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London has hot tickets, big hair, and a club night for every taste

Email|Print| Text size + By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 28, 2004

LONDON -- The jumbo electronic message board dangling just above the teeming dance floor is prominent -- and perverse: "Hey, mate in the red T-shirt to my left, you're cute. I fancy your boyfriend, too."

Later, another post is more forthright: "Sheila, if you don't stop flirting with her, I'm going to bapwhack you."

Bapwhack? Ouch. There's no telling who that mate or poor Sheila is, but it's easy to feel their pain in fierce, gay London. The message board at G-A-Y at Astoria, London's largest gay-themed club night, is a suitable metaphor for the city's queer night life: It's so expansive and anonymous that you need some help navigating it. In this case, clubgoers text message a phone line, and then some mysterious Oz-like entity posts random musings to a sea of dancing strangers -- all in the hope of making a connection.

London's gay life is so sprawling, in fact, that there are at least a half-dozen magazines (The Pink Paper, Gay Times, QX International, for just three) that cater to the market. Even the city's weekly entertainment bible, Time Out London, has a comprehensive gay section with citywide listings. Plus, the many tourist services include the 24-hour London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (011-44-20-7837-7324) and the gay-owned taxi company Liberty Cars (011-44-20-7734-1313).

Cheap air fare (earlier this week, British Airways fares included a $223 round trip ticket from Logan to Heathrow) makes London an attractive destination. (That and the prospect of running into David Beckham or Jude Law on holiday.) Unfortunately, once you get there, you'll get slammed by the currency conversion. The locals may think nothing of paying 6 pounds for a standard martini, but a weakened dollar (at press time, 1 pound equaled $1.80) leaves US visitors paying almost $12 a drink, up to $20 for some museum admissions, $15-$25 in club cover charges, and copious amounts on fine dining.

All the horror stories you've heard about pricey London lodging are absolutely true. It's shocking how very little you get for so very much. Expect to shell out at least $200 a night for a decent room anywhere in central London. Gay accommodations can be dodgy at best. The Philbeach Hotel, the city's oldest and largest gay hotel, has a helpful, sweet-as-pie staff, but basic rooms can be abysmal, with faulty plumbing. The location is a plus -- it's near Earl's Court, just a 15-minute Underground jaunt to Piccadilly -- but even so, it's hard to swallow the $120 rate for a single bed.

Who can be bothered by money woes, though, when current hot tickets include the Vivienne Westwood and Cecil Beaton exhibits? Westwood, the British designer and early purveyor of the punk-rock aesthetic, has a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum through July 11. Beaton, of gorgeous glamour-puss Hollywood photography fame, is being saluted at the National Portrait Gallery through May 31. Beaton's photography is fascinating, even more so in retrospect, and it's worth a peek just for his portraits of Stephen Tennant, Marilyn Monroe, and Gertrude Stein with Alice B. Toklas.

Theater is nicely affordable in London, usually $10-$80 per ticket, and there are plenty of solid options. Dame Judi Dench is packing them in at the Gielgud Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" (through May 8). Of course, the most popular theater attraction might hit a little close to home for some American visitors: "Jerry Springer the Opera" at Cambridge Theatre is still doing brisk business after sweeping the local theater awards, including best musical. It's booking into January.

The crown jewel of London entertainment, hands down, is its night life. There is the vanguard (no club, here or abroad, rivals Heaven for its international renown and sheer size), but the real sass happens on designated theme nights. No matter when one lands in London, there's a party to suit every taste, from the Eurotrash hipsters who spin around to Chicks on Speed ("Nag Nag Nag" at the Ghetto on Wednesdays) to the indie-rock kids who crave Le Tigre and T. Rex ("Popstarz" at the Scala on Fridays). DTPM at Fabric and Horse Meat Disco are the biggies for Sunday nights. The Candy Bar draws in women seven nights a week. Note: Get your nap in early, as most clubs stay open until at least 3 a.m., with some throbbing until 5 a.m. For more left-field musical tastes (think '60s girl groups and French pop), try the Novelty Rock Emporium's party the first Saturday of each month at Push in the Soho area, which happens to be the chic gay part of town.

After all those cover charges, you might need to scrimp on lunch; it's easy to do in London. Pick up a steaming Cornish pasty (a hearty pastry similar to a pot pie but tastier) or get a fresh sandwich and juice at London's best healthful fast-food joint that has yet to arrive in Boston: Pret a Manger (French for "ready to eat"). Neal's Yard, with its smattering of health-food eateries, is a must for vegetarians and vegans. Harrods food courts are far better than the department store's shopping, and you can get all sorts of edible souvenirs and international food.

Finally, it sounds silly to mention hairstyles in a travel column, but you're bound to take note of and be in awe of the ubiquitous mullet/mohawk sported by the trendiest London men and women. Startling to the foreign, it's a marvel of upswept long locks (usually dyed at the tips), a slight rattail in the back, and a spiky crown on top. Should you want this 'do, head to Hair by Fairy in Neal's Yard for a spot-on re-creation of the Billy Ray Cyrus ($25, and walk-ins are accepted). You'll be a vision of urban sass -- at least until you arrive back in Boston.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com. His column on gay and lesbian travel runs monthly.

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