Ken tours London’s gay bars with his posse

Tony Grew April 17, 2008
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It was a surreal moment in an already bizarre election; Ken Livingstone standing at the bar in Comptons, chatting happily to bears about his plans for London if elected for a third time as the city’s Mayor.

Ken’s whole Soho walkabout was part farce, part hard-nosed politics.

With Brian Paddick, the only openly gay candidate, attracting a respectable number of LGBT voters, Ken was out to remind people he was fighting for gay rights when his opponent wasn’t even out.

Of course, he got stuck into Boris at every opportunity.

Ken, a man with acute political antennae, knew better than to attack Mr Paddick. He brushed away questions from about whether the 49-year-old Lib Dem was challenging for the pink vote.

Gay MP Chris Bryant was Mr Livingstone’s guide round the area. He confided that he has a flat “near here” but added he doesn’t spend much time in the gay ghetto. He certainly seemed to know where he was going.

Ken’s cavalcade of press photographers, journalists, members of LGBT Labour and other supporters began at Comptons in Old Compton St and finished up at Heaven.

The nightclub’s VIP room was bedecked with some very fetching images of Red Ken from the days when he sported a neat moustache, several drag queens and some of the prettier Labour supporters.

But back to the walkabout. Scrums of photographers followed the Mayor from the Admiral Duncan, up Dean St and across Soho Square.

In that time about two voters spoke to Mr Livingstone, a gang of camp, annoying teenagers joined the throng and several people shouted obscenities at the candidate.

The press were relieved to reach Profile, where canapes, cocktails and champagne were laid on.

Topless waiters presented Mr Livingstone with a thick, sludgy beverage which I was informed contained brandy and cream, and possibly champagne. I spilt a cocktail on my notes so I can’t be sure.

I asked one of the waiters if they are normally topless, or if it had been laid on for Ken.

In a delightfully impregnable Brazilian accent he informed me they do “no top” on Fridays and Saturdays. And sometimes Mondays.

Famed journalist A.A. Gill was there to observe the scene – he is to write a piece on Mr Livingstone for The Sunday Times. He seemed amused by the whole experience.

After this short respite Ken was back on manoeuvres.

“Oh, this is fun!” he exclaimed as he and his posse of press and leaflet-wielding supporters made their way into The Yard, where he was warmly received by patrons.

As he trolled past Comptons for the third time, he popped in for a drink, and was greeted with cheers. They like the older gentlemen at Comptons.

Moving finally towards the river, there was a touching moment when a young, frail homeless girl, who looked about 17, a dirty blanket wrapped round her shoulders, pushed herself forward.

As Ken leaned in to listen, so did the press. I was too far out to hear what she said, but I noticed that Ken was holding her hand, looking into her eyes, and I heard him promise that someone would “come back for her and find her.”

Among the jollity, the camp boys at G-A-Y and the drunken secretaries shouting “KEN!” as if they were at a hen night and he was the stripper, it was a sobering reminder that the gay village is also filled with the desperate and despondent, the ones London fails.

On to Kudos, for a quick one (photo op that is) and then, in the quickening darkness, the posse descended on Retro Bar, a nod to “the sisters” as one organiser put it to me.

Bless them, Kudos hardly has enough room for their furniture, so 40 people, many with cameras, tripods and video equipment, somewhat spoilt the bar’s at-home charm.

A.A. Gill, who is teetotal, commented on what a nice vibe the place had. Ken sat on a stool and spoke to journalists. Flyers were handed out and the candidate was politely ignored by patrons.

As we all moved towards our final destination, we passed the Proud Galley in Buckingham Street, where Lib Dem candidate Brian Paddick was hosting a meet-and-greet. I popped my head round the door, noted the good turnout, and nicked a campaign leaflet.

The cavalcade of whimsy arrived at Heaven, mostly exhausted by this time, and filed into the VIP room, where around 50 Ken supporters were waiting for us.

It was at this point I realised I could have been in Heaven the whole time.

Ken tours London’s gay bars with his posse

Ken spoke to everyone, posed with the drag queens and had his picture taken with most of the room.

I showed him the Paddick campaign leaflet. He said he liked the picture of Boris Johnson with the word CLOWN written beside it.

His warm-up act, Chris Byrant, said that gay people do not vote for candidates just because they are gay.

He then mocked Brian Paddick for finishing last weekend’s London Marathon one hour and seventeen minutes behind him. Not that he is competitive or anything.

Tories getting a foothold in London would be a bad thing, he told an audience who were straining to agree with him.

Ken’s speech was effective and at times moving. He spoke of how Soho was hidden away when he was younger, how nasty Tory MPs would talk about “homosexualists” and how they passed Section 28, a law banning something that was not happening.

“What school do you know that promotes homosexuality?” he asked.

“Eton,” a wag in the crowd shouted out.

Ken resisted that open goal and instead spoke about fear.

“We forget the fear,” he said, the fear that gays on this planet and even in our country still live in.

We must tackle the culture of bullying that “scars and diminishes our city.”

After an interesting interlude about how he would never try to stop anyone voting for Brian Paddick because they want a gay man to succeed, he made it clear he wants all the second preferences he can get.

He told of how he wept at the first partnership ceremonies he held for gay and lesbian couples at City Hall, of how that symbolic act paved the way for legal recognition, of how Boris had compared gay partnerships to “three men and a dog” getting married.

But in the end, as always with Ken, it was about London, the city, its people and its special place in the world.

“I think we have created the most wonderful city and I think we created a city which is an example to the rest of the world about what the world needs to be.

“You live side by side with mutual respect. You enrich your life by living with that sort of diversity.

“The lesbian and gay and trans community played a huge part in creating this city.

“A lot of people who were there at the beginning of that stuggle went through vicious beatings and terrible discrimination but stuck with it and created a city that is a beacon of tolerance for the rest of the world; that is what we have to go out and vote for in two week’s time.”

The crowd loved it, though, like all political speeches, it was a bit too long.

Gays you see. Restless. Want to go to the bar and talk to their friends and chat up that hot journalist they just spotted.

The speech came to its uplifting conclusion, everyone clapped and cheered and a small explosion showered the room with red confetti.

Red. Nice touch.

Mr Johnson, Mr Paddick, the Green candidate Sian Berry and Respect – The Left List party hopeful Lindsey German will all be attending the hustings organised by Stonewall this weekend.

I know in my heart it will not be as random, funny and surreal as a two-hour walk round Soho with Ken Livingstone.

Full list of candidates for Mayor of London:

Richard Barnbrook

British National Party

Gerard Batten

UK Independence Party

Sian Berry

Green Party

Alan Craig

Christian Peoples Alliance and Christian Party

Lindsey German

The Left List

Boris Johnson

Conservative Party

Ken Livingstone

Labour Party

Winston McKenzie


Matt O’Connor

English Democrats

Brian Paddick

Liberal Democrats

Photos by Royston Ford.

More: Mayoral Election

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