The Sunday afternoon Bloomsbury Group tour drifted past, their guide waxing posh and poetic about Mrs Dalloway. Floral summer dresses caught the sunlight through the leaves; bright, surreal and kaleidoscopic. I felt his hand on my hip and reached behind to guide him inside me, biting my T-shirt so as not to cry out and give us away.
I didn't know his name and I can't remember what he looked like, only how he felt.
Tavistock Square Gardens was once one of the liveliest cruising grounds in central London, but it has since been tidied up; the bushes cut back, the gate locked come dusk. It's no longer possible to hop off the bus or tube to leave the normality and chaos of the city behind for the damp night, the large beech tree under which you'd be guaranteed to find an orgy.
To enter such territories of concealed lust – a park or lonely layby, forest thicket or public toilet – is to cross a threshold. Once over it, new codes apply. Silent anonymity is the law. Who you are no longer matters, only what you do. Perhaps this is why these places persist – despite sex being so readily available via apps like Grindr and Scruff, many of the queer men who cruise will be wary of their digital footprint.
In our supposedly liberal age, it’s all-too-easy to forget the ingrained prejudice, loneliness and social isolation that can force people to seek out and reclaim these otherwise banal sites. In defiance of societal norms, for the men who are obliged to remain in the closet, the cruising ground is a radical place, an appropriation of an otherwise corporatised public space, or sentimental landscape. Having been forced out of the city and back to nature, soggy signals unfailingly give these places away – white tissue splotches in the undergrowth. Horny Hansels need only follow the trail to find what they are looking for. These days, HIV awareness charities festoon the trees of the most popular areas with bags of condoms and lube. It is a re-sexualising of the earth, a different kind of re-wilding.
The radicalism of cruising grounds is best and most beautifully captured in Derek Jarman's memoir Modern Nature. The queered landscape of Hampstead Heath described as vividly as his prized garden at Prospect Cottage, where under his careful hands nasturtiums, marigolds and foxgloves clung onto life against the Dungeness shingle, cloaked in salt by the storms racing up the English Channel. On 21 December, Jarman notes ‘On the Heath saw a naked boy marble white in the moonlight lying in the cleft of an oak tree, motionless in the freezing cold.’ It echoes the climactic scene in his 1976 feature film Sebastiane, where tied to a wooden stake on an arid, rocky cliff-top, the naked body of the Roman guard is pierced with arrows and hangs limp, blood and sweat dripping down onto his cock.
A quiet, erotic poetry of landscape shines through Jarman’s writing on the Heath. Yet he was a queer radical, who was able to transform sexuality into defiance against what he termed 'heterosoc's homophobia and HIV panic. It is thanks to Jarman, and others like him, that we exist in a time that (superficially) appears more accepting of all sexual practices. But can this blanket sex positivism go too far? In reality, cruising areas defy such simple categorization and are violently contradictory places. Held within these grounds, the erotic is ever tempered by the possibility of death, or at least the irrevocable changing of a life. The urgency they demand means sex is not always safe. They are frequently haunted by muggers, the police and gay bashers.
I've always wondered at how the rest of the world passes by, blithely unaware of what is going on beyond plain sight. For an area to attract cruisers, it must become gendered; an exclusively male, heavily sexualised space. I have friends who went to a girl’s school near the cruising ground by Epping Forest’s Eagle Pond. They were always warned to stay clear of the trees, and felt threatened by its presence. Straight male friends who travel through Liverpool Street Station claim never to have noticed that its urinals are frequently a furtive wanking wall. It’s blasé to ignore the fact that they're some of the most complicated places I've ever known. Perhaps that's what gives them their power – a sexualised take on the notion of genus loci.
Most of all, it’s naïve to see cruising areas as purely zones of liberation for those who use them. In a documentary about twentieth-century sexuality, a former teacher told the BBC that before the war, the Eagle Pond area of Epping Forest left him deeply conflicted. ‘Roman orgies were there . . . it was ugly in the extreme. You were always discontented when you left the place, always ashamed of yourself. It was very, very risky, absolutely promiscuous... trousers down, cocks up, cocks in... Masturbation, sodomy, sucking.’ He proudly told of a transient victory when he seduced a local policeman who'd normally be his persecutor. But it was a place of shame, all the same.
Jarman referred to the atmosphere on the Heath as being like a garden party and wrote that ‘once you are over that invisible border your heart beats faster and the world seems a better place.’ For some, perhaps, that might still be true. But for how many men, dwelling forever behind closet doors slammed shut by culture, religion, self-loathing and fear, does that sensual netherworld become a hell? These might be places where the oppressed can momentarily feel free, but returning from under concealing branches to the lies of domesticity and self-censorship can cause unbearable pain. As an Epping Forest keeper told me when I asked about their work monitoring the forest by Eagle Pond, the cruising community doesn't believe it exists – eternally confined to closeted loneliness. If cruising areas, online and off, cater to this invisible demographic, then that inevitably has consequences for partners left behind. During the act of intimate liberation, beneath the leaves and spines of a hawthorn bush, a betrayal often also plays out, whether of wife or girlfriend, boyfriend or lover.
I doubt many of those wronged in this way suspect anything. Most are oblivious to the existence of these sites. They trouble public consciousness only through scandal, such as the MP Ron Davies caught in a ‘moment of madness’ cruising Clapham Common, or George Michael's arrest in an LA public toilet. A ‘moment of madness’ is the public, contrite, confessional face of an instance of release for a part of the self that society, religion – or one of the other myriad factors that keeps sexuality underground – has caused.
I have learned enough to believe that these autonomous cruising zones are vital for those unable to openly negotiate queer terrain in a culture that still, especially for men, sees attraction as a binary choice between straight and gay. For thousands, they provide temporary reprieve from the suffocation of repression; for many more, an easy spot of fun on the way home from the office or pub. Good luck to them, they who find so much in intensely private forest rendezvous. I hope their pleasures are never taken away.
Although I love how Jarman wrote about his times on the cruising grounds, I cannot enjoy them in the way that I might wish to and once did. For me, these sites are troubling. The adrenaline that comes from using them is addictive, just like any drug, and the desire to satisfy that craving might prove stronger than the warm rewards of love. But more than that, these amoral zones of indulgence are often the lairs of predators. We hear now of children groomed online, but I discovered the potency of the park cottage and isolated woodland when I was too young to know better. It took years to realise that these encounters were abusive – that I was coerced, and had little agency in what I was doing. It all stemmed from one place, and one afternoon when I was lured to a public toilet behind the Marks & Spencer's in my hometown. Aged fourteen, terrified but curious, I was too afraid to resist the leering advances of a potbellied man five times my age and so knelt before him in front of the urinals, and tasted Pears soap. Even when I felt most free – the rush I would feel from being fucked against a tree in the heart of city on a balmy Sunday afternoon – soon, the kaleidoscope would twist, undergrowth hardening into tiles and bleached steel, dappled sunshine turned cold electric glare.
'Cruising' was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 4, which is available for purchase via AntenneBooks.