having a lean model after years of fat males who, until then, had been thought more 'interesting'.

In his autobiography, David Hockney reckons he said something like that in a life drawing class at the R.A. during those years, so it might have been him… but then again, it might not. I did run into Peter Sellers in New Bond Street. It had started to rain so I held a newspaper over my head and bumped into him. He snarled, "Idiot," and hurried off before I could sing 'Ying-Tong iddle i po'.

Cruising for casual sex was subtle and omnipresent… a sly smile in shops, a wink and turn of the head on the street, the accidental touch of a hand on the bus, the not so subtle groping among crotchless trousers, business suits, and fashion plates in the meat markets of gay pubs where patrons chattered with their 'in' group, eyeing outsiders and prospective partners with practised disdain, then hovering alone on the footpath after closing time, having rejected one suitor too many.

To even think about a long-term relationship was heresy. Queers were liberated individuals evolved beyond the primitive need for one special mate, with a duty to share themselves among as many men as possible.

I lacked queer credibility by dreaming of a life of respectability and independence with a permanent lover. Perhaps if, like Francis Bacon, I'd been horsewhipped as a boy, or thrown onto the streets to fend for myself, or been sold into slavery, I too might have become a tortured, drug-raddled soul, living a life of towering highs and debilitating lows with an entourage of devoted sycophants encouraging my physical and mental self-destruction. But I lacked the required 'devil may care' abandonment of social niceties combined with total self-absorption and single-minded pursuit of my 'art'. Instead, I was becoming master of the middle ground; a priggish Jack of all trades whose epitaph would read: 'He did nothing to excess and offended no one'.

Virgil, a gym-toned pool attendant at the Fulham Baths, admired the brevity of my togs so we chatted, and he took me to a sauna – beautifully appointed and harder to gain entry to than the Bank of England's vaults. Hot rooms, shower rooms, dim cubicles for love, and an astonishing variety of modestly towel-wrapped bodies drifting decorously in an atmosphere redolent of the daunting respectability of a gentlemen's club.

The social centre was a large and luxurious coffee lounge – tables and comfortable chairs around a tiny, blue-carpeted raised platform. "A stage," Virgil whispered when we emerged hot and sweaty from the sauna. "Let's put on a show." As no real actor can see a stage without feeling an overpowering urge to perform, we spread our towels and put on a show that was more athletic than aesthetic but earned nods of approval and a couple of free passes.

Near Portobello Road Market skulked the Atlas Club; an ancient gymnasium smelling of sweat and liniment, patronised by muscle-builders disporting before large foggy mirrors, and wrestlers straining sinews in energetic embrace. Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill were at that time the very down-market refuge of immigrant Africans and West Indians. The Atlas Club Gymnasium was a sanctuary for sons and husbands fleeing overcrowded flats crammed with wife, children, and mothers-in-law bemoaning the cold, dirt, lack of sunshine, and leaving their tropical paradise.

After a workout most of the guys took a steam bath, then sat around playing cards, chatting, or enjoying the non-competitive, genial atmosphere generated when men relax after rewarding exercise. A new experience for me, but probably how primitive hunters felt after a successful sortie, and football players after a match; triggering jealousy in their wives.

Weekly wrestling matches brought in a paying audience turned on by swollen muscles and bulging crotches in skimpy cotton wrestling suits. I usually competed in one fight a week, surviving through flexibility rather than skill, worming out of steel-muscled grips before my back broke. I never won a bout. You needed bulk for that.

The manager's wife, a hatchet-faced bottle-blonde whose heart must have been solid gold because the rest was flint, asked if I'd strip for ladies' nights (she asked everyone, so it was no big deal). She booked me for five shows and took twenty-five percent, but I never felt completely comfortable thrusting my bits at raucous women shouting smut while swigging pints in the private rooms of pubs.

Unlike Hazel's elegant ladies, there was a predatory deadness in their eyes. I was naked and alone and the fearsome prospect of rape loomed large. It was a relief when my 'tour of duty' ended.

Impotence. Dread state. Virgil had invited me to his flat after a swim. We leaped into bed and nothing happened. I felt a fool. He said it didn't matter – but the second time I failed to rise to the challenge he took it as an insult and that was the end of that. When alone, everything worked perfectly. I had never been healthier so what was the cause?

