The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: travel (page 1 of 1)

God Save The Sea Queen: Gibraltar’s Lovely Charlie

Gibraltar, otherwise known as ‘The Rock’, is the full stop to the sentence of Europe. It has been besieged no less than fourteen times. The Ancients thought it was a pillar holding up the end of the World. In the Middle Ages Jews fled here from the red-hot instruments of the Spanish Inquisition. Aeons ago, the last survivors of the ancestors of Homo sapiens also retreated to this toothy promontory of the Iberian peninsula, lasting a few, increasingly lonely, thousand years more in the dark caves that abound here, before being finally snuffed out by Progress.

Even today, rare and exotic creatures survive here that have long since become extinct elsewhere in Continental Europe. Off one of the narrow, steep, cobbled streets, down some worn steps, there’s a dark cellar bar, that holds out against not only the Twenty First Century but much of the latter half of the Twentieth. This is the domain and refuge of the last of the Sea Queens, Lovely Charlie, landlocked in the last corner of the British Empire.

The brick walls and vaulted ceiling of Charles’ domain are completely covered in battered Royal Navy Ensign flags. All of them have personal messages scrawled across them in Secondary Modern hands: ‘To Lovely Charlie, from the lads on HMS Sheffield – We think you’re magic!’ (dated 1981, the year before it was sunk by an Argentine Exocet in The Falklands); ‘Donkey Nob Was Here – 1979’’; and ‘Royal Marine Commandos do it in boats – 1989’. Signed photos of sunburnt, laughing young men with cans of lager in their hands and their arms around each other’s shoulders cover the wall next to the bar, together with postcards from Hong Kong, Belize, Brunei, Germany and Kuwait.

Tonight however Charles’ Hole in t’Wall bar – the finest bar on the Seven Seas – is completely empty, except for Charles himself, a well-preserved, handsome middle-aged man with glittery ear-studs and immaculate hair, sitting at the bar, and his snoozing big black labrador, heavy eyelids sagging. ‘Well, come in, luv,’ he says, happy to see a face. ‘Sorry it’s so quiet tonight. The Fleet’s out. Mind, it always fookin’ is these days! Are you a matelot? ‘No? What’s that you say? You’re looking for one? Aren’t we all, luv!’ he laughs, and gets me a bottled beer.

‘It was best when the frontier with Spain was closed,’ he reminisces, in his effortlessly camp but strangely butch Gibraltarian English, comically spiked with some coarse, regional Brit expressions he’s obviously picked up from his clientele. ‘When Franco shut the border in 1967 that was the beginning of twenty years of bloody bliss, y’know. When hundreds of sailors have been out at sea for weeks and they dock here, they’re not going to let the fact that there aren’t enough single women on Gib to make a football team stop them having a fookin’ good time, luv!’

‘And they didn’t mind their mates finding out; they’d just say, “I bet you had a fookin’ good time with Charlie gobblin’ yer last night!” and everybody would laugh. Of course, who gobbled whom wasn’t always the way they painted it – but that was something private between me and them. Things aren’t the same now. I still get offers – but they’re much more furtive; they’re afraid that everyone will think they’re gay just because they had a bit of fun with Charles. And then in 1987 they only went and opened the fookin’ frontier, didn’t they? Now most of the lads head off for the bright lights of Marbella. I can’t compete with dolly-birds and disco, can I luv?’

‘But it isn’t about sex,’ explains Charles, sipping a mineral water (he’s teetotal). ‘It’s the company. The camaraderie. It’s my duty to run this bar! I’m a legend in the Royal Navy, y’know. I’ve been to Portsmouth and Plymouth. They treated me like a real Queen. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for me. I was really moved. I was in Edinburgh once, and a lad came up to me and said, “It’s Lovely Charlie, isn’t it!’ He was very sweet. He whispered, “Look, Charles, you can’t wear that much jewellery around here. They won’t understand”.’

‘I’m passed down, father to son. I had an eighteen-year-old sailor come in here last month, his first time. He said: “That door’s new,” pointing to that door over there to the pool-room which I had installed about ten year ago. “How did you know that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, ‘my dad’s got a picture of him sitting on your knee. It was the year before he met me mam.”

