Out and about in Soho

Vanessa Thorpe signs up for a gay tour of the West End

Nudging his way past the tourists queueing for an official London sightseeing bus, a young man stops briefly to assess the competition. "I'd like to see them take a bus down our route," he scoffs, beckoning his own small band of followers down yet another dank alleyway.

A camp moment, it was illustrative of a new stage in London's bid to become not just the world capital of music and art, but of gay culture too.

Kim Suttle is a former actor who once led a troupe of dancing men. He is also one of a team of volunteer guides soon to be walking visitors around the West End on what is billed as the first tour of Lesbian and Gay Soho.

The route, which points up the contrast between the hidden and shamefaced gay venues of the past and the brassy, upfront bars of today, starts on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

This is an appropriate place to begin. For one thing it is the original base of Kairos in Soho, the gay social project which will run the tours; for another, Kim tells us, it is the site of the first recorded incidence of "cruising". According to the transcripts of an 18th-century court case, he says, a young builder was laying foundation stones in the churchyard when a man called John Dicks lured him into a nearby tavern.

"When he had made me almost fuddled, he buss'd me, put his hand into my breeches," the builder later complained, during one of the "Molly" trials held specifically to sentence Mollies, or homosexuals, to the stocks at Charing Cross - the tour's next port of call.

Here, the people had a chance to express their contempt by shying intestines, vermin or rotten vegetables at the men, before their dead bodies were hauled back into the unconsecrated section of the church grounds.

Nowadays, the windows of the Charing Cross Hotel wink down on the location in a much more friendly fashion. During the Forties, Kim says, the hotel built up a reputation for a lenient attitude to gays. The receptionist would turn a blind eye.

The tour then heads for Soho proper, taking in the long sweep of gay bars which are busily soaking up the pink pound. "That place is okay," advises another tour guide, Lincoln, a part-time singer, as he enters St Martin's Lane. "But it is a bit nastier and cruisier downstairs."

"Yes," agrees Kim, "and this is where the straight crowd from one pub stares at the gay crowd in the bar across the road."

This is the only, joking hint at any clash of cultures. It seems that although Soho is daily becoming more confirmed as the heartland of gay culture, the straight punters have simply moved over to make room.

In fact, if there is any concern about a developing ghetto, it comes from the gay activists themselves. OutRage, the gay rights group, has voiced worries about an inner London sub-culture which is too self-contained. They would prefer to see gay people mixing, drinking and dancing with straight people.

A quick glimpse down the dark, narrow entrance to Brydges Place is a glimpse back at the way it once was. This alley was home to the discreet Festival Club, whose members had to slide in unseen, with their password ready. "Gays in London these days don't realise just how difficult things were a few generations ago," says Kim, as he passes Brief Encounter, the oldest gay bar in town.

Along the way, the guides claim many of the great and the good, especially from showbusiness, as their own. Whethervarious stars will be happy to have their footsteps retraced in this way remains to be seen, although no whiff of "outing" is necessary when the tour pauses outside Stanford, the map store in Long Acre. This is where the young Kenneth Williams practised cartography before going Around the Horn.

Some of the most celebrated gay haunts have disappeared; Roys, for example, the cafe where it was possible to book a dinner companion as well as a table, and the As You Like It, at one time a second home to Quentin Crisp. This cafe is now called The Box and it still has a gay clientele, holding a regular women's night.

Hang on. Is this the tour's first mention of lesbian culture? Kim and Lincoln are conscious of the gap in their guide notes.

"Documentary history of lesbianism is harder to come across because they were never illegal. They were just ignored."

In Soho Square, to give the tour its due, there is reference to the banned writer Radclyffe Hall, a woman who liked to be known as John. Her memorial can be found inside St Patrick's Church, opposite the grand home of William Beckford, whose wealth allowed him to live an openly gay life ahead of his time. The richest man in late 18th-century London, Beckford used to consort with young men in the Seven Dials area, an activity he described as "kissing the holy relics".

One of the bizarre highlights of the walk is a reverential moment outside the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus, marking Judy Garland's performances there. In contrast, its bleakest stop is the Golden Lion pub, where serial killer Dennis Nilsen picked up his victims.

In Old Compton Street the tour finishes with a flourish amid five thriving gay pubs. And there are even flags waving, the rainbow flag of gay liberation, each proclaiming Soho as the gay centre of Europe.

Kairos in Soho 0171-437 6063

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