Having now settled into London, I yearned to get across the Channel to explore worlds I imagined filled with deep history, fabulous art, good food and handsome men.
This post will look at my first forays to Europe. As usual, I’ll be including many photos and other bits and pieces – which you know I have. Any resemblance between this post and the slideshows (with real slides) that I made my friends sit through using this projector is completely coincidental! This projector, which is still functional, was given to me as a Christmas 1974 present from my boyfriend at the time, Garry, whom I wrote about here.
LONDON – Summer 1967
I was lucky, though, to already have had my first visit to Europe when I was a young 17. My very generous and wonderful grandmother, who had moved to London because my step-grandfather, a proud Scot/Canadian had been transferred there, kindly paid the airfare and hosted my cousin, John, and I for a three week trip.
I felt so sophisticated ordering a glass of wine on the British Eagle flight to London chartered by the Royal Overseas League. A stopover in Gander, Newfoundland, for refueling, was still necessary in those days. That certainly added to the glamour as we mingled in the Passenger Lounge with people from many flights to all parts of Europe. I bought a souvenir, of course.
Into the West End
My grandmother, whom we called “Gum” (because I, as the oldest of her grandchildren had mangled “gran” as a toddler and the mistake stuck) took us by the Underground into town from way out on the Metropolitan Line. But after that first day, she let us go on our own and we could not have been more excited independently scouting out the tourist spots of London and making the most of every minute.
Since these were the years of Swinging London, we headed to the oh-so-trendy Carnaby Street. I wore my paisley shirt for the occasion. We’re at the bottom of the photo below. I wish I had been a better photographer at the time – or had had a better camera!
Given that I was infected with the excitement of being there, I bought a deep purple V-neck mohair sweater for an expensive £5-5-0 (five pounds, five shillings) at John Stephen’s – the “King of Carnaby Street”. I still have that sweater and I can model it for anyone who asks.
In one of the shops, my eyes were diverted by this “Swimwear/Underwear” leaflet. In those days, homoerotic images were virtually impossible to find so I must have swooned when I glanced at it. Even though I wasn’t out to myself at that time, much less to anyone else, I still grabbed it and quickly snuck it into my bag to enjoy privately later.
My cousin and I explored many of the well-travelled attractions in London, including a night out in the West End to see “Oliver”. Here’s the evidence of that and more.
Out of London
Travelling out of the city, we got to Stratford, Guildford with its “new” cathedral, Windsor, and Greenwich.
What was meant to be a highlight was going to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. My grandparents put much effort into arranging this spectacle for us but it didn’t hold much appeal for me. Too hot and noisy with whiffs of diesel fumes. And no photos either! Except for this poster that I just now downloaded.
A bigger highlight was our excursion to Bristol where the Scottish relatives of my step grandfather, the Chapman’s, lived. We were well feted by this hospitable family.
And then there was a day trip to France! John and I boarded a coach in central London at 7am to get us to Dover for the ferry to Calais and further onto Boulogne and Le Touquet by coach. For naive 17 year olds from Canada, this long day was thrilling and we got to use our high school French.
Keeping Trips in My Heart and in My Mind
Reflecting on this trip – for the first time in over 50 years – I realize that many of the travel habits that I still have began with this trip. That included keeping leaflets, ticket stubs and maps, writing a diary, ticking off the sites I visited in multiple guidebooks and, of course, taking photos.
What was the reason I engaged in this obsessive collecting and recording? What was behind this fascination – or what some might call perversion – to keep all these bits and pieces?
I think the simple answer is that I loved travelling and exploring and I felt that the best way to keep these experiences in my heart and in my mind for as long as possible was to collect these souvenirs and keep them tucked away in envelopes and slide trays.
I didn’t trust my own memories of the experience to be enough. At some unconscious level, I must have thought that if I didn’t keep some tangible records and memorabilia, then somehow the experience would be less precious and might even disappear. That habit has stuck to the present day – although I’m a bit less obsessive about it now!
