Shaun Dellenty-Blog

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 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 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. On attempting to order a pint at the heaving bar, I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotions; 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’m sprawled awkwardly over my bedroom floor, snipping song lyrics from unsteady towers of Smash Hits Magazines in order to slot them into the sleeves of my 7 inch single collection, where I suspect they remain to this day. The 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 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 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 slip out and 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. As a child I lacked the vocabulary to define myself and spent my primary school years not fitting in and consciously modifying my physicality in response to negativity from my peers and teachers, from being made to feel like the ‘other’.

‘Run away, turn away’

By 1984, I had internalised countless homophobic and toxic messages from my peers, parents, teachers, church leaders and politicians, along with news reports about police entrapment and tragic TV tales in which stereotyped gay characters killed themselves, were murdered or were treated as figures of contemptuous derision. No positive representation existed to offset this and Section 28 neutered the inherent compassion of many educators.

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 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. No one had said this about the parents who held ‘mumps meetings’ to ensure their children got mumps before puberty, after all a virus is just that, an indiscriminate life-form borne (however cruelly) out of nature.

I internalised these judgemental toxic messages (queers caused it, queers deserve it) and like so many of my LGBT+ peers the fear and prejudice of others rewired my subconscious, stealing itself away only to be triggered during periods of depression, self medication with alcohol or at the butt end of relationships as abandonment, rejection and worthlessness took hold, resulting in a potentially deadly lack of self care.

‘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 were a kind of validation; I knew instinctively what they were about and in that moment they became therapy, permeating the fake version of me I was forced to present to the world in a vain attempt to conform and avoid beatings. These verses brought 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 hearing Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” on the radio, I watched Saturday morning TV with my parents and the same melancholy keyboards and falsetto voice that had so affected me in my bedroom chimed out of the television. Potent shots of Jimmy Sommerville’s sensitive eyes framed under a harsh crew cut flickered across the screen, even as my stomach knotted and my face burned scarlet.

‘Run away turn away’

Again the lyrics cut straight deep into 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, my parents. (Mum, Dad don’t look up from your magazines and steal this precious moment of solidarity away from me.)

Those flickering images back in 1984 never left me, such was their resonance. If I close my eyes I still see Jimmy Sommerville smiling bashfully at the handsome guy in the swimming pool, whose smile seemed to suggest he was flattered by the attention of another man. 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 (not chosen) to love. I have seen through the frightened eyes of Jimmy’s character as he cowered in an alley, as the handsome swimming pool guy and his mates beat a tempo of hate into his body.

A tempo I still hear, feel and taste all too well, yes I feel it now.

The Smalltown Boy video concludes with a policeman returning Jimmy 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 gay youth 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 or a positive sign that the feelings of loathing and otherness I direct at myself will not be mirrored by those I look to for guidance, security, love and respect.

As the video reaches its conclusion Jimmy leaves his parent’s home, his Mum 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 offers him money, but refuses to shake his son’s queer hand.

It’s a sin, apparently.

‘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 and tried to ground me, ended my first 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 then meet a loving and generous partner and we prevailed for twelve mostly very happy years, which in itself is a privilege.

For my teenage self the final shots of the Smalltown Boy clip 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 absolutely revelatory to me; perhaps there was a place for me and others like me on Planet Earth 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.

Watching the Smalltown Boy video today, I recall some of the people I’ve met since moving to London in 2000, 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 is still stealing away futures, despite highly effective medications and the availability of Prep. Being told ‘it’s a sin’ as a child goes in deep, but it doesn’t change who we were born to be.

Something beautiful now; when Jimmy Sommerville parted with Bronski Beat they recruited a new singer called John Foster and when John Foster left they recruited 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 and 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 those opening pulsing electronic chords from so long ago filled that historic, joyful old pub in Vauxhall. 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’

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 many people present still bore scar tissue of childhood and AIDS related loss and trauma. I went to swig my beer, but my composure deserted me and uncontrollable tears ran into my lager. Embarrassed I scanned the room to see if anyone was looking at me, only to witness tears falling from the eyes of many others around us. I wasn’t 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 those gathered in that oh so very special space.

For a surreal moment punter numbers seemed to swell; the faces of those who fled cities, towns and villages, those we lost along the way, seeking perhaps one last moment of stolen acceptance before fading forever into the gaps in the crowd.

Names unknown, stories unspoken, silenced by stigma. We will remember them.

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

In 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 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.

In 2021 some of the parents who once ‘discreetly’ buried their offspring due to AIDS (sorry ‘a sudden and short illness’) now openly discuss their own C19 status and viral loads over coffee fuelled Zoom meetings with families, friends and colleagues, thankfully untainted by stigma and good for them. No one deserves to suffer, yet their children deserved better, we all do.

So here’s to the many Smalltown folk we’ve lost to C19 since February 2020, those with whom I shared the Vauxhall Tavern dance-floor and in whose company I once found my tribe. Some fought bravely to survive AIDS, some were living with HIV, only to be taken down by a new coronavirus in the present. In quieter moments it feels deeply unfair, but my anger is energy more productively expended in honouring their memories by shining brighter in my life and global LGBT+ advocacy. Maintaining mental and spiritual equilibrium in lockdown, and processing COVID losses in isolation requires me not to inhabit spaces of blame and judgement, only those of gratitude that my fallen friends ever breathed at all. In a world stricken by inequalities, I don’t think viruses consciously discriminate, but do I, do you, do we?

I hope we will dance again my fallen Smalltown friends, free from suffering in a better place.

One day, you might find yourself standing on a platform, the wind and the rain on your sad and lonely face. Just as carriages make departures, they may also return to those you once felt compelled to leave behind. The experience will have changed you and perhaps them. With patience they may even come to accept you for who you really are, these parents who after all, once gifted us Smalltown people our potentially joyful rainbow hued existence.

If they don’t, it’s their loss, 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.

In 2008 I delivered a decidedly patchy stand up routine on that hallowed stage as part of a comedy showcase for Zoe Lyons, it might have driven the audience to the bar, but it didn’t matter to me, a joyful validation for the traumatised, naive country boy who came to London twenty odd years ago to find his tribe.

Cry boy cry no more.

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

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.

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.)

Samaritans call 116 123

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

Follow the author on Twitter @ShaunDellenty

Shaun Dellenty FCCT, 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/