Remember when toilet rolls weren’t just used for wiping your arse? We do!
Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting a few ‘guest’ blogs from writers, who are either involved with the documentary, or whose works/interests are related: they’ll include some real life experiences, poetry, fiction and other fun stuff.
If you are interested in sharing a story, have an experience you’d like to tell or maybe some cottaging fiction, please do get in touch with Graham.
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I went into the cubicle to take a piss; lingered a bit before leaving. As I washed my hands, I had that impression you get of being watched so turned my head slightly to see a man standing in the cubicle doorway, looking at me. He had his cock out. As he looked, he rubbed it. My first reaction was the thought that I had never seen one so big; my second was of slight discomfort at the intensity of his gaze. My third was an erection.
It seemed like an eternity but eventually I followed him into the cubicle. He closed the door.
A gentleman never tells: suffice to say when I left I wasn’t a virgin. I then walked to school to pick up my GCSE results.
The spring in my step as I walked home wasn’t because of academic success.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t know these things happened: I’d loitered looking at the graffiti and explicit scrawlings. This was my first experience of cottaging – in the States they call it the “tearoom trade” – the act of procuring or having sex in a public toilet.
From then on, I looked for sex in toilets whenever I could. In the mid-90s it was easy and cock available pretty much whenever.
Not all sex happened in the cottage itself. Toilet walls were messaging boards of interests, times and phone numbers. Sometimes you’d find a secluded spot elsewhere with a guy you’d met in a cottage. But for me nothing beat sex in the cottage itself. Risky – the local bus drivers patrolled the toilets – but I wasn’t exactly thinking with my head. Who wouldn’t take a few risks for an easy fuck? That was its appeal: the lack of emotional involvement, of ulterior motivation: its honesty. Sex for sex’s sake. Nothing else.
I soon became adept at spotting cottaging “rituals” – the sideways glance from the guy at the urinal as you walked in, how he felt his cock as you stood next to him, that he wasn’t even pissing. The tapping of a foot under the cubicle door was a known sign. I could devote a whole article to glory holes. Some people say they used to take a shopping bag for a second pair of feet to stand in to avoid detection by police looking under cubicle doors. I never saw that but I did pass messages written on toilet roll between cubicles. But mostly it was that look held for just a few seconds too long. Then you knew.
It gained me my best friend at university. His first words to me were, “I have a place.” That afternoon I rimmed him for hours in his room, only stopping when his girlfriend knocked on the door.
We became lovers, then cottaging friends. Sometimes we would go away for the weekend, pay for a night in a gay sauna and cottage by day. Every town had a cottage. You could spot it by the graffiti or just instinct. Bethnal Green, Hyde Park, Carnaby Street: I’ve sucked, rimmed, fucked, been fucked, or more in all of them. We judged success by whether we got our trade figures into double figures. (Wanking off someone at the cubicle didn’t count.) “Trade” was sex. As I said, nothing emotional. Just cock.
Gay men don’t have a tradition of handing down their history. No father shows his son the spot where actor John Gielgud was arrested, or says, “One day, my lad, you’ll grow up to be just like Joe Orton.” My mum’s take on George Michael’s arrest wasn’t exactly inspiring.
All three are cottagers, of course.
Gielgud was arrested in 1952, entrapped by a “pretty policeman”. It landed him in court and the Evening Standard. The surprising sympathy for him indirectly led to The Wolfenden Report, which recommended homosexuality’s decriminalisation. Orton was a playwright, murdered by his lover in 1967. His diaries chronicle his rampant libido and cottaging. They are probably the most honest account of gay sex at the time. For some, Orton’s death was a crude morality tale. For a lot of gay men he was inspirational.
George Michael needs no introduction.
It is difficult now to appreciate how different things were. Toilets were often the only place where men could meet other men. Older gay men have told me about orgies in the cottages near their local gay pubs. How they always carried a tub of Vaseline on them. How a dozen men could be arrested at any one time by overtly homophobic police.
Times have changed. But the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has estimated that between the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 gay or bisexual men were convicted for cottaging offences. That was probably why I started to make a documentary about cottaging. Someone needed to make a record.
I have a theory that most gay men have a defining cottaging story. That experience which explains why. Mine happened when I was studying for my first-year exams. On my way home from the library – a wreck, kept awake only by caffeine and nerves – I stopped off in a cottage to take a piss. Habit took me to the cubicle. As I left, the most stunning man – ripped, tattooed, chiselled jaw – passed me, grabbed my hand and dragged me back into the cubicle. Within seconds he had thrown my glasses off and my shirt as he stuck his tongue down my throat. He pushed me to the floor and shoved his cock down my throat to face-fuck me. The intensity was extreme. He fucked me there until he shot his load. He said nothing until, “You’re awesome.” He left and I never saw him again.
