To those from Little Sheepwash On The Wolde where the very presence of gay pubs is a local scandal, Birmingham is close to being the eighth wonder of the world. However, to sophisticated cosmopolitan types from London or Manchester, Birmingham's gay scene is often considered a dark dingy provincial backwater.
While it can be so claustrophobic that it is impossible to get drunk and snog an ugly old bloke without the world and her girlfriend knowing about it, it's also large enough to be considered England's third gay city, and has the largest free Pride event in the UK. The gay 'Village' is centred on the Hurst Street area. So taking a virtual walk starting at the Smallbrook Queensway end of Hurst Street, past McClusky's (a 'straight' bar) and Zanzibar, (which would never let someone who looks remotely like a lesbian past the door), we soon find:
Partners is a basement bar, and many people are too scared to venture down the rather steep stairs. It's a bit dark and gay rather than mixed. Some people find the customers a bit scary, but there are more women than you'll find on the average night at Kudos or Missing. It's a place to go for a quiet drink rather than a pre-club bar. There's always some cheesy music on the jukebox, and the beer's the right price.
So moving on past Mr Egg (when it's said that you'd never find a place like that anywhere but Birmingham it is not meant as a compliment), the Glee Club, and some more straight pubs.
The Green Room
Officially a pub but disguised as a restaurant, this is the location of a thousand first dates. The food's good even if the drinks are slightly pricey, and the coffee's nice, the atmosphere's very relaxed, and there's a wall signed by celebrities appearing at the Hippodrome theatre over the road. The place is officially 'mixed' rather than gay, the menu hasn't changed in two years, and it can be full of tables of couples swathed in awkward silence.
The music's cheesy, it is said that the male strippers are attractive, doubles of the house spirits are very, very cheap, the drag queens are funny, you can drink outside in the summer and the bar staff are young, pretty and friendly. What more could you want?
Well, Missing's fault is its popularity - even on a weeknight it can be difficult to move, getting served at the bar can be a challenge and there's nowhere to sit down inside in the evenings. In addition to this, the music's too loud to talk, yet there's not enough space to dance. In the midweek the men can be a little too old and the women a little too straight.
A short and all too familiar stagger from Missing you will find...
Angel's Café Bar
Those who have been on the scene for years will stare into their pints and reminisce about the days when Angel's was a classy, modern and smart venue where you couldn't even breathe on a Thursday or Saturday night. The sign has fallen down, the paintwork is peeling, and the place is devoid of customers. Yet the drinks are still at 'trendy bar' prices.
It's got big glass windows and music that manages to get the balance right between getting you in the mood for a night on the tiles without making you have to shout the latest hot gossip into people's ears. The atmosphere is so relaxed that, whether you've come tarted up for a night on the town or in your old jeans and a sweatshirt, you still won't feel out of place. There still isn't a better place to get a coffee during a hectic day's shopping, or have a pint or ten in the afternoon.
Since a much-needed refurbishment, Angel's has started the slow process of getting back onto its feet. Kudos and Missing had better watch out....
Just over the road from Angles you will find:
Many of the regulars have mixed feelings about Route; it's a Bass pub that just happens to be in the right location to extract money from the gay community. The décor seems downright odd at times (just what are the statues for?), and it can be a little cruisey.
It's a pleasant, trendy and young pub, fairly big, with a good young crowd and the women get to cruise too. Monday nights have gone a long way to making the scene an all-week party experience. The drinks are all very cheap, and when it gets busy it can be bursting at the seams...
Just over the road from Route is a bright banana yellow pub.
On an evening during the week, it's lovely pub for a pint and a deep, meaningful reflection with your friends on the current state of the scene. It's an odd combination of pleasant without being packed full of little blonde scene queens. On a Saturday night, the beer garden becomes a dance floor and it transforms into a slightly hardcore club night. There was a very popular pilot Indy night recently which it is hoped will become a regular feature.
This brings us to the end of Hurst Street. However, a quick wander up Lower Essex Street and the gay Village continues.
Can you think of a bad word to say about the 'gale? Well it's recently been suffering from the opening of DV8 over the road. Saturday nights though not as busy as they once were are still the highlight of the week. When you get sick of dancing and fall over, there's a bar on the first floor where the drinks are half price until 11.30. As with most gay pubs, the two pool tables are the unofficial lesbian cruising ground, and the restaurant does a very good line in curly fries and cheese. There's rather a nice beer garden at the back where casual acquaintances are found and lost, where a million drunken queens confess to a million varied sins, and where fag hags dry the tears of their traumatised gay best friends.