That’s my rational and I’m sticking with it. Little did I know that my obsessive “perversion” of collecting and keeping the past with me would allow me five decades later to add depth and colour to, these, my written memoirs.
Letters Back and Forth
On top of this touring and collecting, I would find time on all my travels to write to friends and family back home – another lifelong habit. It would always involve having to buy the postcards and then lining up at local post offices to obtain the right stamps with the local currency. Labour-intensive. The internet, of course, reduced those chores immensely.
Amongst my mementoes from this trip to London I found a page of 18 names and addresses. Tick marks beside names indicate that I did write to them all – and to some, even twice. Many of them replied to me at my grandmother’s. How do I know? I still have their replies! I’ll tell you another time about the 1000+ letters I still have that I have received over the decades.
PARIS – February 1974
My first “proper” trip to the Continent was a long weekend with the delightful big hair Bill. I had originally met Bill in Brisbane the year before and, like many of his fellow Australians, he was spending time in London surveying the scene. We hooked up again and one of us must have said “Let’s go to Paris”.
We boarded a chilly coach at 9 am and spent all day travelling to Paris by coach, hovercraft and train, heading home two days later. So really just one full day there trying to see a few sights. But it was enough to get a sense of the pull and power and smell of the city.
We made sure we had enough time to, at night, cruise into a few bars on rue Ste-Anne, the gay area of Paris at the time in the First Arrondissement. That included staying up late at the dark, small and certainly glamorous to us, Le Sept, with its little piste de dance in the sous-sol. Squeezed up against fashionably dressed, writhing and cigarette smoke-soaked Parisians was certainly memorable.
A café au lait at the famous and also smoky Café Flore on the Left Bank was a must-do as well.
For me, as a transportation junkie, one of the intriguing memories of that journey was boarding a modern hovercraft at Dover to speed us across the Channel to Calais. Touted to be faster than the ferry, it was Very Chic, although also Very Loud. Like an airplane, we had to stay in our seats and we travelled on a cushion of air over the water and and landed on a beach, not a dock. The hovercrafts worked that route from 1966 to 2000, I just now learned, before being replaced by the Chunnel and even faster catamarans.
VIENNA – August 1974
The next plunge into the Continent was to Vienna a few months later. In a previous post, I mentioned this trip where I went to take a beginner’s course in spoken German at Universität Wien. Why? Because it gave me an excuse to travel into the heart of Europe and a grounding in a new language. That training paid off when I ended up living in Germany for three years from 1978 to 1981.
I don’t have any diary entries for this adventure but, as is my wont, I did find a large envelope full of maps, ticket stubs, guide books and addresses. From that, I learned that for my three weeks, I paid £95 for tuition, accommodation, some meals and a return flight to Vienna. I probably thought that was expensive.
We had German classes in the morning, leaving afternoons, evenings and nights free to scout out Vienna’s dense historical city centre and parks, the museums and the gay scene. Did I have any mini love affairs while I was there? I don’t remember but cruising the Rathauspark at night does come to mind.
I must not have had my camera with me because the only photo I do have from this trip is this one which I bought off of one of those photographers from our program. He snapped us getting off a boat tour of the Danube on a very sweltering day on an excursion to the sparkling Budapest – my first visit behind the “Iron Curtain”. You can spot my 24 year old hairy chest before shaving became a thing.
SCOTLAND – December 1974
I know it’s strange to include Scotland in this post on Travels in Europe, but bear with me. It was at least out of England and lots happened.
One impulse for the trip to Scotland was to attend the first ever International Gay Rights Congress which was organized by the Scottish Minorities Group. About 400 delegates from mainly Europe, Australia and North America turned up to share and discover the social, political and legal situation for gay men and lesbians in each other’s countries. I certainly remember being exhilarated by the presence of so many activists from different parts of the UK and far beyond. We sensed that we were part of some big changes coming.
As I had dipped my toes into a Gay Marxist reading group in London, I was particularly interested in the workshop session on “Homosexuality and Revolutionary Politics” with its intention of “forging links between individuals and groups who think that gay liberation goes beyond reformism and legislative manoeuvres.” Sign me up, I thought. More on my political thinking at the time in a future post.
