If you go down to the woods today…
By Leon Horton
Exit my back door at speed (so many have), turn left, hotfoot it past the school, take another left and slide on down to the nature reserve… and you’ll find yourself at a gay cruising area. In a city, you’re never more than a hard-on away from a cruising area, but this is the big one: “Manchester’s answer to Hampstead Heath” (where I once fell headfirst into a bog and played Othello to declining taxi drivers all the way back to Islington.)
If you approach the cruising area from the other direction, from the pub car park on the other side of the river (this being the famous River Mersey no less) you’ll see the warning sign:
Please note that for your safety this area is regularly visited by the police and local authority patrol services
Any person participating in illegal or inappropriate behaviour may be prosecuted
Illegal or inappropriate – sounds great – but look a little closer – Paint cracked and peeling, metal fringes rusting…
The sign is old.
There are two main areas, car park or woods, and the action tends to move with the sun. You can, as the brochure says, start in the apple orchards about midday. Enjoy the lunchtime rush at your leisure, with two spikes around 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. And if you’re still hungry after lunch, why not hang around all afternoon, walk in circles until your balls ache and convince yourself the fuck of your life is just around the corner, because one day…
Nothing doing, head across the footbridge to the pub for a couple, while all around are walking their dogs, jogging, cycling, pushing baby buggies, then follow the dying sun along the footpath to the middle bit – another wooded area. The middle bit used to be busy at dusk, and you still might get lucky even today, though it’s doubtful. Best just smoke a joint and wait.[epq-quote align=”align-left”]Doggers are high-risk stupid people, often fucking in plain sight in broad daylight. They attract attention because they’re mostly exhibitionists, and they bring the police.[/epq-quote]
With darkness you’ve only one option left: the car park by the visitor’s centre, where the Doggers might be hiding out in the open. Bastards, get your own place, we were here first. Doggers are high-risk stupid people, often fucking in plain sight in broad daylight. They attract attention because they’re mostly exhibitionists, and they bring the police.
Not that we are any better. In its heyday, this place would be crawling with gay and bisexual men once the sun disappeared. Walking up and down or hanging back in the shadows, checking each other out, disappearing together into the bushes: we were noticed; and the police and the council acted together to put a stop to it… for a while.
The “powers that be” didn’t actually do much – they just had to be seen to be doing something. And putting up warning signs, cutting down trees and bushes – depriving the enemy of cover – with a couple of police raids thrown in for good measure, was effective enough in the short term. But trees and bushes grow back, and police raids are needed elsewhere.
And all that theatre can be seen for free if you park your arse at the picnic benches at the right time.
The brochure makes this place sound like the last days of Rome: Cupid nursing a hard-on in the long grass, Bacchus on his knees in the bushes. And time was when it was just like that – but now? The brochure is old – wrinkled in sepia tone – chemical memories of amyl nights. Rome wasn’t burned in a day, but thanks to smartphone dating apps, this once and mighty empire has enough barbarians at the gate to put a funeral pyre under it.
Grindr ate my sex life.
But glance around this open-air crematorium… and with the wind blowing ashes in the right direction, you can still see the fit and the young (the all too rare), guys on benefits or in care (sorry, retired), the self-employed and the dispossessed, pretend joggers (who break into a run the minute they see you – so funny) and the hetero-perplexed. There are no guarantees, but if you sit by the stones under the apple trees, you might get to watch the dance: the billing and cooing and the backward glance.
And then sometimes… sometimes there’s “nothing” so quickly. You might sit there for hours on a glorious summer’s day, the place emptier than a boy on prunes. Then again, you might trudge through winter snow to the Promised Land – it’s all just pot luck.
I’ve seen some oddball characters down here, made some good friends too: Panda Eyes, Chicken Legs George, Mr Shitter, Heavy Metal Tracy… Panda Eyes, now he just wants to watch and masturbate, ask you what your family would think if they could see you; Chicken Legs George smokes weed and tries to sell you Viagra; Mr Shitter carries a satchel of toilet rolls wherever he goes, leaves them hanging on trees; Heavy Metal Tracy, long hair and leather jacket, looks like a 1980s rocker – until he/she opens his/her mouth. “Call me, Tracy,” he/she says, effeminate to the core.