‘They like to tell the newbies that they’re going to sell them to me for a round of drinks, y’know. Of course, that doesn’t happen. I’d never take advantage. But they like to wind up the youngsters. One lad came here with his Dad – the Navy has a Father’s week where they fly fathers who were in the Navy out here to travel home on board ship with their sons. He said: “Well, ‘ere you go Charles, you can ‘ave your wicked way wiv ‘im if you keep the drinks comin’!” I laughed and said, “Well, you’re his dad, so I suppose that makes it legal!” You should have seen the poor boy’s face!’

‘Oh yes, occasionally you get trouble-makers. They come here saying how much they “’ate fookin’ queers”. Everyone goes quiet because they know he’s going to get a tongue lashing from me. I usually say something like, “And I ‘ate fookin’ ugly cunts like you, luv!” Everyone usually pisses themselves laughing. And usually,’ adds Charles, winking, ‘they end up staying the night…’.

‘I can’t go on forever, though y’know. I’m not as young as I used to be. But the matelots, bless ‘em, they don’t notice any of this decay! They always say, “Oh, Charlie, you never change!” and I say to them, “Well, no, but the wattage does!” Charles laughs. ‘Every year a bit less. I started off here with 100W bulbs. Now I’m down to 10W. And tinted!

‘What’s that? Why do the lads love me so? Oh it’s because they know I love them,’ he explains with a shrug. ‘And I’m always here. Unlike barmaids, I don’t regard them as a problem or as a meal-ticket. And, of course,’ he smiles, winking, ‘they do like my outrageous behaviour. They always insist that I wear all my jewellery when they come to visit.’

A few hours and a crate of beer later I’m staggering back to my hotel and can’t help thinking that the reason the sailors treat Charles like a star is simply because they recognise one when they see one. ‘Lovely Charlie’ is, well, lovely. And priceless. When he finally calls last orders, or runs out of wattage, a little but precious piece of British maritime and marytime history will be lost forever.

This piece was originally published back in 2000 (and collected here), but I’m very happy to report that Charles is still going full steam ahead, and so is a recently-refurbished Charles’ Hole-in-the-Wall bar – he’s even upped the wattage! (Castle Street, Gibraltar; opens at 9pm.) 

UPDATE Jan 2015:

After forty years quenching the thirst of the Royal Navy, Charles’ world famous Hole in T’Wall Bar is closing. But Charles’ matelot fans are giving it a jolly Jack tar send-off – and showing Charles how much they luv ‘im. GBC ran a feature on the closure, which includes footage from the bar – and a rather wonderful big framed photo of what looks a lot like Charles in drag (that I somehow seemed to miss during my visit):

Charlie's Hole In The Wall Closes - GBC News - 19.01.16

 

Whip Me With an Xmas tree – An Invigorating Visit to the Banya

Mark Simpson visits a Russian sauna or ‘banya’ in Tallinn, Estonia and gets an eye-wateringly good seeing to.

(Out magazine, Feb 2007)

“YOU LIKE TO GET BEAT AGAIN?” asks the gruff, naked former Red Army soldier. ‘I do very gently this time.’ Sweating profusely, I turn my back to him and he begins expertly working me over.

I visited my first Russian bath-house, in Tallinn, Estonia, capital of the rapidly Westernizing Baltic country and I nearly didn’t leave. By the time I finally did, I was a wraith of wrinkles and covered in an alarming, stinging, if cleansing rash – from being whipped with a Christmas tree by totally starkers Russians high on beer and pigs ears.

I was also covered with a conviction that we in the West have forgotten how to be comfortable in our own naked skin.

The banya, or Russian sauna, is as central to Russian culture as vodka, poetry and passionate friendship. Nearly half the population of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is Russian descent and speaking. Independent since the early 90s, Estonia still has a strong Russian legacy, though one that is rapidly being erased in the rush to embrace the West and forget the immediate past. Tallinn is a popular destination for cruise liners and British stag parties looking for cheap booze and leggy strippers and the simple, purifying pleasures of the banya are fading fast – there is now only one banya left in Tallinn.

I however was looking for naked sweaty backslapping Russians – though only for comradely, purifying purposes you understand. And I found them at Tallinn’s last banya.

I was taken there by my buddy and banya enthusiast Steve Kokker, a Canadian turned Tallinn resident (director of a remarkable and touching film about Russian military cadets called ‘Kameraden’), After undressing and showering in the (open, non-compartmentalised) wet area, we encountered a group of bollock-naked shaven-headed middle-aged Russians, most of whom looked as if they’d had a hard if quietly dignified life. They were instantly welcoming and friendly despite the language barrier and despite – or perhaps because of – the total lack of clothing.

