Sunday, 10 August 2008

Are you gay?

For once I'm not going to throw you in at the deep end at the start of this. I could - it would be easy. I could describe myself walking through Clapton at four in the morning in white jeans with a handlebar moustache, whilst gurning East London revellers look on disgustedly and contemplate the best way to duff me up. But no, that would be too easy. I want to tell you the story from the beginning.

I'm not much of a fan of fancy dress. And if they were honest I think most people apart from possibly Jonathan Ross would say that - all the effort, the expense and the looking like a twat for several hours. Where in fact is the upside? So when one of my oldest friends announced he was celebrating his 10 year wedding anniversary with a FD party, my heart sank. Michael and Jo whose party it was, are music industry movers and shakers, Jo, whilst being a mother of two girls older than my own, manages to hold down a senior legal position at a major publisher and Michael, well, he's the daddy in many ways - a record company MD and a consummate arbiter of taste - someone who finds time to visit the Richard Prince exhibition at the Serpentine, do a pencil sketch of whoever he's sitting opposite as well as know the crucial difference between between signing Joe Jean & the Jing Jang Jong and The Ting Tings. He's come on a long way from the days when he would eat my cheese from the shared fridge in our poky flat.

The party was being co-hosted by another friend (a successful band manager, as it goes), who, Michael claimed to me, was the one who had suggested making it fancy dress. "Mate, it wasn't my idea!" Hmm ... I'm not so sure; Michael has always liked dressing up - even at Manchester University where we met, he would frequently emerge from his room in Owens Park dressed like a Russian military officer. Although, come to think of it, it was the 80s; most people dressed like that back then.

The theme of the party was "Music and Movie Stars." Even worse! I mean, if it had been tarts and vicars or school uniform there would have been some sort of democracy at work - we all would have had the upside of being someone else for the night but there wouldn't have been the status thing at play. Without doubt it's the status thing that is the real evil of FD parties. People are immediately split into two camps: those who can afford to splash out and get a costume that makes them look exactly like who they want to be and the rest of us, who have to improvise, and inevitably end up spending the evening getting the question: "So who are you supposed to be?"

And despite this being a genuine private party, because of the status of the hosts and their perceived power and influence in the music biz, I heard several people openly planning to schmooze - "oh it'll be a great opportunity, everyone will be there... " or "you know frankly, I could do with a night in but I think it'll be good for business if I'm seen there so I'm going" Urgh! Awful. I had no intention of treating it as an extension of the music industry calendar - South By South West, Glastonbury, Michael's Fancy Dress Party, Reading, In The City ... I just wanted to see Michael and a load of our mutual friends who would be coming. But would they be coming in fancy dress?

I asked our mate Andy if he was going in FD. "Do I look like a complete c**t?" was his reply. I shouldn't have expected anything less. Others seemed unsure. Most of them, given the current belt-tightening world we're living in, were stressed out by the idea of costume hire. Some, for whom time is more pressing than money, were annoyed at the hours that had to be spent in thinking of who to go as "How much spare time does he think we've got?" As the day loomed, I became increasingly stressed. I had no idea who to go as and all the suggestions and ideas seemed to involve wigs - I imagine this must happen a lot to bald men before FD parties - "How about going as Ozzy or Robert Plant? What about Alice Cooper?"I didn't want to spend a fragrant August evening sweating under nylon heavy metal hair. "What about going as Britney when she shaved all her hair off?" suggested my friend Alex. Cheers.

"What about putting a plastic whale around you and going as Moby?"
This was the suggestion from my hairdresser mate, David, as he gave me a trim on the Friday afternoon. In many ways it was the final straw - at this point I knew that no one was going to help me come up with an idea - I was on my own. I exited his salon and wandered over to Fopp to cheer myself up. Of course, my visits to Fopp, as I've described before, always have the dual effect of cheering me up when I find an album I want for £5 or less, but depressing the hell out of me that the record industry is dying and everything is being flogged off. This time though, I realised that just over the road from Fopp is Angels, the fancy dress hire place.

I went in, mainly to wallow in my own lack of money and ideas. The professional costume hire section had just closed for the week so I went upstairs to the fancy dress shop. This is the runt end of Angels, more of a glorified joke shop compared to the costume hire business which supplies the film and TV world. I flicked through a book of costumes which were all trying to ape famous film roles without incurring a copyright fee (samples include an Austin Powers one called 'Groovy', a yellow Ali G one called 'B-Boy' and a muzzle hat Hannibal Lector one called 'Schizo', which I'm sure Rethink would have something to say about) None of them cost less than £50. Bollocks to it, I thought, I've got a Beatles wig at home left over from an old FD party I went to when I worked at AOL, I'll be George again.

But just I was about to go back downstairs and drown my sorrows in Fopp, I saw it. Hang on, hang on... I could put that on and ...yes! It was perfect. And only £4.99. Brilliant!

It was called a 'Leather Look Biker's Hat with chain' and after I found it, things snowballed. I found a set of 'Vicar's teeth' for £1.50 in a shop in Chingford, a string vest and a studded bracelet and a black kohl pencil in Walthamstow market each costing £2 - everything costs two quid here, aside from bananas which are, of course, "a pairned a bowl!" Upstairs in my cupboard I found a pair of white Levis with a 30inch waist but miraculously I could still get into. In fact, their being so tight only added to the effect. I completed the costume, then went round to our next door neighbours to see what they thought. "Christ, Ben, you're going to pull in that," said Mandy. I think she was taking the piss. "Daddy, you look silly," said Maddy. Goal!