The conference included (as all queer conferences do) lots of drinking and a disco. The final song was John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. We all embraced, feeling euphoric that it would only be a matter of a few years before we would be able to bring sexual liberation to, if not the whole world, at least our part of it. Boy, did we have much to learn.
I have subsequently discovered that this conference eventually led to the creation of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) in 1978 which still exists. Its name now is still ILGA, but is more inclusive: ILGA World – the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. ILGA has played a pivotal role in getting LGBTQ+ equality recognised as a human rights issue in international forums such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
Peter and Andrew
I drove up to Edinburgh with my new London friends Peter and his partner, the writer Andrew Hodges.
Peter and I had just recently met at the King William IV gay pub in Hampstead, London. Afterwards, he took me to my first ever outing to the gay cruising section on nearby Hampstead Heath which was teeming with men enjoying nature and each other. It was the perfect initiation. I would return many times over the following years on both hot summer nights and cold December evenings.
I’m thinking that Andrew Hodges might have been at the conference to speak about his new booklet that he had just published, with his friend David Hutter – the highly influential “With Downcast Gays”.
Firmly rooted in the ideology of the Gay Liberation Front, the pamphlet’s premise was that we, as gays, are basically our own worst enemies. Sure, we can talk about how much the “establishment” oppresses us, but we spend too much of our lives oppressing ourselves, Andrew and David claimed, thereby “allowing homosexual oppression to maintain its overwhelming success”. This was written well before the term “internalized homophobia” that we use today, came into broad usage and it opened our eyes to the importance of Coming Out as a weapon in our struggles for equality and acceptance. A landmark piece of writing.
North to a Farm in Kirkbuddo, County Angus
I bade farewell to Peter and Andrew and headed north by train for the next part of my Scottish adventure which certainly had a very different pace and feel in comparison to the buzzy conference in Edinburgh.
I had probably told my Scottish teacher colleague and friend, Bob (whom I introduced you to in my “Off to Classes” post) that I was heading up to this conference. Since he would be at his family farm for the holidays near Dundee, he kindly extended an invitation to me to spend a few days with him and his family after the conference and before Christmas.
Bob had been brought up on this large and successful cattle farm along with his brother, farming parents and various farmhands. All were hardworking during the week and, on Sundays, dedicated worshippers at the local Calvinist-inspired Church of Scotland.
After arriving, Bob took me for a walk around the farm and showed me the extensive fields and explained what chores had been his to do as a young lad growing up there. The farm even used to have its own railway station before that line was closed down in the 50s. I relished the opportunity to be shown around this completely different world.
Bob also took me to see Dundee, the closest city, and further on to the University of St. Andrews where he had taken his first degree and also had had his first feelings of the possibility of a different life for himself away from the farm.
During his teenage years and probably because of his burgeoning homosexual longings, Bob started pulling away from both religion and farming. After graduating and spending several years as a VSO teacher in Tanzania, he eventually ended up in London as out and proud gay man teaching at Loughton College. I met him there when I turned up to do my teaching practice.
The act of inviting a gay friend at Christmas for the first time into his family home was a quite brave one for Bob – especially since he himself had only recently come out. Everyone was very polite to me and I was treated with warm Scottish hospitality. Having said that, I did notice some tension that may have been because of my presence, not only a stranger in the home, but Canadian – and gay! Or maybe tension was frequent when Bob came back to his roots, given his new ideas and new ways, which were quite different from those in his family.
Bob, still a friend, has written extensively about his life growing up on the farm and about the changing dynamics with his family over time in his soon to be published memoirs.
Into the Highlands
My travels in Scotland did not end here. Once I was this far north, I wanted to keep going and I headed into the Highlands. I got back on the train and spent a night in Aberdeen (where I did find an – almost empty – gay bar) and another day and night in Inverness where I walked and walked in the cold, damp air.
