A Life in The Bar



"...the whole point was that when you walked in the door of The Bar you knew you didn't have to explain anything to anyone who was there, not anyone."

Neil Bartlett
in (& the photo above from)
Ready to Catch Him
Should He Fall


Neil Bartlett's works
(so far)

Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde. Serpent's Tail, 4 Blackstock Mews, London N4, England, 1988.

Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall. Serpent's Tail, 1990; Dutton, 1991.

Mr Clive & Mr Page. Serpent's Tail, 1996; Dutton, 1997 (as The House on Brooke Street).

Skin Lane. Serpent's Tail, 2007.

Neil was appointed artistic director of the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith in 1994, filling the post for more than a decade. In 2004, for "his service to theatre," he was honoured with the Order of the British Empire. So: Neil Bartlett, OBE.


In 1990 Neil Bartlett -- British writer, actor, director, playwright; a friend since I met him in 1985 -- published his first novel.

It was his second book. His first, Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde, had been a highly personal look not only at Oscar but more widely at gay life in 19th century London, told as Neil uncovered it and seen through his eyes, walking the same streets a century later.

His novel, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, asked nearly the same question: Who is that man? And that one? What is he really like? As gay men in the final years of the 20th century, what are we really like?

So Neil set about telling our story, in fiction. Not the story of us all, but certainly many: gay men in cities big enough to offer a life together, a public life beyond the confines of domesticity. He did not do it, as so much gay fiction has, by creating characters ostensibly real but in fact clichés, a cast of obvious, tiresome "types." His ambitions were much more grand, his intentions far beyond kitchen sink (or worse, Fire Island) realism.

He does give his characters real lives; there is even a kitchen sink. Still, he makes them not types -- but archetypes. He names them O, for Older Man, and Boy. Neil tells us what Boy looks like but then says:

"Perhaps you think that Boy does not sound too beautiful to you, by which you mean he does not sound your type. Well I have to say that much of the impact of this story depends upon you being able to see and think of Boy as beautiful, admirable and even adorable in the true senses of those difficult and dangerous but nonetheless precious and necessary words.

"I suggest therefore that you amend my descriptions of Boy ... so that he is, in some way, if you see what I mean, your type. Make him fit the bill; imagine for him the attributes that you require. ...

"When I think about it I'm not sure it makes any important difference how you imagine he looks, I mean who am I to say whether this Boy you are seeing has blonde hair or dark; but I am sure it does matter what he means to you. Keep him strong, keep him young, and, whatever his colouring, keep him gorgeous."

Boy meets O in an equally archetypal setting: The Bar.

"There was no name painted up over the door. We just left it blank most of the time because The Bar was always changing its name. It's had about ten or twelve names since I've been going there, though some of them were just for one night, just for a party or celebration, and even then the name was never written up anywhere, you just had to know that tonight it was The Lily Pond, or The Jewel Box, The Gigolo, The Hustler, The Place (no, I think that was somewhere else), Grave Charges (I loved that one) -- or The You Know You Like It, I remember that year especially.

"Just now we didn't have any name for it at all, and it was just The Bar, like it always was, the bar. ... Basically you see The Bar was always the same. It could be relied on.

"I can see that people must have thought we were being very mysterious then, that we were a bit of a mystery, that The Bar was a very strange place; but it never seemed that way to us. To us, it was as normal as home.

"What else can I tell you about our nights there? Yes, you could have sex there, in the toilets, but only according to certain rules. I should say, really, that you could live just how you wanted there, according to certain rules. But the point was, they were our own rules."

I have spent much of my adult life in The Bar, in many, varied incarnations. Each did change over time, in its name, its mood, its clientele. But each could be relied on, for a time. Some for a very long time.

The very word "bar" means something to gay people, gay men in particular, that it does not mean in the wider world. It is not just a place to have a drink. For a very long time it was the only place where one could find other gay people in any numbers, where one could drop the mask one might choose -- or be forced -- to wear outside and live, as Neil said, by our own rules.

Most people, even many gay people, have no idea what our lives can be like in these places, what we mean to ourselves and each other there. For too long bars, along with baths and discos, have been disparaged by too many of us as foolish, sinful places, our pleasures there eventually paid for in death. But they were places of wondrous life, places to be celebrated.

And that's what I hope to do here: to honour them and the lives I found in them; to say what they were really like.

Really like to me, that is. This is not a social history of gay bars. There is some history here, but mostly it is my own story. Telling it inevitably entails recounting a good deal of my life beyond The Bar.

