Birmingham promotes itself as ‘having more canals than Venice and more parks than Paris’ and both have certainly seen an increased footfall over the past sixteen months of pandemic and lockdowns. Cruising is back in fashion.
An old colleague claims to have been present at the marketing meeting where this oft touted tagline about Brum was coined by a public relations hack, who apparently made it up on the spot. It turned out the line about parks was true (with Paris having 400 parks, compared to Birmingham’s 500) and Birmingham does technically have more miles of canal than Venice (which doesn’t have the same romantic ring to it). Unfortunately, while the canals of Venice are banked by ancient palaces, glisten beneath picturesque bridges and are filled with bobbing gondolas, Birmingham’s are surrounded by grim graffiti covered warehouses, fester in the murky shadows of Spaghetti Junction and team with trash and old supermarket trolleys.
No matter the reality of this PR statement, those canals and parks have been busy whilst the bars and club have been closed, as they are perfect locations for likeminded gentlemen to meet. The old beats and cruising haunts have been busier than they have in years. It’s been like the 1990s out there!
One popular park, situated just to the south of the city centre, was particularly busy during that initial sunny summer lockdown. I couldn’t stroll around without running into friends and acquaintances from the scene. We gayly greeting each other with knowing smiles and pleasantries, as we cruised well-trodden pathways beneath towering pine trees: I got reacquainted with my old comrade Radomir; bumped into several faces from Boltz; had fun with a hulking guy I knew from the sauna, who always puts me in mind of an American football player; and caught up with one friend who was sooooo hungover that he could only sit sombrely (if not soberly) on a log, with a wan complexion that blended him, chameleon-like, into the foliage.
One elderly gentleman, whom I vaguely recognised from Equator Bar (and uncannily resembled Patrick Stewart), dropped his pants upon seeing me and politely asked, “Would you like this?”
“No, thank you,” I replied, “but it was very kind of you to ask.”
I was intrigued one afternoon to find a portly chap stood in my path, wearing nothing but a toweline robe and a pair of immaculately white trainers.
He took a drag of his cigarette and greeted me with a casual, “Hello”, as though we had both simultaneously stepped out onto adjacent balconies at a compact Mediterranean holiday complex.
How he kept those trainers so pristine and the whereabouts of his other clothes are still a mystery.
I got to recognise the regulars, such as: the three old boys who hung out on a sunny tuffet, like something from a gay Last of the Summer Wine; the disturbed stoner who alternated between an improvised routine of moves that vaguely resembled tai chi or smacking the living Hell out of a tree truck with a staff (people tended to give him a wide berth); and a bad trannie on a bike.
Although a fallow period, compared to pre-Covid promiscuity, I enjoyed hooking up with several new people: There was a handsome Moroccan, who valiantly attempted to persuade me to bottom on each and every encounter… with no success; a Pakistani in full flowing kameez, sporting a jarringly shaved triangle around his crotch, on an otherwise hirsute body; and a dog walker who took advantage of his professional trips to the park to get some unprofessional job satisfaction… Taking the dog dogging.
I met the latter fella one day, while he was out exercising a massive mastiff. The dog was lovely, but overly curious and was determined to get a good sniff, no matter how many times he was gently pushed away. It’s large rugby ball shaped head, short beige hair and large eyes reminded of Zippy from Rainbow, complete with an unfeasibly wide mouth, which I really didn’t trust in such close proximity to my soft delicates.
There is a L-shaped stretch of canal, accessed via an entrance in a Digbeth backstreet, that has always been a popular hunting ground. It has a strip of secluded greenery, teetering perilously on a sheer drop to the pitiful trickle of the River Rea, which always makes my legs feel funny if I venture too close to the edge, and a long dark tunnel in which to loiter with intent.
The tunnel offers a surprisingly safe place to make out, as it affords views of the towpath in both directions. The contrast in light and dark, means that the eyes of anyone walking towards the tunnel cannot adjust quickly enough to penetrate the gloom, but those within the darkness can clearly see anyone approaching…. and correct their attire accordingly.
One afternoon, when I arrived at the canal, there were two guys stood on the bridge, trying to look inconspicuous, as though standing on a drab stretch of Birmingham canal for no apparent reason was a perfectly normal way of spending your time. One was a handsome black lad with a stunning physique, while the other was a grotesque of long greasy hair, doughy face and simultaneously exposed bulbous belly and arse-crack.
I was delighted when the handsome lad immediately flashed a smile and vanished down into the greenery, glancing back to indicate I should follow. Like I needed encouragement!
I mentally punched the air and performed a happy dance in my head, but externally maintained a cool demeanour. It is never good to look too grateful in these circumstances.
As I moved to follow, I passed Doughface, who pointedly let out a disgruntled huff, clearly disappointed that he hadn’t been the recipient of that flirty smile and nonverbal invite into the trees.
I had barely begun to explore that fabulous body when Doughface turned up, pushing his pedal bike through the bushes, and just stood there watching with a dull scowl.
“Thorry mate,” said the lad, with a subtle lisp,
which only made him more attractive “but could you give us some privithy?”
“No,” snapped Doughface, sulkily. “You were interested in me until this guy turned up,” he said, nodding in my direction, “and cockblocked me”
“Did what?” I asked, having never heard the term before.
“Cock-blocked,” he repeated, with emphasis. “You are a cockblocker!!!”
I just laughed and suggested to the lad that we find somewhere else to go.
“I didn’t give him any indication that I was interested in him and never would have done,” the lad told me as we headed back onto the towpath.
Unfortunately, everywhere we went, Doughface followed.
We tried the bridge tunnel and a few other secluded spots, but he trailed with his bike, cursing me and mumbling about cockblockery.
Finally, the lad lost patience and told him to, “Fuck off!!!”
“No,” Doughface harrumphed, “I’m going have you.”
In all my years on the scene, I have never encountered such a vile and sexually aggressive attitude and snapped, “You are out of order, Shrek!”
“This is freakin’ me out, sorry,” the lad apologised. “I’m going to have to go.”
I offered to walk with him, in case Doughface persisted in following, although why I thought someone built like the proverbial brick dunny would require my protection is beyond me.
“No, I’ll be fine,” he assured me. “If he tries anything I’ll punch him.”
“Don’t do that,” I advised him, adding the cliché, “he’s not worth it.” I thought for a moment, looking Doughface up and down, and suggested, “but you could chuck his bike in the canal.”
We said goodbyes, expressing hope of meeting again sometime, then headed off in opposite directions.
Doughface mounted his bike, revealing even more of that cavernous butt-crack and rode away, sneering one last dig at me as he departed, “Beaten by an old man with a handbag!”
I retorted, indignantly, “Do you mind?!! I’m middle-aged… and it’s a satchel!”
Sadly, I’ve not seen the buff boy with the cute lisp again.
These trips to the park and canals were a rare lockdown treat, compared to my level of pre-covid promiscuity. There were points during that first six months of the pandemic where it felt like I had been castrated.
When asked by a work colleague, “What is the first think you are going to do when all restrictions are lifted?”
I automatically replied, “The entire Moseley rugby team.”
The worldwide pandemic presented obstacles to carnal encounters, but you can’t keep a good man down. The gays rapidly adapted and found canal relief.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.