Public and political rumblings about decriminalisation (which didn't arrive till 1967, the year Australians finally accepted that their indigenous people were human) had sent the police into overdrive. Entrapment, home invasions and prosecutions increased in an effort to convince legislators it would be unsafe to legalise 'perversion' (and threaten their arrest quotas.)

Everyone seemed to know someone whose flat the cops had burst into, who'd been beaten up, imprisoned, humiliated, fined, and sent to jail to be raped or worse. I suffer from overdeveloped empathy, which Edgar reckoned was causing severe anxiety and my impotence. What a wimp! How much worse must it have been for my hero, James Baldwin? As he said in an interview: "Left-handed, black, and queer in the U.S.A. – man I sure hit the jackpot!" He fled to France from the horrors of homophobia, segregation, and the KKK. It would be another couple of years before I gave up on the UK and followed him.

I bought a cheap guitar and joined a night class. Had it been classical I might have persevered; but it was folk, and the weepy bleatings of Pete Seeger, Nana Mouskouri, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez bored me witless. Bob Dylan wasn't even good-looking! His name was Robert Allen Zimmerman, so why would he take the name of alcoholic Dylan Thomas, whose poems are about as daft as Bob's stuff? The only protest songs I liked were 'Little Boxes' and the Kingston Trio's wickedly cynical 'They're Rioting in Africa.'

Dread of hippie group-gropes and love-ins kept me away from the guitar group's consciousness raising evenings, and thus I remained in contented ignorance of colonial atrocities, Khrushchev's antics, the Arms Race, Cuban missiles, or any other potential threat to western civilization.

No one I knew was voicing concern for persecuted queers. When the government has declared you to be a criminal for the way you were born, you don't feel much responsibility for, or interest in, the machinations of society and the woes of others. If they wanted to annihilate themselves, the sooner the better I reckoned.

Monique, a thoroughly agreeable Canadian lass in the group, taught me French-Canadian songs. We sang in harmony, and on a few sunny Sundays, gambolled on Hampstead Heath with her two flat mates and their boyfriends, traipsed around markets, and tried out Dirty Dick's and other East End pubs, which increased my aversion to beer and drunkenness. As our extremely pleasant relationship had been entirely platonic it didn't seem strange when Monique suggested we share a weekend in Paris.

The quickest and cheapest way to that fabled city was a train from Victoria Station to Gatwick airport, a twenty minute hop in a Vickers Viscount over the channel to Le Bourget, then a fast train to Gare St Lazare. We stayed in Pension Famille on Rue Monge in the Latin Quarter. The room contained a washbasin, a bidet, a double bed and a single bed. After a night at the Opera where La Traviata failed to bring tears to our eyes (probably because I didn't like Chagall's new ceiling and we were a mile high in the 'gods' and could only see half the stage) Monique coyly washed, donned a long flannel nightdress and climbed into the double bed.

I used both hand basin and bidet, which made her giggle, then stood naked at the window to dry off. Directly below amongst the plane trees of a small square, some very handsome young men were circulating. It was a beat and I wished I had the courage to join them. While sadly slipping into my celibate single bed, I wondered a little at the confused and hurt expression on Monique's face before the light was extinguished.

On Saturday she stomped off to Versailles on her own while I wandered the Paris of my dreams. Pavement cafés, tree-lined boulevards, enchanting squares, avenues along which James Baldwin must have strolled, the Deux Magots Café where Sartre and his literary mates drank. La Sainte Chapelle – mind-bogglingly ethereal like being inside a perfect jewel, the quarter where Andre Gide grew up… all confirmed a life-long love affair with Paris.

Agents de Police in their capes and pillbox caps, the architecture, the boulevards, the… everything was heartbreakingly perfect. And it was warm and sunny and two handsome guys winked at me! Truly, my cup overflowed.

We'd arranged to rendezvous that evening in a café in front of the Opéra. Monique mistakenly went to one at the back. Many hours later we met back at the Pension. She was angry at having to wait so long and then find her own way back in the dark. Being a man, and therefore always in the wrong, I graciously apologised, although it was she who mistook the back of the building for the front! And my coffees at the Café de la Paix had cost three times hers! Ensconced on her double bed, she snapped that I had no right to wander round the room naked.

On Sunday morning, we drifted tetchily through the Louvre, but by the time the train arrived back in Victoria we were friends again. I still had no idea why she'd been angry. Edgar laughed till he cried. "The poor girl planned a sexy weekend in Paris and ended up with a queer!"

I did feel rather stupid.

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