First published in the Dolphin Motor Clubs newslatter “Quid Nunc” in 1990.
It would have been 1975. I can remember that I had just passed my 21st birthday and moved out of home to my first apartment in Allowah (thanks to a legacy from my grandmother, which allowed me to live surrounded by all life’s comforts). I hadn’t come out, but was on the brink of doing so. I had a female friend (I would love to know what has become of her – does anyone know Jo Conway?) who used to come over and play “the girlfriend” whenever my father was coming to visit. He was convinced that this was his future daughter-in-law, the girl from whose loins would spring the fruit that was to be forever stamped with the family name. Fortunately, he died before finding out that (a) she was a lesbian, (b) I was gay, and (c) I changed my name – lock, stock & barrel.
My lesbian friend was also the first to introduce me to Oxford St, which had its reputation even back then! We would catch the train from Allawah on Saturday nights and start out in Kings Cross, which back in those days still had its mixed bohemian atmosphere, unlike today. The evening would usually start at Chez Ivy in Bondi Junction, then to the Cross with the Barrel Inn, move onto the Bottom’s Up bar (strictly rough trade back in those days – not that I knew what that was…then!),Mother’s Cellar in Elizabeth Bay, then down to Jools, and up to Oxford St.
First port of call was usually Caps, followed in succession by Flo’s palace (not filled with the clientele it later became associated with), then onto the small, but popular coffee and jaffle haven in Bourke St called Nana’s (later to become Chu Bay Vietnamese restaurant).
My friend was a close friend of the proprietor, who was called Nana by everyone, and we had the privilege of being invited back to his terrace one night. Nana was the epitome of 1960’s camp – the bouffant hair, the wiggle walk, the limp wrist, the over-the-top clothes, the works. The terrace was the ultimate in Victoriana – restored and decorated so. It was like entering another time! I vividly remember sitting on the edge of an extremely dainty looking lounge, sipping Twinings tea out of giant amber Duralax cups, and nibbling on Iced Vovo’s (truly), all the time keeping a very nervous eye on Nana (who kept leering at me) and his flatmate, affectionately called Cupcake, who kept flouncing down the stairs in various flowing creations, loudly declaring that he one of Sydney’s premiere designers under the auspicious label of “Margot of Sydney”.
The final stop of our outings was Central station, at 6 o’clock in the morning for the first train back home.
Oxford St confused me in those days. I wouldn’t let Jo’s hand go all night. I thought I should have been looking at the girls, being straight for all intents and purposes, but couldn’t stop myself looking at all the men and fantasizing over how great it would be to get off with one. On my solo stints into the city, I felt too intimidated to come to Oxford St. I frequented The Zoo in William St, (I think I now know who it was that tried to pick me up there…Paul Costello!), and the Downunder Disco in the Hyatt Kingsgate, all filled to the hilt with Italian John Travolta look-alikes, who all had with them girls who looked like Maria Venutti. I always went home alone. I was almost tempted to go into the Zig Zag Disco in Darlo Rd, Kings Cross – which was reputedly gay – but nerves sent me fleeing at the last moment.
By 1979, I had settled for terminal, eternal celibacy! My one attempt at a straight relationship was a dismal failure. I nearly – which would have been a disaster – married her. She had a 6-year-old daughter who I thought the sun shone out of (and vice versa). She almost tipped the scales in her mothers favour. Sexually, the relationship was doomed! I could not envisage a life of making love to a woman, while orgasming to the fantasy of a man. The body shape was – to me – all wrong, anyway. And coming down from the fantasy was disillusioning. Celibacy seemed the only answer! My father also died at this time, so I had no need of pretense anymore. My company offered me a lucrative position in Melbourne – initially for 6-months, but ended up as 2 years.
In Melbourne, I came out – and not with a whimper!
Melbourne was my chance for a new start. Nobody knew me, no family to watch me! I needed to make friends, so I joined a gay group. My very first meeting with the group, and I scored my first man. Being naive, I was an easy target for anyone. I hadn’t learnt to say no to a man at that stage, and he wasn’t exactly the most desirable of men, but what the hell – one had to start somewhere. I used him as much as he used me. He initially picked me up, after the meeting, at the old University Club, in Collins St. Shit – my first encounter with a gay group, my first solo venture to a gay venue, and my first man…all in one night!