The toilet where I met James had been demolished and turned into a shopping centre; councils had installed “anti-cottaging measures” and CCTV, and some – the best ones – simply closed. As one old gay said to me, he felt like a survivor in a nuclear winter. Okay, it still happens: not all towns have a scene, some men are still too afraid to come out but cottaging is no longer acceptable. And it was. Sort of. Cottaging was as unobjectionable as having a Gaydar or Grindr account is now: not everyone has an account, you might not admit your profile name, but there’s nothing wrong with having one.
The internet has had some influence but isn’t the full story. At some point the gay community lost its confidence and romanticism. These days so many of my friends have two Gaydar accounts: one for looking for a relationship, the other for when they’re horny. Tuesday night they sit in with a bottle of poppers and wank off with some twink. On Wednesday, they go around to their boyfriend’s to cook linguine and pesto. Our aims have changed.
Maybe hypocrisy is an inevitable sign of maturity. The gay community grew up and became respectable. Or appeared to. What changed? The 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis gave rise to massive homophobia, a moral crisis and Clause 28, the law that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. The gay community was on the back foot. In response, the new gay movement placed an emphasis on easy issues of identity, such as equalising the age of consent, and we became willing subscribers. Radicalism, perhaps naive, eventually withered. Whereas once we gave a two-finger salute to straight society, now we wanted to be just like them. Being accepted meant compromising and becoming compromised. The victim was the cottage.
And fuck, man, do I miss it.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks: “this blog is not connected with gay “cottaging” or other sexual connotation associated with public conveniences.”
This week we interviewed Dr Matt Cook, Senior Lecturer in History and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College. Matt is one of those people (surely) whom it is necessary to interview for a subject like cottaging so it’s a good job that he’s a fluent interviewee (makes my job much easier). He is also the first person we have interviewed who can shed some light onto the origins of cottaging, public sex and what it was like pre-20th Century to be a gay man.
One thing struck me that while there are many, many obvious differences between now and then - technology, decriminalisation, greater acceptance of homosexuality etc. - but there are also similarities. It was during this time that the West End and Soho grew as a commercial or entertainment areas with shops and businesses next to cottages, rent boys and prostitutes. Not so different to today really.
And there is another similarity: the press. I guess with the Leveson Inquiry it is tempting to think of press intrusion into people’s lives and readers’ interest in scandal as a new thing. Alas it was ever thus. Of course then most people would not have had any friends or known anyone who was openly gay and most of their knowledge with the subject would have been linked with reports of offences in the press so these reports in the press were one of the ways that gay men found out about cottaging and soon they learned that certain cottages were known for different sorts of ‘trade’, as it were.
A lot of our interview was concerned with changing public attitudes to public sex and homosexuality as well as the change of the terms of reference of the debate. The other point I am dwelling on at the moment which was implicit in Matt’s interview is that complexity is not vice. Very often we talk in general terms but usually things are a lot more complicated than generalisations can portray.
Matt related a story of a gay man from Yorkshire, a coal miner who was caught cottaging and convicted. Now so often such a conviction could lead to divorce, humiliation, loss of a job, rejection by friends but not in this case…
STORIES REQUIRED FOR DOCUMENTARY
Every gay man has a cottaging story, don’t they?
So we’re now looking to put together an oral history of people’s cottaging stories. So whatever age you are, wherever you grew up, whether you used to cottage regularly or went just once, if have a story you wish we would record and use either in our documentary or in some of the extra material, email me firstname.lastname@example.org
It doesn’t matter if your story is funny or sad but I think its important to get as many perspectives as possible on what cottaging was like - the risks, the thrills etc - what you remember about it (someone was telling me recently that he remembers the dried spunk on the walls!) why you enjoyed it…
We’ll use voice actors to record your stories if you like and, of course, respect your anonymity.
I’m writing mine now…
This week we went off to Central Station near King’s Cross Station not for the reasons most would but to interview Chris Ashord of Sunderland University about cottaging, the law and many other things. We have been in contact for a number of months he kindly made the trip down to London especially for the interview. Over a number of hours we talked to lots and lots of thing in what was an extremely wideranging and interesting interview. From glory holes in Melbourne sex clubs to the Sexual Offences Acts (2003). We also talk about the definitions of what constitutes a public space (your bedroom, a urinal in a cottage, a locked cubicle, a park, you get the idea) and the law punishing people for consensual acts (a recurring theme). There are a number of points he brought up that I think are worth dwelling on here. First, and perhaps significantly for our documentary, the distinction between sex and sexual identiy. One of the truisms of politics has been that the last Labour government had a postive impact on gay rights in this country with the abolition of Section 28, lowering the age of consent and the introduction of civil partnerships. All true and all fine. But on the reverse side of the coin they were not so “progressive” (Nota bene Sexual Offences Act). The second is the image driven, commercial nature of the gay community. I think to some extend we just shrug our shoulrders and say that it was ever thus. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is perhaps undeniable is that the internet (with the ubiquitous Gaydar and Grindr) has increased this. We haven’t yet had a chance to review and edit the footage but we’ll try to put some clips of it as we do so. Also it is worth saying that he is an extremely nice guy and enjoyable company! You can see his blog here.