And then there’s the Crow Man – a Jamaican guy obsessed with superhero films, who plays the racist card if panicked. First time I saw him he was tearing pages from a bible and scattering them along the paths, shouting to no one in particular “I know what you’re doing!”
Much later, when I asked why he’d accused my friend of being racist, he played the racist card and screamed to a group of passing joggers I was threatening him. Dumb cunt might’ve got me into serious shit had the joggers not realized he was bone-dead mental.
The Crow Man – so named because he was once spotted running across a field, flapping his arms and squawking like a carrion bird – never has been, never will be my friend.
Stan By Your Man is my friend. A born raconteur, with a neat line in comedy and filth, Stan is an afternoon stalwart of this place – and what with most writers being drunk by lunchtime, that’s probably when we first met; although I can’t remember how long ago.
“No, I can’t remember either,” he says, over a pint in the pub across the footbridge, “but we’ve both been coming here years, haven’t we? I mean, if you think my dog died in 2012 –”
“Oh, it’s long before that. I’ve been coming here since 2001.”
“Exactly, we’ve rung the changes.”
Whenever it was, that is how Stan, a second generation Austrian in his late 50s, who used to make a living buying and selling online (sometimes from police proceeds of crime auctions), that is how he and I first met – down in the orchards, where apples aren’t the only fruit, in among the shape-shifting sun-dappled branches and the circling vultures.
Stan recalls one such vulture known as the Wrestler, a great big denim-clad bruiser of a man who liked to play rough with all and sundry – myself included. We’ve all got a story about the Wrestler. After my last encounter, I wanted to spray-paint “paedo” on his car.
“I was the first one to meet the fucker,” Stan says, “and when I met him – well, you know how big he was – and in no way am I slight – I told you he picked me up with one fucking arm –”
I burst out laughing, remember who we’re talking about and immediately apologise. “It’s not funny, I’m sorry.”
“He said, ‘let’s go over there and get naked and wrestle.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no, oh fucking hell, no,’ and when I went back – you know to the stones where all the lads were sat – they’re all sort of saying ‘Oh, fucking hell, Stan, you always get ’em, don’t you?’ Steve – you know Steve? – he picked him up – picked him up and threw him to the fucking floor.”
“That’s what he did to me,” I say. “Jumped out of the bushes and pinned me down. I thought I was gonna get raped.”
“That’s what Steve said. If he wanted to rape you – if he was on top of you – you’d have no fucking chance.”
We both fall silent for a moment. This isn’t the laugh-out-loud anecdote either of us is aiming for, and my use of the word “rape” has punctured the story before it goes any further. Still, it serves as a strong reminder that gay cruising, online or out there in the real world, can be a risky and dangerous pastime – which for some is part of the pleasure.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]Still, it serves as a strong reminder that gay cruising, online or out there in the real world, can be a risky and dangerous pastime – which for some is part of the pleasure.[/epq-quote]
I get another round in, grease the wheels a little, and we talk off subject for a while about a mutual friend who regularly gets a blow job in a well-known burger chain’s toilet from one of the staff.
“Oh, god,” Stan says, chuckling to himself. “I must’ve told you the one about the guy and the baby oil.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I was walking along the path, you know, not even in the woods, when all of a sudden I hear this voice.” (Plaintive camp voice) “‘Helloo… Helloo…’ And I think, what the fuck is that? Anyway, there’s this guy up ahead comes out the bushes, he wasn’t even – he was just on the path – and he was like ‘Hellooo…’ So I walk up, and honestly, he had a pair of cut-off jeans – cut off up to here – one ball hanging out, and he’s wearing this camisole top, see-through, and he’s covered head-to-toe in baby oil. And I’m not being horrible, but he was the most ugly looking pig you’ve ever seen –“
“A greasy pig?”