One, a 69-year-old wounded infantry veteran of the 1956 Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary who looked twenty years younger, showed me the shrapnel scars on his legs: ‘We all disagreed with it, but we had no choice’. Steve translated for me the low, impressively butch Russian sounds. Many patrons were replete with what looked like homemade, borstal tattoos. Learning that I was a newbie, they extolled the benefits of the banya: ‘It will keep you young.’ ‘It will keep you fit.’ ‘You will not lose your strength in bed.’ Their lean, rangy bodies were the most persuasive argument.

Sharing their smoked pigs ears and warm Russian beer with us, they began arguing vehemently over how long I, as a Banya ‘virgin’, should spend in the steam room and what I should be whipped with first, the white birch twigs? or the juniper? or perhaps the nettle bush? (whipping with forestry is part of the banya experience – it is thought to cleanse the skin, and perhaps also the soul).

They finally agreed on the correct procedure and led me into the steam room – much hotter than any of the Nordic or Turkish saunas I’d experienced. The heat was almost solid. I tried to hold my breath rather than risk scorching my lungs. About twenty naked men were seated on the tiers of benches. Several of them were being whipped with branches by other men, their sweat spraying everywhere. Including, before I could close it, my mouth. Some were talking animatedly, some staring grimly ahead, mutely enduring the heat. Occasionally someone ladled water onto the hot stones, which instantly vaporised into hissing heat.

Trying to impress, I sat about half way up – after having been advised to sit near the bottom. After about five minutes shifting uncomfortably on the scalding wooden bench, (many banya regulars sit on special ‘padjopnik’, or ass-pads) I was dripping like a spatchocked chicken. Then I was led me to the ice-cold plunge pool and more or less pushed in . ‘It is good for circulation!’ they laughed. ‘If it doesn’t stop it altogether!’ I gasped.

Back in the steam room initiators decided I was ready to be whipped. It was agreed that I would first be lashed with white birch tree branches (the birch is sacred in Russia – once a country of forest-dwellers). I turned my back, leant forwards a little and thought of England. I don’t know whether being whipped is purifying, but I can tell you it certainly clears your sinuses. It’s a little like being dragged through a hedge backwards, but more fun. After the onslaught stopped and I hadn’t flinched I felt that I had passed some test.

A little later, I let someone whip me with juniper leaves. This did hurt – like being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. Actually, it was being caught naked in a blizzard of pine needles. After less than a minute of this the Hungary invasion vet intervened and called a halt: “This is too much for first time,” he said. I didn’t argue.

At this point a stag party of ten or so young British males turned up at the banya, obviously a ‘real Russian banya’ was on their heavily programmed itinerary, squeezed between lap dancing clubs and driving a rusty T34 ex-Soviet tank. They looked pallid and puny and ill at ease in their own bodies next to the Russian regulars – and terrified by the nudity and the whipping, keeping their towels tightly wrapped around them, eyeing the swinging Russian dicks with alarm. This was altogether too real and, ironically, male for the stag party. I stuck close to my new Russian buddies, hoping to be mistaken for a Russian myself.

I noted with some pleasure that none of them endured the heat of the sauna for more than a few seconds, even sitting on the lowest bench, and none of them submitted to the ritual of the birch. No more than about 20 minutes after they arrived they were shepherded out and onto the next stop on their itinerary. Then no doubt back to the safety of the UK and corporate gyms with their changing rooms within changing rooms, cubicle showers and ‘Swimwear Must be Worn At All Times’ signs.

A well-preserved 50 year-old Russian with piercing blue eyes, who sported the most heavily tattooed and most formidable body there, and whom Steve and I both very much wanted to believe was an ex-con, was determined to use a large nettle bush on me. Repeatedly and eagerly he enquired, eyes shining, if I was ‘ready’.

“He’s very keen to have you bend over and make you feel that stinging sensation,” translated Steve, almost without smiling.

Eventually the Hungary vet intervened again, announcing that I’d had enough for my first visit, and that besides, the nettles would stop me sleeping (apparently they stimulate the nervous system, like a Russian peasant version of crystal-meth).

Nettle Man looked dejected, and muttered something before sloping off.

“What did he say?” I asked Steve.

“He said he will be here ready for you next time.”

This essay is collected in Metrosexy:  A 21st Century Self-Love Story