Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy finds his home at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern

I moved to London in 2000; a naive country boy fleeing the final act of a twelve year relationship, in the hope of establishing fresh roots and a new way of being. After a number of failed attempts to ground myself socially, I was reverentially advised by a handsome Soho stranger (there were so many in those early days it seemed) to head ‘sarf of the river’ to the ‘Royal Vauxhall Tavern’.

With the ‘Royal’ reverberating grandly in my perceptions, it nonetheless took me several weekly attempts to summon courage enough to enter the venue (usually surrounded by gaggles of shirtless men) yet when I steeled myself to pass through the pub doors into a suprisingly small, but jam-packed space, I was at once overwhelmed with unexpected emotions and an instinctive sense of community and history; I attempted to order a pint, finding myself suddenly choked with emotion; the only words I could verbalise were not ‘I’d like a pint’ but ‘I’m home.’

1984

Engaged in an activity that must seem wholly medieval to the download generation, I am sprawled awkwardly over my bedroom floor, cutting out song lyrics from unsteady towers of Smash Hits Magazines in order to slot them into the sleeves of my 7 inch single collection. My radio plays newly released songs; some float unnoticed out of my open window, but as I swap a pair of rusting nail scissors from one sore hand to the other, a rising and falling synthesised throb drifts into my consciousness, demanding my full attention.

‘You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case,

Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face’

The lyrics, melody and pulsing electronic production hook into my soul; an instant emotional connection with a previously unheard piece of music, a connection that will endure. In such seemingly insignificant moments of time the soundtrack to our lives is, even now, being compiled.

‘Mother will never understand why you had to leave,

But the answers you seek will never be found at home,

The love that you seek will never be found at home’

Lots of kids say they are going to run away, some mean it, some don’t; some slip out and hang out at the end of the street until they get hungry, bored or realise that their bluff has been called. For me the notion of running away was very real.

I had known since I was four with absolute clarity that I was attracted to men more than women. As a younger child I had lacked the vocabulary to define myself, but I had spent my primary school years not fitting in, feeling the ‘other’.

‘Run away, turn away’

By 1984, I had internalised countless toxic messages from news reports about gay politicians entrapped by policemen in bars, films and TV shows where gay characters killed themselves, were murdered or treated as figures of fun.

Even greater than my hatred (then) of being born gay (‘Why me?’ I used to scream in the bathroom mirror before punching my own face) was the more alarming prospect that the homophobic insults and graffiti which adorned the road signs and bus shelters of our small town would, despite my best early morning efforts to remove them, ultimately betray my secret to my parents. The media and some of the kids at school claimed I would die of AIDS and that I had somehow brought AIDS into the world, just for being born me. I believed them.

‘Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy,

You were the one they’d talk about around town as they put you down’

These lyrics sung by the unusually voiced man on the radio seemed like some kind of validation; I knew instinctively what they were about and in doing so they became a kind of instant therapy, permeating the fake version of me I was presenting to the world, in a vain attempt to conform. I suddenly became aware there was another human being facing similar experiences; at this moment of revelation, an unprecedented outpouring of tears played havoc with my precisely clipped song lyrics.

‘And as hard as they would try they’d hurt to make you cry

But you never cried to them just to your soul’

You know that awkward, red faced squirming feeling that you used to get as a teenager when sex or nudity came on the telly and your parents were in the room? One week after hearing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” for the first time on the radio, I was sat watching Saturday morning TV with my parents when the same melancholy keyboards and falsetto voice that had so affected me in my bedroom began to emit from the television. Shots of a train-track and Jimmy Sommerville played across the screen. My stomach went into jumps and knots and my face began to blush red hot.

‘Run away turn away’

Again the song speaks straight to my heart, but on this occasion a series of images representing elements of my past, present and possible future play out on the screen in front of me, in front of them. (Mum, Dad please don’t look up from your magazines and steal this precious moment of solidarity away from me.)

Those images I watched back in 1984 never left me, such was their resonance. I can still see Jimmy Sommerville smiling bashfully in the video at a handsome guy in the swimming pool, a man whose smile seemed to suggest he was flattered by the attention. I recognise all too well the look of hopefulness in Jimmy’s eyes, that just maybe there was someone to love him, in the way he had been born to love. I too have seen through the frightened eyes of Jimmy’s character as he stood cornered in an alley, as the same handsome guy and his mates beat a tempo of hate into his body. A tempo I can still hear and feel all too well.

The video for Smalltown Boy ends with a policeman returning Jimmy Somerville to his parents after a homophobic attack, with the implication that this is the moment his parents find out that he is gay. I watch intently for signs that Jimmy’s fictional parents will be accepting, hoping for a rehearsal of the day when my own truth is spoken and a positive sign that the feelings of loathing and otherness I direct at myself will not be mirrored by those who I look to for guidance, security, love and respect. As the video reaches its conclusion Jimmy leaves his parent’s home; his Mum hands over his bag and she hands her son over to an uncertain 80s world in which so many young men will perish by the ‘big disease with the little name’. Jimmy’s Dad hands him some money but refuses to shake his hand.

‘You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case,

Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face’

There was never a platform for me, nor a little black case.

When the truth finally emerged about me, my parents did what they thought was right and tried to ground me, suggested medically correcting me and encouraged me to deny myself; I bear them only love now, but at the time I had to run away (turn away) before the cuts on my arm became crimson rivers.

