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 (being new to the city, there were so many in those days) to head ‘sarf of the river’ to the ‘Royal Vauxhall Tavern’.

With the ‘Royal’ reverberating grandly in my perceptions, it nonetheless took me several attempts to summon courage enough to enter, squeezing nervously past perspiring gaggles of shirtless men. Entering a surprisingly compact (yet heaving) space, I was at once overwhelmed with emotion and an instinctive sense of community and history. Whilst attempting to order a pint at a rammed bar, I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed with potent, primal emotions.

The only words I could verbalise were not ‘I’d like a pint please ‘ but ‘I’m home.’

1984

Engaged in an activity that must seem wholly medieval to the download generation, I’m sprawled awkwardly over my bedroom floor, snipping song lyrics from unsteady towers of Smash Hits Magazines in order to slot them neatly into the sleeves of my 7 inch single collection, where I suspect they fade to this day. The radio plays newly released songs; some float untended 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 teenage 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 penetrate my soul; an immediate emotional connection with a previously unheard piece of music, a connection that will endure across decades. 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 hang out at the end of the street until they get hungry or realise that their bluff has been called. For some (including myself) running away was a very real coping strategy.

I had known since I was four (and with absolute clarity) that I was attracted to men more than women. Back then I lacked the vocabulary to define myself and spent my primary school tenure not fitting in, even consciously modifying my physicality in response to societal negativity from my parents, peers, teachers and the media, from being made to constantly feel ‘other’.

‘Run away, turn away’

By 1984, I had internalised countless homophobic, toxic messages from my peers, parents, teachers, church leaders and politicians. Then there were endless news reports about police entrapment and TV dramas in which stereotypical gay characters killed themselves, were murdered or were treated with contemptuous derision. No positive representation existed to offset this and Section 28 had neutered the inherent compassion of many educators at the dawning on the UK HIV/Aids epidemic.

Even greater than my internalised hatred (then) of being born gay (‘Why me?’ I would scream at the mirror repeatedly punching my face) was the alarming prospect that the homophobic graffiti adorning the road signs and bus shelters of our small town would (despite my best efforts to erase it) ultimately betray my secret to my parents.

The media (and kids at school) claimed people like me would die of AIDS and that we had somehow brought AIDS into the world, simply for being born us.

I internalised these judgemental toxic messages (queers caused it, queers deserve it) and like so many others, the hate, fear and prejudice of others perniciously rewired my subconscious.

‘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 words sung by the man on the radio felt like validation; I knew instinctively what they were about and in that same moment they became therapy, permeating the compromised, fake version of myself that I was forced to present to the world in a vain attempt to conform and avoid rejection and beatings. These sung verses gifted me new awareness of another human being facing similar experiences. At this moment of profound 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 remember that awkward, red faced squirming feeling that you got as a teenager when sex came on the telly and your parents were present ? One week after first hearing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” on the radio, I was watching Saturday morning TV with my parents. The same melancholy keyboards and falsetto voice that had so affected me in my bedroom chimed once again out of the television. Potent images of Jimmy Sommerville’s sensitive eyes framed under a harsh crew cut flickered across the screen, even as my stomach knotted and my face scorched scarlet.

‘Run away turn away’

That flickering melody and accompanying video imagery never left me, such is its resonance. I still see Jimmy Sommerville smiling bashfully at the handsome guy in the swimming pool whose smile might suggest (even for a brief moment) that he is flattered by the attention of another man. I’ve felt the yearning in Jimmy’s eyes, that just maybe there is someone to love him, in the way he has been born (not chosen) to love. I’ve squinted through the frightened eyes of Jimmy’s character, cowering in an alley, as the handsome swimming pool guy and his mates beat a tempo of hate into his fragile body.

Celluloid images representing elements of my past, present and possible future play out on screen in front of me, in front of them, my parents. (Mum, Dad don’t look up from your magazines and steal this precious moment of solidarity away from me.)

A tempo I still hear, feel and taste all too well. I feel it now, it permanently scarred me, but it didn’t take me down.

The Smalltown Boy video concludes with a policeman returning Jimmy’s character to his parents after a homophobic attack, with the implication that this is the moment his parents find out that he is gay. As a closeted, bullied gay youth I watch intently for signs that Jimmy’s fictional parents might be accepting, hoping for a rehearsal of the day when my own truth is spoken, a sign that the feelings of loathing I direct at myself will not be mirrored by those I look to for guidance, security, love and respect.

I will be disappointed.

As the video reaches its conclusion Jimmy leaves his parent’s home. Mum hands her son over to an uncertain 80s world in which so many young gay men will perish by the ‘big disease with the little name’. Jimmy’s Dad offers him money, but refuses to shake his own son’s queer 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 emerged about me, my parents did what they thought was right by trying to ground me, ending my relationship and suggested medically correcting me. They demanded I reject and deny myself; I bear them love now, but at the time I had to run away (turn away) before the cuts on my arm became unstoppable crimson rivers. I was lucky to meet a loving partner and we prevailed for twelve mostly very happy years, which in itself, is a privilege.

