A couple of weeks ago I went to see an exhibition at the Drill Hall by the cartoonist, David Shenton.
I first saw Shenton’s cartoons in the weekly gay newspaper Capital Gay back in the early 80’s. They were funny, thought-provoking, depicting a world of check shirt and leather-clad clones. This was back in the days of the Earls Court scene. The Coleherne, Harpoon Louie’s and the Copa were in their hey-day and the Earl’s Court Road was teeming with mustachioed men; shopping, drinking and cruising.
I was living in Earls Court at the time and I remember just popping to the corner shop seeing hookers plying their trade, men parading down the road in leather chaps, arses exposed to the world and a multitude of colour-coded handkerchiefs hanging out of faded 501s. It was like a sexual catwalk. There was so much sexual tension in the air. What Castro Street must have been like in the ‘70s. And it felt really liberating. Like everything was suddenly out in the open – with all these opportunities to meet someone and have sex. Just walking into the back bar of The Coleherne was like stepping into the Frankie Goes To Hollywood Relax video; a sea of predatory eyes and a minefield of sexual possibilities. And no bar in London has ever been able to recreate that feeling. It was of its time.
Fast forward twenty years and the clones are hairier (and bigger), the scene’s moved to Soho and Vauxhall, the Copa’s a pool hall. Harpoon Louie’s a Wagamamma, and The Coleherne has taken to distancing itself from its glorious past by hanging a sign outside telling customers that it’s no longer a gay establishment (in other words ‘gays keep out!). C’est la vie.
In the talk to accompany his exhibition Shenton described the early ‘80s scene and he explained how his cartoons started off as fairly light pieces, but, with the advent of AIDS and Section 28 they became more and more political. And he reminded us of that dark period; the rise in homophobia, the scary tv advertisements, the reaction of the tabloid press and how we were even warned by friends against having sex with Americans.
It was a talk that was, at times, emotional, especially when he recounted a story about losing a friend who died within weeks of catching the virus and I’m sure most of the 30 to 40 gay men could relate to it.
But what was equally moving was seeing his partner at the back of the room watching him speak. I glanced at him a few times. He was smiling, almost crying he was so proud, and there was something profoundly moving about it – that projection of male love across the room.
Two weeks later I’m still thinking about it. It was, for me, the most memorable part of the exhibition.