I wasn't going to travel on public transport in costume so I brought my kohl pencil with me. And in a pub in Borough, having lent my friend Saul the Beatles wig and helped Alex put on her Mick Hucknell outfit, I went to the Gents. Ignoring the smell of wee and the constant man traffic going past me, I balanced a copy of the sleeve of their Greatest Hits on the sink and using my kohl pencil applied my big moustache. Finally I emerged, out of the closet as it were, as Sir Freddie of Mercury!

As we crossed the plank to the boat where the party was taking place, I realised that the appeal of FD parties is that once you've got over the psychological hurdle of being someone else and accepting that you're there to be laughed at, it's brilliant. All the curmudgeonly stuff I mentioned earlier about status and expense and stress went overboard as I strutted my stuff as Freddie. At the party we bumped into the cast of Gone With The Wind, various Marilyns, an Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, someone who had painted their whole head blue like Iggle Piggle who turned out to be a member of Franz Ferdinand, and a balding man who had simply put blue make up over his eyes Stipe-style. I had had and dismissed this idea and I felt rather smug mincing past him with my 'tache and leather cap. Michael and Jo looked amazing as Anthony & Cleopatra - it was clear that Michael had harboured desires to get with a breastplate and plumage for a while, as it was a look he seemed suspiciously comfortable with. Something people were beginning to say about me too. "Ben," said my friend Emma, who was one quarter of Abba, "you look disgusting!" I took this as a compliment. Charlie from our management company was part of the Abba line-up but he'd forgotten to do the beard "I could be anybody'" he moaned, "I could be Kenny Loggins..." Saul, in the Beatles wig got bizarrely mistaken for Elton John and my press guy Steve, was wearing full Luftwaffe gear. Well, someone had to. Everyone wondered why Alex, who works for Mick Hucknell, had dressed as him. True to form, my friend Andy came as himself - a cynical press officer. "I always knew you'd bottle it and come in fancy dress." he told me at the bar. There were quite a few folk who hadn't bothered dressing up, and I realised that the main reason I had was so I wouldn't stand out. Having said that, I seem to recall being on the dancefloor most of the night, throwing shapes in character. So much for blending in.

I bumped into Alex James, who I hadn't seen since I worked for him - since then he's became a dad, a writer, a media darling and cheese whore so it was kind of fitting that our reunion of sorts had him dressed relatively normally (he claimed to have come as Sebastian Flyte from Brideshead Revisted - plus ca change) and me as gay as the 1890s. At Michael's wedding where I had been best man, Alex and I had come back to Clerkenwell where Michael lived at the time, blagged the last of his wedding champagne, gone to Turnmills and danced with our tops off until it closed. Now I was drunk, but he was sober. We chatted, while that I fumbled about for 10 minutes trying to store his number on my mobile. By the time I had managed it he'd gone back to the country.

Eventually it was time to go home. I think I may have been last to leave, such a good time I'd been having. For some reason, possibly financially motivated as I had spent all of my float behind the 'free' bar, I decided to get a nightbus back to Walthamstow. I sat inconspicuously on the bottom deck, with my leather-look cap safely hidden in my bag and a cleverly prepared blue jumper covering my string vest. It was only when I caught sight of the handlebar mustachioed queen in the window that I realised I wasn't quite blending in as planned.

The bus, of course, was going nowhere near E17 and I got turfed off outside Homerton Hospital in Hackney. I stood at the bus stop hiccuping whilst trying to the read three timetables simultaneously (I think there may have only been one). Suddenly, I heard an accented voice in my right ear: "Are you drunk?" I turned round and tried to focus on the well-dressed Pakistani man standing there. I smiled apologetically," Ishit that obvioush?" He smiled back. Then a pause. "Are you gay?" I don't remember feeling particularly alarmed at this point. Mind you, if the cast of Lord of The Rings had emerged out of Homerton's A&E doors I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. "No, sorry, mate, I'm in fanshee dress..." As quick as you like, he turned on his heel and departed round the corner. Oh well. I started walking to where I knew I could get a bus back - unfortunately I had to go through one of London's most dangerous quarter's, Clapton. I made it though, always keeping the beacon of Thistlethwaite Road as a talisman: bang in the middle of all the scary nightclubs and dangerous kebaberies and just up from Clapton Pond is the road where Harold Pinter grew up.

At the top of Lee Bridge Road, I stopped and waited. It didn't take long for the bus to come. I thought about the well dressed man outside the last bus stop. I felt a bit sorry for him, he was so polite and everything. I hope he found someone in the end. Mandy's prediction was right, though, the costume got me propositioned - and who could ask for more on a Saturday night?


  1. So, is that you sorted for future fancy dress parties? And/or pickups in Homerton.

  2. I find fancy dress parties too much of a risk. What if you end up having a drunken row with someone, or someone decides to end a relationship with you, or you witness a fatality? There are some things you just don't want to have to deal with dressed as Cher. For similar reasons I've always resisted the temptation to buy a comedy phone. When, heaven forbid, either of my parents die, I don't want to receive the news via a lobster, donald duck's head or a very realistic-looking cucumber.

  3. This is very true, Pete. Comparing life notes with Alex James for the first time in seven years, whilst dressed as a member of Queen didn't I'm sure, give him the sense that I was living well and prospering. Certainly not as much as him anyway...

  4. Hello!

    I like the fact that he first checked you were drunk before asking anything further.

    Good tactic.

  5. It's great to see a blog of this quality. I learned a lot of new things and I'm looking forward to see more like this. Thank you.