For my younger self the concluding frames of the Smalltown Boy promotional video offered faint flickers of hope. Jimmy’s character boards a train (I instinctively felt 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 absolutely revelatory to me; perhaps there was a place for me and others like me after all? Those beautiful boys, girls and everyone in between.

The passing of the years has added greater poignancy to the song, as many gay young people fled their homes emerging from shackles of fear, disappointment, misconception and prejudice only to be cruelly struck down by AIDS, just as they were beginning to discover how to love and be loved. A virus our politicians were slow to respond to.

Watching the Smalltown Boy video today, I recall some LGBT+ people I’ve met since moving to London whose trauma, sense of shame and childhood experiences of familial, societal, cultural, political and spiritual rejection pushed them down a fatal path of self- harm, chronic drug or alcohol abuse. Those internalised societal messages that HIV is something LGBT+ individuals deserve can still steal away futures, despite effective medication regimes and the availability of Prep. Being told ‘it’s a sin’ as a child goes in deep, but it won’t change who we were born to be.

When Jimmy Sommerville parted with Bronski Beat they recruited a new singer called John Foster and when John Foster left they recruited yet 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 welcomed Jonathan as a superstar (he certainly sings like a superstar) but on occasion he would choose a song that didn’t quite match the mood in the room. Being the seasoned diva he was, he would raise a an assertive hand to the DJ and pull out of the track; this was such a day.

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

‘I am going to sing you a song you might know and I’m 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 same evocative, pulsing electronic chords I’d first experienced in my teenage bedroom filled that historic, joyful old pub in Vauxhall in the present. Jonathan’s falsetto took flight and 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’

These words 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 many people present still bore scar tissue of childhood rejection, bullying and AIDS related trauma. My inner child tried to swig at my lager, but my adult composure deserted me and uncontrollable tears tumbled into my pint. Suddenly self-conscious I scanned the room to see if anyone was looking, only to bear witness to tears falling from many others. I was not alone in this extraordinary moment of shared homecoming, solidarity and release. Triggered by a combination of synthesised music and lyrics reflecting the shared histories of those gathered in that oh so very special space, the RVT.

For a surreal moment punter numbers seemed to swell, the shadows of those Smalltown Boys who once fled towns and villages seeking acceptance and love, those precious souls we lost along the way, perhaps seeking one last moment of stolen acceptance before dancing away forever within the darkened gaps in the crowd.

Names unknown, stories unspoken, silenced by stigma. Lost in time.

I raised my glass, turned and hugged my partner and told him I loved him-because I could. It was a privilege.

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

But our return to the RVT was tinged with deep sadness; once again our social group is ravaged by a potentially deadly virus. Returning to the Tavern is a privilege not all our community can enjoy. The relative brevity of societal, media, medicinal and political responses to COVID-19 stands in sharp contrast to the onset of AIDS, throwing inequalities into brutally familiar focus.

Cry boy cry

One day, you might find yourself standing on a platform, the wind and the rain on your sad and lonely face. Just as train carriages depart, they might also return us to parents who after all, once gifted us Smalltown people our potentially joyful rainbow hued existence. Some accept us, some don’t.

If they don’t, aspire to seek out your ‘logical families’ instead. I had the joy of discovering my logical family at a South London boozer called the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (so might you) with a rich history, a shining beacon of the LGBT+ community in London, stories of which are told (I’ve learned) all around this increasingly fragile planet.

It’s not a sin, it’s just who we were born to be. Befriend it, accept it, love it, protect it. Be safe, be kind, be proud, be you.

(Dedicated to Taverners past, present and future and those we lost along the way. Long live the RVT.)

Samaritans call 116 123

Shaun Dellenty (First published Huffington Post 2014, redrafted 2021)

Follow the author on Twitter @ShaunDellenty

Shaun Dellenty FCCT, FRSA, NPQH is a multi award winning educator, author and global advocate for LGBT+ inclusive education. Website for bookings and commissions http://bit.ly/2J8CwX Fellow of Royal Society of Arts, Pink List, Points of Light, Global Diversity List 2020

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 needs supporting through the Covid crisis. Find out how to make venue bookings and a range of support options at https://www.vauxhalltavern.com/about/

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

  1. I loved you and admired you then as I do now we are who we are and must never be ashamed of our beliefs or what’s in our souls xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 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

  3. 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

    1. Happy memories come flooding back,of The Vauxhall Tavern throughout The 1970s.Monday and Thursday nights with The Trollettes, and after that on to ‘Bang’s’ disco, later renamedG.A.Y.All of the regular acts.Carla,Adrella,The disappointed sisters ,Dockyard Doris ,Saturday nights with the unforgettable Lee Paris,Dave Dale (Lips Inc.)Sandra,Dave Lynn,who was originally part of a trio ,and ‘ladies night’ where Any one could drag up, hosted by Lilly Savage.Wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A beautiful piece,read by a 72 year old (straight) granny who has NEVER understood how people could ever turn their backs on the ones they’re supposed to 💕 love. It breaks my heart. My circle of family and friends have all sorts of folk – gay,straight, lesbian, trans. I deal with what’s inside. 💖

    Liked by 1 person

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