“Yeah. And he goes, ‘Will you rub some more oil on me?’ and I said ‘Oh, no, get lost.’ So anyway, I go in the woods, and about half an hour later he comes up to me and says ‘Still no chance of a shag then?’ So I says, ‘No, I’m not fucking touching you.’”
“Was he a big guy?”
“No, he was only small. Anyway, if you can imagine this, he’s still got a ball hanging out –”
“The last turkey in the shop.”
Stan laughs. “Yeah. And he’s still covered in this oil. And I sort of said ‘Mate, you know, be careful walking round like that because, you know, normal people walk in here.
And he says (laughs) ‘I can’t fucking remember where I put me clothes, I left them in a bush.’”
I’m in hysterics now.
“So anyway, I do a circuit, and he’s there again, on one of the stones in the middle, and the cut-off jeans were off, and he’s getting shagged rotten by this fella, and he’s squealing like a stuck pig. So I stood there and I’m thinking, I’m gonna watch this for two minutes because I don’t fucking believe it and we are all gonna get arrested here.”
My belly aches from laughing.
“Anyway, this fella shoots his load all over his back, so he’s covered in spunk and baby oil, and he’s putting his things back on – his cut-off jeans and camisole top – and he says to me, on poppers – he was poppered out of his head – ‘I’ve gotta go find me clothes now.’ And I thought, what the fuck have I just walked into? ‘Hellooo. Hellooo…’”
You couldn’t make it up. We laugh at Stan’s propensity for running into the most bizarre situations, and talk some more about the good old days – the days before Grindr.
But time is against us and we part company. Apropos of nothing, I head off into the woods.
All things move towards their end –
“Excuse me, sir…” – a voice from the past.
– and everything has its time.
“Excuse me…” – bleeds into present tense.
And sometimes –
“Excuse me…” – registers.
“WHAT? WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT? I’M SUMMING UP HERE.”
“Might I ask what you’re doing here, sir?”
The police: ah, yes, let’s not forget the police. The first thing you notice when a plainclothes policeman taps you on the shoulder is the accusatory tone. Don’t panic. This is your opportunity to wrong-foot the bastard – by telling the truth. If there’s one thing guaranteed to turn a copper blue, it is someone telling them the truth. It upsets their natural order.
“Well, I’m not being funny, but you know what I’m up to.”
“Erm…Oh… Right… Well, that’s refreshing. Most people give me some cock and bull about losing their dog.”
I’m not most people and I don’t own a dog – and unless they catch you in the act, in flagrante, there isn’t much the law can do. Cruising in itself isn’t illegal. That officer asked me why I didn’t just go to a gay bar to cop off, and when I said – only partly joking – there were too many vacuous little faggots down that street, he was visibly shocked.
“You can’t say that.”
“No,” I replied, “you can’t say that. I have diplomatic immunity.”
“Well, that’s as maybe,” he blustered, “but I’m here all night, so you might as well go home.”
All things move towards their end and everything has its time. And sometimes this place feels like a mausoleum – with “right place, wrong time” etched into its stone façade.
But a headstone is not a grave.
A wise old Chinese physicist once told me that energy, in all its disparate forms, can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only dissipate – that is, it can only change its form.
And as sure as Grindr and all the other smartphone dating apps will one day be usurped, gay cruising will adapt and survive in some shape or form. Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Give him a rod, and he’ll stick it where the sun don’t shine.
So if you go down to the woods today, you won’t be sure of a big surprise. But you just might find, if you loiter long enough, there are still days when you get what you want.
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Leon Horton is a cultural journalist and humorist. After gaining his masters from the University of Salford, he lost the will to live working as a court reporter (wouldn’t you?), drank himself into a corner writing upbeat “isn’t everything marvellous” crap for advertising magazines, and enjoyed a failed stint as the editor of Old Trafford News. His writing has been described as “not quite what we’re looking for” and is published by Beat Scene, International Times, Beatdom, Literary Heist, Empty Mirror and Erotic Review. In January 2019, he became a member of the European Beat Studies Network. When he’s not barking at the moon or up the wrong trouser leg, Leon can be found blogging Under the Counterculture at Https://www.leonhorton.wordpress.com
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