Travel
4 min

Laid over in London, for one night only

Traveller recounts a meandering overnight stop, from overwhelming history to scandalous fun

LAID-BACK LADS. Locals lounge at Soho's Freedom Cafe. Credit: (Ingrid Rasmussen/Visit London)

A recent trip had me heading halfway around the world, stopping in places I’d only ever dreamt of. Not wanting to view them from a window rushing to the next flight, I scheduled layovers, planning guerilla tourist attacks, little more than a cocktease.

Last-minute revisions left me in Heathrow airport at 10:30 on a Sunday evening, shocked there’s nowhere to smoke in a country I thought would never succumb. London brought a culture shock, instantly stupefying. From mental conversions when each bill was settled to the lack of anything glimpsed on Coronation Street, a skewed reflection of similarities to home, lacking in the differences I expected there to be.

I left the airport via train to famed Paddington Station, slowly catching on that everywhere in London is famous to some extent. I rejected the idea of transportation. Having only the night and morning to explore, I walked. I walked everywhere, stopping for vague directions, casually surprised by where my feet lead me.

A history aficionado, I was washed away by it, every signpost fluttering recognition to numerous literary works — a childish giggle at Paddington, who shares its name with the courteous bear from darkest Peru, or chills in the shade of Whitechapel.

London is smothered in history, so overwhelmed by the burden, collapsing in decay. Old buildings with cobblestone alleys like film noir snapshots, eroding, to remind us of the eventual fate of empires, a collection of landmarks. But as a metropolis it thrives, with vague attempts made to patch things up via random slaps of modern — high-tech metal plating on ancient stone buildings, cottage-like buildings rebuilt to support monuments to satellite television.

It feels like Londoners resent the press of their own history. Not to say they’re unfriendly, or unnerved by a tourist in heat with beeping camera, but rather they’re genuinely tired by the sheer mass of tourism, bored with the swell around them.

Wandering around London at the end of a weekend in salute to St Patrick I was caught by the general forwardness of men on a bender — drunkenness the universal gay element — jostled, cruised and groped in all the usual ways. I blundered aimlessly, excited by the West End theatre district and the suspicion I may be close to something resembling boys town. I paused briefly to watch an impromptu Irish jig that was threatening to grow unruly before it was ended by endless police roaming the streets. My meandering trek took in the sheer size of it, confirming suspicions born of my Triga porn collection — gays of London are more diverse then I could comprehend, and therefore spread across greater areas.

I was beginning to suspect I’d find no sign of organized gay life in London at all when a young Romanian bloke goosed my ass on a street that looked like all the others — a few clubs, few bars, café or two. I asked if there was a boys town around here; he smiled. “‘Is it, yeah, Soho.” I’m a sucker for accents.

A brief look over my shoulder found nothing that suggested a gay district, which surprised me, having rather high expectations from the well-hyped sexual frankness of Brits. We talk a bit, the obligatory tourist probe — where from, where going, why — and would I like to spend the night with him for a hundred pounds. He is perhaps the most charming, silky smooth hustler I’ve met in my life.

Cruising the curb of Soho’s gay town I tried to get a bearing of the land. I helped a prim English tranny debate the inappropriate touching of a straight St Patty’s reveller well past the point of drunkenness where anything goes. There were three more charming conversations with men who’d melt ice with a glance, all costing somewhere between 200 and 1,000 pounds a night. In retrospect the one who cost 1,000 would have been well worth the expense if I were someone with money to blow on such an extravagance.

In a club conveniently labelled “GAY,” but referred to mostly as just “the club” by everyone I asked (including the doormen), I discovered the regular mix of house and circuit, with a subtle tweak that may be something new on the rise, or just something off. Dancing with another handful of escorts I wondered if this was boys town in the most traditional sense before escaping to a café next-door that in Toronto would be three neighbourhoods away it was so different in tone and décor.

Here I discovered London’s equivalents to Xtra and rivals, highlighting a diversity I was only to skim. Each was vastly different in tone, with Beige targeting upperclass gentlemen of wealth, QX giving all the dirt upfront, without modesty, and even its brother QXMEN, glossy porn laid-out genteelly with the others. I became vaguely regretful that I hadn’t planned a trip to London’s gaybourhood in more detail. Clearly it would be impossible to target its core.

Nearing morning I walked with a young man fresh from bar-back detail. Pleasantly not advertising his going rate, he showed me the public showers at Paddington Station after I rebuked offers to freshen up at his place, not wanting to be thrown off my tour. After deciding the showers are too public, he escorted me to the Pleasuredome bathhouse in Waterloo, best known as the only bathhouse in London to advertise with a billboard. Inside for a quick shower I encountered another bias upside down — a staff of Eastern Europeans, expected prejudicially to speak full English, tripped over their words instead, each new to London — a reminder of how little my world is back home.

A tour shows more differences; everyone gets a locker, a few rooms rented by the hour, others complete free-for-alls, and all the showers need to be held in to keep running, to endless frustration. In the morning I tried a stale breakfast spread, while flirting with a small cluster of London boys in the usual states of bathhouse debauchery.

As the sun settled overhead, illuminating the clouds in grey radiance, I hustled back to Paddington for a train south into Cardiff for a visit with Doctor Who. I was left perplexed by the sights of London, then lulled by those outside the train window — rolling hills of farms and cottages, the roots of countless recreations in Canada, faded traces of our history settling all around.