I’d been in Kuala Lumpur a couple of days, and met up with a diver I know from London, Iain. He loves KL as, being gay, he can get up to all sorts of mischief here. Saunas and gay gyms abound. From what he told me of his dalliances, it certainly sounds fun being gay; apart from the shagging men bit. He told about the, quite literal, gay abandon of these places. For a fiver he can use the gym for a while, sit in the steam room and relax afterwards, spot a bit of something he fancies and be getting up to no good within minutes. Why is the straight world not as easy as this? Gym memberships would rocket, and my beer belly would be no more, I can tell you that much. Well…
We’d met a couple of expats, Chris and Helen, who ran a financial investment business here. Helen was a bit odd and intense, but Chris was very funny, and generous with the drinks…which is nice in KL because the price of alcohol is close to prohibitive. They had a Glaswegian called Andy in tow, who was new to the city. Talk about trying too hard, this fellow was a nightmare; one of those people who has to dominate a conversation and be the funniest chap in town, wringing a vaguely amusing story for laughs which turned to grimaces and knowing looks between the rest of us after a few nights of it. Chris said Andy was fishing for business with their company, and seemed to be reading from a script when discussing finance issues, as it was the same patter each time. Chris said there was no way he’d employ him. Aside from the bullshit, the lad was an alcoholic; not exactly unique in Glasgae, but stands out here. He turned up at the pool one afternoon, stinking of yesterday’s booze and carrying a can of beer…the other eleven of a double six-pack in the carrier bag. He looked a mess, and the pleasant conversation we’d previously been having was soon a distant memory as he took over.
I took to avoiding him wherever possible. We were in a bar one night, people-watching and playing Sex Tourist Or Not over a few beers. It’s not a game, more an observational time-waster, which involves one of you pointing out a Westerner with a local, and the others judge the relative ages, good or bad looks and affluence levels of the respective partners and decide whether he’s a seedy old bastard and she’s in it for the money, or not. Alky Andy approached the man we were quietly discussing, as he drank with a younger lady, his back to us (judged Not by the panel, by the way…she was no oil painting). He put an ice cube down the bloke’s back, and turned and ran back to us. He found the quite puerile prank incredibly amusing, unlike myself and Chris; safe to say the Non Sex Tourist wasn’t laughing. As Alky tried to chat to the man and smooth things over, the rest of us melted away. Quite enough of the irritating Scotsman had been had by all. I’d initially been under the impression that Chris had known him awhile, but later on he told me the guy had only been in KL four days, and they couldn’t get rid of him. (Myself and Iain were in stitches a few weeks later, on returning from Redang, to hear he’d headed back home to Scotland. Obviously the financiers of KL had seen through him, as no offers of work had arrived, and he’d spent the money meant to keep him going for a month in just one week; talk about pissing it up the wall.)
Anticipating Alky’s return from placating the wet-backed gentleman, I moved to the periphery of our growing group to avoid him. A tubby fellow called James, with a shared Lancastrian accent, introduced himself. He frowned a little, his head tipped to one side; wagged a finger at my chest.
“I think I know you” he said with a degree of certainty. He did look vaguely familiar to me, too.
“Where you from?” I asked.
“Burnley Bastard, are you?”
We both laughed as I made a face like someone just farted.
Football was discussed for a minute, but this wasn’t the connection, and we were still puzzled.
“How old are you?” I tried.
I suspected I now had the answer.
In the early 90s, Manchester University finally tired of sending me letters asking me to return and avoid wasting what creative talent I had. They’d sent me three before I received one telling me they gave up: I was out. It took me ten years and several shit jobs to realise this huge error, returning to MMU to study for a part-time degree and finding my way to London. But back then, I couldn’t give a toss about studying. In those days, you lived for the weekends.
The summer after being kicked out, I was working in the sun as a landscape gardener on a pleasant housing estate in Blackburn. Tending a footpath border between leafy streets, the strains of a favourite House record drifted on the breeze from a nearby garden. Laughing voices, and the smell of barbecuing chicken drifted with it. Bastards. As I moved up the path, breaking and turning soil with my hoe, the music got louder; and better. I needed to know where this mix was from. I approached the wall and popped my head over. Several lads of my age were sitting in the sun, drinking beer and passing joints around.
“Hey mate” I called to one of them “that tape’s fucking ace…where’s it from?”
“Monroes, in Blackburn.” He walked over.
“Heard of the place, whereabouts is it?”
He gave me directions, then paused. “Fancy a smoke?”
I grinned. “Too right, cheers. Can my mate come?”
“Neil!” I shouted down the pathway. My co-worker looked over, and smiled as I climbed the wall. Downing tools, he ran over to join me. An hour later, we were pleasantly stoned, drinking cold beers and eating chicken, and I had some new mates. The toil in the hot sun went out of the window for the afternoon. The lad I’d initially chatted to was Chris, and between mouthfuls of chicken burger, his mayonnaise-smudged mouth offered “We’re going to Monroes this Saturday night…why don’t you come with us?” That was the start of a great summer.
Returning to 2010, I posed a question to James. Being the same age, and from towns 10 miles either side of Blackburn, there was only one possible connection: the Rave scene. “Did you go to Monroes?”
“Whereabouts?” Every group of mates naturally gravitated to the same area of the club every week, dancing and sweating out chemicals for hours on end. You knew the same faces, exchanged broad grins with the same eyes when a certain track was dropped. It was a brilliant club, a brilliant summer; some of the best days of my life.
“On the left, just as you walked inside” he said.
“So you may know my ex, Claire Holden? Used to go out with Jack?”
“And Damien, and Chris Reed?” he asked, and chuckled when I told him how I met Chris at his barbecue.
Despite being only on nodding terms at the time, it was quite bizarre to bump into each other in an Asian city. James has worked in KL for three years, and rented a nice pad in Sentral. He kindly offered me one of his spare rooms any time I’m in town. We had a great night reminiscing, aided by the few records he’d brought over from that era…it was the first time in eighteen months that I’d touched a pair of 1210s, and I couldn’t wait to mix a few tunes.
The summers of 1989, 1990 and 1991 are indelibly etched on my memory. I don’t regret getting kicked out of university, as I was part of the biggest youth movement since the ‘60s. If you weren’t there, it’s hard to communicate the excitement House music had generated in us as it escaped its relative anonymity in America, to be wrapped in loving Northern English arms. Saturday nights were never the same again; dancing for hours in a club; the waiting at motorway service stations for a car to streak through and lead us to a secret location; illegally-breached industrial buildings echoing with the hypnotic sounds of techno; gaunt masks in the early morning light, hallucinogens wearing off, seeing frightening faces and knowing yours was among them; the agony after the ecstasy, of swinging truncheons and banging shields as the police break in.
It all flooded back that night, and it was hard to believe it was half a lifetime ago. We reflected long into the night; 20 years; where have they gone?