He drove me to his place (with my dick out all the way), which was a good hours drive from Melbourne. The next morning, I had to get a train back. I wasn’t impressed! To this day, he doesn’t know he was my first. I’m a great actor!
I discovered The Laird. I discovered Mandate. I became a clone, and still am (albiet a 90s version). And bought my first leather harness, and vest, from The Beat. I fell in lust with Laurie Lane, the owner, but didn’t get to meet him until many years later. I still have a pin-up of him from a 1981 magazine. Between The Laird and Mandate, I started my tally sheet. I performed my one and only act of public sex – a blow job in the barred areas around Mandate’s dance floor. We danced to “Fade to Gray” at Smarties, drank beer at the Elizabeth Hotel, watched drag at Pokies. I discovered that trying to have a relationship with another bottom was a sure recipe for disaster. I was attracted to him, he loved me – but the beats more! My first broken heart, and one of the few times I have cried over a man! Getting drunk is a better cure! No man is worth the vile hangover the next day! I met a man from Sydney. I came back…but on my terms! This relationship was also a disaster. The fact that I had travelled 800-odd kilometres for it, made it worse. I met a friend of his, and we used to go to the 253 sauna to get off. My first intro to the baths. I disliked them, but it was convenient for both of us.
Signal, the Barracks, and Club 80 were going strong, but not my scene. I saw the 4th Mardi Gras, and joined the parade for the 5th. I remember the first Sleaze Ball at the Paddington Town Hall, and Parties 1, 2 & 3. I drank at the Albury, Flinders, and Beresford, and danced at the Shift.
The Shift back then was clone and leather heaven! Split level dance floor, and lots of dark, wooden tables. Very barn-like, actually. The front bar was called “Charlie’s Bar”…and Charlie ruled it! The toilets were infamous, not to mention the goings-on around the dance floor. There was flesh everywhere – usually…okay, almost always, naked! People danced in Speedo’s and jockstraps, bandana and key codes meant something, and pick-ups were easy!
We often partied until 9am, falling out the door into full sunlight, then off to The Spirit Cafe in Crown St for breakfast. Home for a few hours sleep (maybe someone elses home, and not much sleep) then back out again.
We shopped at the Portuguese Deli (where Ian Roberts worked, and everyone wanted things from the top shelf just to get a rear view as he climbed the ladder); paid for over-priced groceries at Clancy’s; went clothes shopping at Daly Male (still going, though moved to a new spot), and Aussie Boys, Wheels & Doll Baby, Route 66; our leather and fetish gear from The Link, Jayar & Sax; books from The Bookshop; novelties from the Pop Shop; cakes from Pandora’s; flowers from Christopher’s Florist. We ate from the Bagel House; The Schnitzel Hut; Green Park Diner; Angkor Wat; Rockerfeller’s; Old Saigon; Billy Bunters; Betty’s Soup Kitchen; Loreto’s Larder; Raquel’s; The Californian (originally King’s coffee shop, named after the mother establishment, of the same name, in King St, Newtown); Olympic Yeeros (pizza slices on the way home from a big night out); Tin Hong (food poisoning central); La Boheme; Alfredo’s; The Balkan; Una’s (Victoria St); Oddy’s; the list was endless. We read the Sydney Star – then the Sydney Star Observer, Capital Q, SX, Campaign, Outrage, and the Village Voice; bought medical supplies from Serafim and Rely’s chemists (under-the-counter Ephedrine & Amyl); our newspaper, magazines & stationery from Pigott’s Newsagency, or the newsstand outside The Oxford; hired video’s from Video Capers, then Videorama; costume accoutrement from Dita’s Feathers; bibs & bobs from Mother Of Pearl & Sons: records from Central Station (originally in the vicinity of what became the Bagel House) and Red Eye. There was even 2 butchers and a green grocer…once upon a time! And not to forget a very brief appearance from Gowings.