For my teenage self the final shots of the video for Smalltown Boy offered faint flickers of hope. Jimmy’s character boards a train (I instinctively felt it was to London) accompanied by two friends. The notion that three gay people could actually be in the same space laughing and supporting one another was revelatory to me; perhaps there was a place for me on Planet Earth after all. The passing of the years has added a certain poignancy to the video for me now, as so many young people fled their homes to emerge from the shackles of fear, disappointment, misconception and prejudice to be cruelly struck down by AIDS, as they were only just beginning to discover how to love and be loved. Watching the same scenes today, I recall some of the people I have met since coming to London in 2000, whose sense of shame and early experiences of rejection have led them to the point where self- harm, chronic drug /alcohol abuse or externally programmed messages that HIV transmission is something they deserve are still stealing away futures of so many unique human beings.

When Jimmy Sommerville parted with Bronski Beat they recruited a new singer called John Foster; when John Foster left they brought in another singer called Jonathan Hellyer….

One Sunday afternoon in 2009 my partner and I dropped by the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to catch the show by Jonathan Hellyer (AKA the Dame Edna Experience.)

The RVT audience treated Jonathan like a superstar, boy can he sing like a superstar; on occasion he would choose a song that didn’t quite match the mood in the room and being the seasoned diva he was, he would hold up a hand to the DJ box and pull out of the track; this was such a day.

Jonathan took a long moment to think of an alternative; just as punters were getting restless he announced,

‘I am going to sing you a song you might know and I am really sorry I have never sung it before for you; I don’t know why I haven’t’.

With that he waved a sparkling glove and the opening chords of Smalltown Boy filled that historic, joyful old pub in Vauxhall. Jonathan’s falsetto took flight as we were reminded why he had been chosen as a Jimmy Sommerville replacement;

‘Mother will never understand why you had to leave,

But the answers you seek will never be found at home,

The love that you seek will never be found at home’

The lyrics rippled forwards in time from that Saturday afternoon in my bedroom in the year of George Orwell, to a packed ‘sarf London’ pub on a Sunday afternoon in which some people present still bore obvious scar tissue of childhood trauma. As I raised my glass my composure deserted me and tears began to run into my lager. I scanned to see if anyone was looking at me, but no one was.

Instead, around the room tears fell from the faces of so many men of my age. I was not alone in this extraordinary moment of shared homecoming, solidarity and emotional release, triggered by a combination of sound and words that reflected the shared lived experience of so those gathered in that very special space.

For a surreal moment punter numbers seemed to swell, as the faces of those who had fled their cities, small towns and villages and those who we had lost along the way seemed to fill the gaps in the crowd.

I turned and hugged my partner and told him that I loved him-because I still could.

In early July 2020, my husband and I dropped by the RVT, on the day of its post lockdown reopening to wish the owner James and his bar staff well. We supped a socially distanced takeaway pint outside, a curious experience after so long in isolation. Yet the Tavern and the staff felt more welcoming, colourful and robust than ever after their period of enforced hibernation.

Our return to the RVT however was tinged with deep sadness; once again our social group has been ravaged by a potentially deadly virus. Returning to the Tavern is a privilege not all our friends can enjoy. We raised our glasses to the seven Smalltown Boys we’ve known and lost since February 2020 with whom we once shared a dance-floor and a pint. Some had fought bravely to survive a virus often associated with the 1980s, only to be cruelly taken down by another in the present.

One day we’ll dance again.

If you find yourself standing on a platform, the wind and train on your sad and lonely face, know that whilst a train can depart a station, it can also return you to those you left behind; in time, they might even come to accept and love you for who you are.

If they don’t, aspire to make ‘logical families’ and that is ok too. I had the joy of discovering my logical family at an historic little South London boozer called the RVT and in 2018 I delivered stand up on that hallowed stage as part of a comedy showcase for Zoe Lyons, a kind of joyful validation for the traumatised, naive country boy who came to London twenty years ago to find his tribe.

Our journeys to happiness are rooted in self acceptance, self care, compassion and love. As we strive to adapt in the present, the unwelcome company of a strange new virus renders a journey of growth and self care more vital than ever.

Be safe, be kind, be proud, be you.

Long live the RVT and all who have (and all who will) dance, drink, laugh and work in her.

(Dedicated with love to Taverners past, present and future, especially those we have lost along the way.)

Shaun Dellenty (First published Huffington Post 2014, redrafted 2020)

Follow the author on Twitter @ShaunDellenty

Shaun Dellenty website for bookings and commissions http://bit.ly/2J8CwX

The historic and much loved Royal Vauxhall Tavern is an Iconic London landmark and an award-winning cabaret, performance and club night destination. In 2018 and 2019, Royal Vauxhall Tavern was the award winner of London’s Best Cabaret Venue. The RVT came out of lockdown July 4th 2020 and it needs supporting through the Covid crisis. Find out how to make bookings and a range of support options at https://www.vauxhalltavern.com/about/

6 thoughts on “Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy finds his home at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern

  1. I’m honoured to be mentioned amid such erudite and beautiful words about such sweet memories and so much pain. I’m so glad you found the RVT – I’m glad we all did. May you be forever blessed. XxX

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too was a Smalltown Boy but was lucky to leave in 1985 with the support and love of family and friends who understood that I needed a bigger gene pool in which to thrive. I religiously went to the Vauxhall (can’t get used to calling it RVT) every Thursday night to see Lily Savage hosting Stars Of The Future on the “illuminated runway of joy” and then on Sunday afternoons for Sunday school with Adrella. I never returned after Pat and Breda (masters of the house) left but heard great things about Ducky and Mr. Hellyer. Let’s hope it returns to form as soon as possible and yet another generation can touched by its strange magic.

    Liked by 1 person

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