I think it was probably the first time that I ever experienced openly gay people, The Amsterdam Bar in Huddersfield, 1977-ish, it was probably the first time I’d used the word “gay” too, the country was awakening to a new enlightenment, the legality of homosexuality had been established by an act of parliament ten years previously and yet like many other minorities gay people were still subjected to ridicule, prejudice and mockery even on prime time TV where “queers” and “puffs” like Larry Grayson and John Inman hogged the limelight and set the standard for public perceptions of what a gay man was like.
It was Steve Smith who first told us about The Amsterdam Bar, his cousin who was at University in Huddersfield was a regular and he made it sound like a pub like no other pub we’d ever been in, we were to discover over several visits that he wasn’t exaggerating either, I’ve never been in a pub like it since.
Its a long way to drive for a night out, ok it doesn’t look that far on a map from Leeds to Huddersfield but you pass dozens of pubs on the way and our little convoy of three cars hesitated outside each one as the occupants demands for more beer grew louder as we passed each one but we persevered and met up with Steve Smiths cousin outside the Amsterdam at the back of a good sized queue even at 7pm on a Saturday night.
“Don’t mention puffs or queers, don’t point at anyone and definitely don’t laugh” advised Steve Smiths cousin, “some of these queers are hard lads” we took this as read, it was Huddersfield after all, “oh and by the way” he added “when they call last orders drink up and get rid of your glass straight away”.
It was loud inside, loud sweaty and totally bizarre to a group of lads from Leeds who thought they’d already seen it all in their big city bars, an unseen DJ played disco tunes of the era (we’re talking about Saturday Night Fever here, quite a camp look when you think about it) and whilst the ratio of men to women was high there wasn’t very much at all to point at, no Larry Grayson-stylee camp men, no overtly flamboyant Quentin Crisp look-alikey’s and no men obviously dressed as women, still, we sat around a circular table and kept our heads down whispering to each other not to point and definitely not to laugh.
The party atmosphere grew louder and more brash as the evening rolled on until finally it was “supping up time” which in any “ordinary” pub in the county would result in a dash to the bar for more beer and a prolonged argument for the next half hour as the landlord tried to prise those drinks from your hands with a “Have you lot no bloody homes to go to ?”
Not so in The Amsterdam Bar though, last orders was greeted with a huge cheer and a rush of activity to down your last drinks and return all of the glasses to the bar, these gay blokes were well behaved we all thought, but there was method in the madness.
As soon as the bar and security staff confirmed that all glasses were cleared from the tables the lights dimmed, a huge cheer went up from the crowd and then a theatre spotlight illuminated a corner of the bar from which stepped the first drag act that I had ever seen in my short life thus far.
It may or may not have been one or more of the landlord and/or bar staff who put on a half hour long floor show of such wonderful flamboyance, some of whom actually looked quite beautiful, or maybe that was the beer, culminating in the troop leader sitting on a swing and swinging above our heads throwing roses down on us all and blowing kisses as he/she sang a medley of Streisand and Garland songs – yes stereotypical, but yes, great fun.
We returned several times over the next year or so, we saw Lyn Paul perform there once,
Lyn Paul of The New Seekers, yes you do know her, the blond one out of The New Seekers, ok the female blond one out of the New Seekers, the one who wouldn’t look like a nightmare if you woke up next to her, yes thats her.
We were complimentary gay men for a year for gay men knew how to enjoy themselves in The Amsterdam Bar – its a car park for an adjacent factory now according to Google Maps and the two owners fled to Benidorm (according to five minutes research on t’interweb) after the VAT man came after them (oh but that has some resonance with me).
Going back to mild beer and dominoes in The Queenswood Club was a bit of a let down after that.