At this point, I headed back south. Instead of taking the train, I decided to take a coach because I knew that it would take me by Loch Ness where the famous monster resided. No sighting of that monster but I did enjoy the stupendous views through the Highlands to Fort William. From there, I boarded the West Highland Line train for more breathtaking vistas via Loch Lomond into Glasgow. There, I switched to a fast train back home to London, my Garry and Christmas parties.
AMSTERDAM – Dec 1975 to Jan 1976
According to a calendar I still have, I spent from December 27, 1975 until January 1 in Amsterdam – my first visit ever to this gay capital of Europe. That’s quite a few days and it includes New Year’s Eve. The city was much more compact in comparison to Paris and the canals with their chugging barges were awe-inspiring.
With these ticket stubs I still have, I can reconstruct some of the things I got up to. Of course, as usual, I ticked off the big tourist sites.
I imagine my first outing would have been to the Anne Frank Huis. My high school had put on the “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1968. I had played Peter van Daan, Anne’s love interest, so I wanted to go to the home where it all had originally taken place.
Climbing up those stairs to the attic gave me chills as I thought of the years those Jewish families had spent hiding until they were exposed and taken away to concentration camps and their deaths.
We know Anne’s father survived and brought his daughter’s diary to the attention of the world allowing us to learn about survival in cramped conditions with limited resources and also the challenges of a bright girl’s transition to adulthood. I made a pilgrimage to this house on several trips to the city.
C.O.C. (Cultuur- en Ontspanningscentrum)
I had heard about C.O.C. (Culture and Relaxation Centre) and how it is the oldest still existing gay and lesbian organization in the world, having been set up in 1946. Quoting from Wikipedia, “The goals of the C.O.C. were twofold: they wanted to contribute to social emancipation, and also wanted to offer culture and recreation for gay men and lesbian women.” Given my Gay Liberation background, I had certainly had to go to their centre and it was full of useful information. I bought this membership ticket to get into their “bar-dancing” club called “De Schakel” which had existed in various locations since the 40s. So I got culture and relaxation.
I didn’t take many photos on this trip but here is one of a guy I met – maybe at the C.O.C. Probably another visitor to the city. Don’t remember much about him but I think you’d agree that he’s posing rather playfully.
Wim and Apeldoorn
I do remember much more about Wim from the Netherlands. I had met the very friendly Wim two years earlier on my first day in London at the Kensington Youth Hostel and he was my first sexual encounter in that city. I assume that one of the reasons for me to come to A’dam would have been to see Wim again and so I took the train to Apeldoorn to reunite with him.
Wim welcomed me with open arms and graciously took me all over town, including to the nearby Het Loo Palace which had been the summer palace of the royal family of the Netherlands. Apeldoorn had a strong affection for Canada because Canadian soldiers played a major role in liberating the town from the Nazis in April 1945. We toured the related memorials and cemeteries.
When I saw Wim again a few years later in Amsterdam, he had changed. He was one of the first gay men I knew who had “butched up”, as you can see from this photo.
We kept in touch for many years, writing and visiting each other. He told me that he had been spending more time in the USA with gay friends. I learned that he moved into quite a heavy leather scene there. At some point in the late 80s, he told me that he had contracted HIV. He continued to live actively and healthily until we lost touch sometime in the 2000s. I feared the worst.
But, since I was writing about him here on this website, I wanted to let him know, so I again tried to contact him, using an old email address of his. And, much to my surprise and delight, he answered! He told me that, as a long term HIV survivor, he’s doing very well and still living in Apeldoorn albeit a quieter life now tending to his garden. I was thrilled to learn that he’s happy to be remembered by me as my “first” in London! Here’s a toast to life and to being reconnected.
This post has certainly gone on long enough so I’ll stop now. At some point, I will talk about my later forays to southern Europe with its Mediterranean men and nudist beaches – and, as always, its deep history, fabulous art and good food. I’ll leave you with photos of me on rocky gay beaches on the Mediterranean on the island of Capri and just outside Athens.