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Peter Robins founded the mature gay social group Pimpernel. Before his passing in 2016 he talked to 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," said the former senior BBC political journalist Peter Robins who Chaired Pimpernel, the social group for gay men over 45 living in Greater London. "But," he cautioned, "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" - claimed 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," reminisced 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 continued 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 explained. "There were also several gay venues in Soho to which police turned a blind eye."

Robins remembered the milestones that marked sea changes of public attitudes. He recalled 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 in 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 confessed, in full flow.

"I've been constantly aware," said 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 thought many of the iconic gay public figures of his day were 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 were ground breaking but we have come such a distance since then that there is no longer a place for people acting like that."


Peter Robins book Touching Harry
"I go into Soho very little now," Robins continued. "I used to go to the bars in Kennington where Pimpernel met, and we have a gay bar in Croydon where I lived. Otherwise, I'd 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 was 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 wasn't a campaigning group," he admited, "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 of a generation of 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," bemoaned 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

Having been funded in part by Age Concern he was pleased they organised 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," said Robins, the first to admit he ended up more a campaigner than he was in the repressive but heady days of his own youth.

The Pimpernel Group that Robins ran used to meet in Kennington every Thursday, and was itself financially supported by Age Concern. Dozens of members aged 45-95 years gathered from across London to socialise, listen to guest speakers and go on trips. Most meetings ended up at the nearby Cock Tavern. "We didn't call ourselves a club any more," he joked. "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 were single, though there were a few couples and some men who apparently prefered to come along without their partners - and that's not all.

"I did get phone calls from time to time," confided Robins with a glint in his eye, "from younger men wanting to come along, but they couldn't seem to wait for an 'open' meeting. It must have been the hormones - it was an 'I want it now' attitude which could have destroyed the group if allowed. But where was I to send the twenty eight year old who said he wasn't after anyone's money, he just wanted a father figure?"

Where indeed? The poor young dears!

 

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