We had a high old time in Manchester over the Easter weekend, a real "lads' night out". When Dave first rang with the idea I muttered something about being 30 years too old for that sort of caper. But his enthusiasm got the better of me. "You been to Manchester recently? The gay scene is fantastic."
I should have known something pretty apocalyptic was on the cards when our Virgin train arrived on time, but I'd never expected the good times to start so quickly. "Which CD would you like in your room?" asked the receptionist at the Malmaison Hotel. I chose Art Pepper from the long list and headed for the lifts.
If I ever used the travel supplements for anything other than cleaning my trainers, I suppose I'd know the Malmaison was an extraordinary hotel. For less money than it takes to hire a hermetically sealed garret in a Moat House Forte, you get a beautifully designed room with an air conditioning system that works, a minibar with real treats rather than two tired cans of Kestrel, and a television offering films you want to see rather than a choice between The Nutty Professor and Swedish Air Hostesses.
Even better, they don't tell you to help the environment by using only one towel, no one sneaks into your room to leave a chocolate mint on your pillow and when I was leaving a woman came up to the desk and said that she had a reservation but was two hours early. "No problem," said the receptionist. "I'll get your room ready immediately."
But the real friendliness was five minutes up the road. If this was a "gay scene" then I hope I never have to come to terms with the entire three acts. My only previous experience of northern gay life dated back to Liverpool in the fifties, when we'd go down "to have a laugh at the queers" in a pub called the Old Royal. In those homophobic days gay men were allowed to congregate in one place on condition that they provided some limp-handed entertainment for visiting straights. No one down our rampantly heterosexual end of the bar would have been at all surprised if they'd hung upside down from the rafters and begun to peel bananas with their toes.
But now they owned the circus and were busy taking their amiable revenge on all those generations of sneering straights by showing them how to dress and have a good night out. Gay life in Manchester seems so much less posed and narcissistic than in Soho. Perhaps it's the voices. As clever copywriters found out long ago there's something enormously endearing about listening to a glamour queen ordering up a pint of Boddington's in a flat northern accent.
There were other treats: three rounds of Budvars in the vast, chandeliered Reform Club (where we were told by the receptionist that we'd just missed David Beckham), an overpowering curry in Rusholme at one of the two dozen glittering Taj Mahals that line the road, and a crazy trip with a taxi driver who told us he'd always loathed "fucking Good Friday" because the clubs shut down at three.
It was all so fast and thrilling that Dave decided there and then to leave his wife and go off to Morocco to write a book on Kierkegaard, and I sang "That's Amore" so loudly as we staggered home that next morning I rang room service and had to hang up because they couldn't hear my voice. When we left on Monday, the receptionist nodded approvingly. "You boys look as though you know how to have a good time," she said. Boys!