The Oxford opened, and became to a whole clique for many years (until the trendy set made it too uncomfortable for us). The Flinders and Beresford sponsored street parties. Sleaze Ball became a major event (remember the one with all the wrecked cars on the dance floor?). Pete’s Beat (originally the Purple Onion) came and went (Wendy Wayne & Tiny Tina live on in memory), the Handle Bar came and went, as did The Man. The Link moved from Crown St north to Crown St south, and finally to Newtown. Jools, Signal, The Barracks, Club 80, Hip Hop, the Roman Baths, 253, The Spirit cafe, Caps, T.C’s (Crown St), the Beresford, French’s (not gay, but certainly memorable), all slowly closed and entered the realms of Gay nostalgia. Friends and lovers started to die, and it seemed that the scene was going with them. Life became abbreviated to the Oxford, the Shift, Mardi Gras & Sleaze Ball.
My (our?) lives moved on also. I tested Positive for HIV, as did many others I knew. Some of us passed on (and still are), though thankfully many of us sre still hale & hearty. Eight years under a sentence is a long time! Still, most of oyr old haunts are gone, though we still have a good time – somewhat more quietly these days. Forgive us our reminiscences. We have a lot to remember, and I still claim we had the best of it! The eleven years since coming out, and now seems to have gone amazingly quickly. Lovers, friends, venues have all come and gone in the blink of an eye.
I am very hsppy now. My mother knows I’m gay, and reluctantly accepts it – evidently she always knew. My half-sister will carry on the family line, if nothing else. I chucked the rest of my family years ago. To sever those ties, I changed my name. I like the empowerment derived from beginning & ending a family line. I am in several groups, which fulfils my nerd to feel that I am doing something on the gay scene. I have made friends on the Lesbian scene, whichn takes me back to my gay roots. My social life is fulfilling enough. I am healthy, and will hopefully remain so. That is the only question mark in my life. I am in a relationship…again! Not the first since the Sydney/Melbourne episode, may I say, but certainly the most fulfilling I have ever had. I think the sun shines out of him, and he has added a dimension of happiness I don’t think he knows he has contributed. I see a lot of changes on the scene. I don’t necessarily like, or approve of, a lot of them, but I guess I’ll lesrn to live with them. It saddens me a bit to not have a venue for people in my age group who feel more comfortable with others from our generation. I won’t give up hope on this point yet.
I guess to some, this is just another odyssey of coming out. I see it as the encapsulation of 10 years of change on the gay scene, from someone who saw the scene as it was in the 70s, before coming out into the madness of the 80s.
As you can see, the adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the ssme” doesn’t always apply!
Tim Alderman ©1990 (revised 2017)
9 thoughts on “Fractured Reflections From My Dotage! Life On The Melbourne & Sydney Gay Scene 1970/1980 Pt.1&”
Tim, this is solid gold. Thankyou for filling in the gaps!
Thanks Tim. This was such an important period in the history of gay Sydney and you’ve remembered so much. Has somebody interviewed you to get these memories down in an oral history collection?
Hi John. Yes, a very important period, and possibly the mist colourful & lively. I haven’t done an oral history, though a reasonable amount of writing on my blog http://timalderman.com scroll to bottom if page and click on “Gay Interest” in the Categories.
I was chatting at the Pride History AGM with Chris (a member) who is planning to do a PhD on disco and (?male) gay identity focusing on Oxford Street. He won’t start it for a couple of years due to work commitments but he has time now to begin collecting interviews for it and archiving them with Pride History. Would you be interested in being interviewed? If Chris can’t, I’d love to. It would be an oral history interview. It would be about your life, but focus on your experiences and memories of these places and any knowledge you had about the music, the DJs and the owners and performers.
Both sound interesting. Have just completed an interview & photo session for the HIV Book Project, who were also interested in my recollections over the local history period. I’ve already written quite a lot about it. You might like to point Chris towards my story “Tambourines, Whistles & Fans” on my blog. It is a combination of fact, history, and a run-down of a night out on Oxford St in the 80s, primarily centred on the Midnight Shift. It was my final assignment for my writing degree at UTS, and the tutor loved it. Something everyone might need to consider is that I live on the Central Coast (Ettalong Beach), and I’m severely vision-impaired.
I’ll point Chris in that direction. Thanks Tim.
Tim, this is very similar to my recollections of my time in and around Oxford St. I loved it from the mid 1970’s until gay Sydney moved to Newtown which was never a satisfactory substitute for me. Thankyou for your effort to record your time here.
I met Peter McCarthy in 1970. At the time I was in vows with the Franciscan Conventuals, and Peter visited us, toying with the idea of joining the Franciscan Conventuals. He came from the country, but cannot recall where from.