Gregg Homme
Peter Robins founded the mature gay social group Pimpernel. He's been talking with Adrian Gillan about the bad old days and ageism in the current cult of youth.

"Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved": A popular old musical refrain or a modern gay anthem? But was it ever thus? Is gay ageism any worse than that found elsewhere? And what are the issues particularly affecting older gay men today?

"I do occasionally hear people say once you're over twenty nine, no one wants to know you in the bars," says 70-year old former senior BBC political journalist Peter Robins who runs Pimpernel, the social group for gay men over 45 living in Greater London. "But," he cautions, "don't think we are singular in that, because the same can be said for heterosexuals. It's the whole commercial thing of pitching any scene to those with the most surplus money that chose to spend it in bars and clubs - and that's generally people under thirty."
Peter Robins
"And" - claims Robins - "ageism in gay circles is nothing new. Young men always did act like Jean Brodie in their prime! If we go back to the fifties for example, if you were young and pretty, you were always being invited out and the centre of attention. I used to get taken to a pub called The Fitzroy near Tottenham Court Road - it was incredible."

GAY LONDON IN THE FIFTIES

Robins knew the London scene in the 50's and 60's but was also well travelled, both internationally and within Britain. There was a definite technique for meeting men without the aid of an overt, legal scene either listed or sprawling out onto the pavements.

"You'd find yourself in a strange town," reminisces Robins rather grandly. "You'd look for the riverside, the park, even the station toilets and you'd go with someone you might not even fancy. But the most important thing was the cigarette afterwards, when you'd ask casually where the gay-friendly pub was. Most places usually had one, often for 'theatricals'."

Robins continues nostalgically of the capital he knew so well: "There used to be a cottage called the Iron Lung down on the Chelsea Embankment which they raised to the ground and one called the Black Box at Clapham North at the top of the high street. And there was the Putney tow path and Richmond down by the river."

"If you wanted to pick up rent back then - not that I ever did - you'd use the circular foyer at Piccadilly tube," he explains. "There were also several gay venues in Soho to which police turned a blind eye."

Robins also remembers the milestones that marked sea changes of public attitudes. He recalls the abysmal public reaction to actor John Gielgud being caught in a Chelsea toilet in the early fifties and the Montagu trials that indicated a definite sea change in public mood resulting in the 1957 Wolfendon Report, the author of which had a gay son.

"On the night on 1967 on which our dear Sovereign signed 'the Act', I was out on Clapham Common picking up a man who I took home to my flat," Robins confesses, now in full flow.

"I've been constantly aware," says Robins, "of how lucky I've been to work at places like the BBC - quite different from being on a factory floor somewhere, though not entirely. I didn't join the Gay Liberation Front, which would have been like asking for my resignation at the Beeb the following morning - I preferred to stay and work from the inside, like a sort of Philby character."

Robins thinks many of today's gay public figures are stuck in an outdated 'camp' past: "Anyone rather than John Inman, Julian Clary or the guy from Gimme, Gimme, Gimme! They're comfy for straight people. Back in the 50's Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey broke ground that needed breaking but we have come such a distance since then that there is no longer a place for people acting like that."

"I go into Soho very little now," Robins continues. "I go to the bars in Kennington where Pimpernel meet, and we have a gay bar in Croydon where I live. Otherwise, I tend to steer clear and think to myself that that's for the young people. I enjoyed thoroughly going to Brighton Pride in the summer though and mixing with the crowd there."

FREEDOMS TAKEN FOR GRANTED

When asked if young gay people take their hard-won freedoms for granted, Robins is adamant yet understanding: "They don't give a bugger for the hard work and struggle that's gone on over the last few decades. And I expect if I was the young one I'd feel the same."

"Pimpernel is not a campaigning group," he admits, "but should we have a mad government who tries to make us all illegal again then many of us would be out - some with Zimmer frames - marching with the rest."

One just hopes that, should that great yet horrendous call ever come, he would be supported keenly by the modern let-me-expose-my-navel-so-I-can-gaze-at-it Kylie crowd. As it is, there are many hot, live issues effecting older gay people like Peter Robins - issues that all gay people should be fighting for to protect their own futures. After all, most of us desire to live long and prosper.

"I haven't seen that much coverage in the gay media about issues affecting older people," bemoans Robins, "not outside the problem pages. But what about retirement, pensions, housing, care for the elderly and partnership rights? I know of a case where the brother of a dead man arrived with a note pad, did an inventory, and then told the surviving partner he had a week to get out."

FIRST EVER CONFERENCE

So - not a moment too soon, at the end of April - Age Concern are organising the first ever national conference to highlight the needs of older lesbians and gay men. "It's important that the Age Concern conference doesn't just become a talking shop, whilst we all grow older. We need to make the most of it," says Robins, the first to admit he is more a campaigner now than in the repressive but heady days of his own youth.

The Pimpernel Group that Robins runs meets in Kennington every Thursday, and is itself financially supported by Age Concern. Dozens of members aged 45-95 years gather from across London to socialise, listen to guest speakers and go on trips. Most meetings end up at the nearby Cock Tavern. "We don't call ourselves a club any more," he jokes. "I used to get rung up at one in the morning to be asked if the bar was still open and what the dress code was."

Most members are single, though there are a few couples and some men who apparently prefer to come along without their partners - and that's not all.

"I do get phone calls from time to time," confides Robins with a glint in his eye, "from younger men wanting to come along, but they can't seem to wait for an 'open' meeting. It must be the hormones - it's an 'I want it now' attitude which could destroy the group if allowed. But where am I to send the twenty eight year old who says he's not after anyone's money, he just wants a father figure?"

Where indeed? The poor young dears!

 

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