Just over the road is the latest addition to the Birmingham Scene...
Well it's not as good as the 'gale (is anything?) but there's nothing actually wrong with the latest addition to the Birmingham Scene; two big dance floors, lots of people, lesbians welcome and lots of camp music. DV8 is defiantly responsible for putting Sunday nights on the social diary (see below). There's still no escape from the fact that this is a converted warehouse and there's very little to do but dance. Nowhere to have a chat or collapse in a drunken stupor and there's no lesbian cruising area.
While we're on the subject of lesbians, a few minutes down Kent Street is...
Despite recent expansion on the scene, The Fox remains the only pub where penis-owners are in the minority but are not unwelcome. It's something of a haven when you want a drink without being surrounded by blond 18-year-olds that are wondering whether their latest boyfriend is an 'Arthur or Martha'. You can talk without having to shout and there's a nice beer garden. On the other hand, it can feel a little like your grandmother's front room with black and white pictures of naked women on the wall, (which is an odd combination).
A little out of the gay Village area, but still an important feature on the scene is...
The big novelty of Kudos is that it has big screens where you can watch the video of the song that they are playing, which is a decided advantage when the conversation grows boring. When it opened, it attempted to compete with nightclubs, but the door charge was soon dropped and it's currently one of the most popular pre-club drinks bars. The décor's modern, the sofas are leather, the music's camp, the crowd's young and they play Madonna videos on a regular basis. The only fault is that it can be a bit quiet in the midweek and a little too male oriented for a lesbian. Also the drinks offers have dried up a bit since it became popular, but hey, that's capitalism for you.
The traditional Thursday night haunt, Subway City is a bit of a trek out of the Village area, but don't fret, a free bus runs from outside Angel's. Gay on Thursday, Saturday and occasionally Sundays too, Subway used to be a disco in a dark damp garage. However, it has been done up in recent years, and it could almost be called a classy venue. Please note the word 'almost'. It's currently engaged in bitter competition with DV8, which means price wars (hallelujah!). No love is lost in the battle for Thursday night student business. Subway offers '69ers', where all shots and mixers are 69p, whist DV8 retaliates with 'BOGOF' ('Buy One, Get One Free'). Saturday night is a bit dancey, and can be slightly scary if you're not a fan of house music, while on Thursday, there's a nice mix of camp cheese, and karaoke, late in the evening so you can get your Dutch courage first.
P***ing the Week Away - Highlights of the Birmingham Scene
Undoubtedly the place to go is Route, all drinks are a pound from 9pm so get there early, (be warned - Bacardi and Coke counts as two drinks, which means you've forfeited a unit). It is bursting at the seams and there are quite a few attractive women, (and men), if only you didn't have that unpleasant 'job thing' to go to on Tuesday morning.
This can be a bit of a quiet night if you want to hit the tiles, but don't let that stop you. The Nightingale's the only club that's open, and after seeing the stripper at Missing, it's all too easy to end up there.
The highlight of this night is Starmarker, the Nightingales' karaoke night, which cannot be beaten for comedy value. The fun doesn't get underway until quite late in the evening; by that time, some are drunk enough to sing and the rest are drunk enough to listen.
The weekend starts here. The choice is between Subway and DV8. As a result of the subsequent price war, you can wait to lose a day's pay on Friday and instead offend all your friends for less then £10.
Usually spent recovering from Thursday. However, if you fancy a 'hair of the dog', there is a choice between DV8 and the Nightingale. Unfortunately there are only enough customers to fill one night club. DV8 offers Dramarama - on the promotional flyer it says it's a night of 'campatious glam'. Actually the music's usually boring hard house. The dance floor's half empty, and the DJ spends the entire night trying to flog his latest CD. The 'gale would be quite good on a Friday if it wasn't so empty. Many spend the night desperately wandering between the two in the hope that the crowd is larger on the other side.
The highlight of the week. Until recently, Saturday night was a choice between just the Nightingale, and ... the Nightingale. Now DV8 has landed, the whole affair can be a bit of a dilemma, which most people solve by going to the 'gale for cheap drinks until eleven thirty, then going to DV8, which tends to be busier.
When DV8 opened, it corned the Sunday night market with good music, awful mixing and a DJ who verbally abused heterosexual couples for kissing on the dancefloor. Now the Nightingale is offering all you can drink for £5.
So, onwards towards Route on Monday. Learning to work with a hangover is an important modern lifeskill.