There's a lot of my work life here, and my life with many friends rarely found in bars. If I'd been a bank teller, my diversions discreet house parties, I'd not have gone on much about it. But for most of my adult life my days at work, not just my nights out, have been intimately bound up in the public, communal gay life of this city, even beyond. I rarely had a "social life" outside my "job," but a life with others doing much the same work. We hardly thought of it as work: it was life, the life of citizens taking power in a world where once we had been pariahs.

I was lucky in that. And it was just luck. So was the year of my birth, letting me come of age in times that were, for people like us, among the most transformative in all of human history.

When I began this work I didn't intend an autobiography, much as it's become one. Still, I have tried to keep my focus on how I and those around me shaped our lives, our ideas, and the spaces we inhabited as gay people, as queers -- often in the face of considerable, even brutal resistance.

You will meet many of those people here. Perhaps too many: if this were fiction some wouldn't have made the cut. But I didn't want to cut: while not a history, this work may serve as a source for history. There are many tales yet to be told. I wanted to suggest those tales, their players, maybe offer leads.

At the very least I wanted to say these people were here. That's what this story is fundamentally about: they, we, were here.

As a people we are marvellously adept at moving in places that to most seem ordinary, even banal -- and transforming them into erotic territory. You'll find such territories here: baths and parks of course; but also offices, streets, public gatherings, even public transit. The erotic is out in the world, not just in a few hidden "private" places.

I hope to show you these places, but not to explain them or try to justify them, or our lives in them. They -- and we -- need no justification. As Neil Bartlett said, they are as normal to us as home. So normal that he said about The Bar:

" is very strange now trying to describe it to you. Giving an account of it like this makes me feel as though you're asking me to account for it, explain it for you. Explaining our lives there -- as if they needed explaining, and the whole point was that when you walked in the door of The Bar you knew you didn't have to explain anything to anyone who was there, not anyone."

Reviewing Edmund White's novel Caracole in The Body Politic in 1986, Neil wrote:

"Also remembered in this highly cultured text is a more humble one: that adolescent diary so many of us as gay men kept in the first two years after we moved to the city, the diary in which the names of men, the details of sex, of infatuations endured, books read and fashions imitated are all listed with equal, and equally sincere enthusiasm, as if by writing it down we could make sense of it all."

I kept a journal like that, beginning a year before I got to this city and going on into the middle of the 1970s. And I did it, as Neil says, to try to make sense of it all. I am very glad I did: now I can go back and rediscover what sense it all made to me then.

I don't much trust memory, particularly of oneself. We each carry in our heads our own autobiography, revised over time to make the past a fit prologue for the present, for the person we are now. What doesn't lead to our current self image can slip away, forgotten, even suppressed, consciously or not.

Mariana Valverde, whom you'll meet here, once said of our prime contribution to world literature (if in an ancient confessional vein), the coming out story: "We all know what the end of the story is going to be. We go along and say yes, yes, fit everything in its place to lead to the satisfying conclusion. And if something doesn't fit, we make it fit -- or we leave it out."

Things my memory might have left out of these tales are here because they were once recorded, making them evidence.

It is this evidence I trust over memory: things created in the moment -- a text, a snapshot, a recording; things that have not been changed by time. You will find me quoting extensively: from that journal I kept; from letters to friends; from other things written at the time by those people or about them.

In some years you'll find little of this, in a few none at all. I didn't always keep things, didn't always write down what life was like as it passed by, sometimes too fast, too absorbing, to leave me time to make any record of it. I have had to rely on memory as well: my own and, when in doubt, the memories of others.

There is no fiction here (if maybe a few mistakes of fact; if you find any please let me know), no pseudonyms, no one identified by initials or as "Mr A___." I hate things like that. Some people do go unnamed; for some, even a few central in my life at the time, I have given only first names. I didn't know many people in the closet, but not every aspect of every life was meant by those living them to become matters of public record.

I have used other sources to check facts, dates, impressions of the time, chiefly The Body Politic and its offspring since 1984. Don McLeod's Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964 - 1975 has been an invaluable reference, as has Coming Out in a Cold Climate: A History of Gay Men in Toronto during the 1950s, by historian David Churchill. I have also consulted works on the architecture and history of Toronto, rather a passion of mine, as you'll see.

Still, in all this I have been inevitably selective. How much truth you find here (dangerous word that, truth; but I'll stick with it for the moment) depends on how truthful I have been over these years.

You will have to judge that -- against the specifics if they were part of your own life, more generally if not. In any case I hope you enjoy the journey, rather a long one. It took me three decades.

Rick Bébout, January 2000 / June 2003

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December 1999 / Last revised: April 30, 2007
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