Provincetown, Queen of Cape Cod, with knobs on


Oh my.  The phallic tower of the Pilgrim Monument announces Provincetown appropriately.   Arriving there is like being launched into a gay pride march, only, thrill of thrills, the day we arrived happened to coincide with the Lambda Car Club rally.  Not just any vintage car rally, a rally of the cars of my dreams.  Since I was  about eleven I have swooned over Elvis and I dreamed of owning a car with wings, preferably pink, but anything pastel would do.  The closest I got was a series of Morris Minors (which are not really a car for a soggy country; I know of a man who wrote his thesis on the flora and fauna of a Morris Traveller, the half timbered variety) but they have a particular charm, a certain smell, and an unmistakeable voice of their own.  This rally of 50s American cars made me almost weep with envy.  Pink, sky blue, orange – winged, bedecked with rainbow flags, and fabulous guys dressed to match.  If the drivers of the orange car with the blow up model in a headscarf in the backseat wish to replace her with flesh and blood, I’m your woman.


My only beef was the beef who kept getting in the way every time I tried to photograph these gorgeous hunks of metal.

I play a ‘which would I steal’ game in galleries and museums (though in truth I could no more actually do it than steal a paperclip).  This sky blue one is a strong contender, closely followed by the pink winged.IMG_5184

These guys were having such fun.  My friend says ‘every mother should have one’ (about her gay son) the pride is all hers.  I can see why. Nowadays, since most straight people have grown up and got over themselves, gay men are having a blast.  It was not always thus (I recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent documentary on the history) and Provincetown seems to be their mecca.  The population statistics are telling:  3,562 residents in winter, 30,000 summer visitors.  Not all of them are LGBT of course.  We all want to have fun.

The accessory du jour In Procincetown is what I call ‘armpit warmers’.  Little dogs that once upon a time would have snuggled into arm pits clothed in mink, downing cocktails with ‘mummy’.  Pampered pooches  have reached new heights of indulgence in the gay community.  Cooed over, beribboned, collars a-sparkling, you wonder if some of their little paws ever reach the ground.  I saw several being wheeled around in dog carts, some even had prams,Image

see the green one in this picture?  It might contain a child, but that’s not what’s in there.  All I can say is that I wish them walks.  Mud.  Waves to splash in, and bones as big as a fist.

Talking of fists, bend your arm and take it out to your side.  Now make a fist and curve it right over.  This is the shape of Cape Cod, sticking out of the East Coast of America somewhere between Boston and New York.  Provincetown sits in the curve of the thumb where it joins the palm.  Behind it are rolling dunes; pure Edward Hopper landscapes, with lone lighthouses, and windswept clapboard houses.  (That is, Edward Hopper in his beach-time holiday mode, not his peeping-tom city mode


Now I haven’t cycled for quite a few years, though my last bike did have gears (rather inconveniently placed somewhere low on the frame).  It rested in the shed, a promise of a fantastic arse and super-fitness, but really just a rusting guilt trip.  However I was up for a bike ride on the dunes, as long as I could walk up all the hills (but probably best not to tell the surgeon who hoovered out my knee a few months back).

What better way to cool off after a long ride through cranberry beds (Nick: yes, they’re cranberries.  Me: are you sure?  I survived, so I suppose they were) than a dip in the ocean on the north side of the fist.


Then Jane saw this sign.  But why would we let a silly little thing like a Great White Shark spoil a lovely dip – especially as I’d missed out on one off the boat in the middle of the atlantic.  Besides, I didn’t think a Great White would mistake me for a seal considering my neon-bright costume.  (Thank you Sandra Dee, it was a good exchange for the scrape on my new car.  She does mail order lingerie by the way, and for all those trannies among you, she can accommodate all shapes and sizes).

Funnily enough, there were very few other swimmers. Do you hear the music?

Back in town, knees intact, butt intact, and relishing the thrill of once again defying death (Vee: I’m not coming on holiday with you, you court danger)  We loaded up on pizza and chilled beer with a slice of lemon (bet that’s making a few englishmen cringe)  and planned a fun night out.  Would it be Lip Schtick ‘One Boys Journey to Fabulous and Back’ or Electra ‘Living the Legend’ at the Post Office Cabaret? It’s obvious now, but I hadn’t realised Bette Midler was a gay icon.  Electra did a very fine job of impersonating her, though it would have been a lot more electrifying if I’d known some of Bette’s songs, been a little less straight, and the seats a little less hard for a saddle sore bum.  However we particularly liked the bit at the very end when Bette morphed into Elton John.  How clever, we thought, then remembered he was a man. Watch a drag artist long enough and you forget.


Lip Schtick


Electra, Living the Legend

Wrong type of wind

We slipped  (quietly as  was possible when you motor) out of Marblehead harbour.  It was 4am and we were fuelled by hot tea and enthusiasm.  The sky did a   spectacular show of stars – not that we needed them.  Nick’s boat has instruments, unlike the Daily Mirror kit boats I sailed at school.   Instruments to show you how deep the water is, and how fast  you are going.  It can even drive itself, though I’m not sure it can detect huge ferries or buoys in the water, or even boys in the water.  There is room below deck to sleep six very friendly people, to pee and cook.  There is a fridge for the wine and I believe you can shower in the loo, sort of.   As we passed out of the harbour,  into open waters,  Jane pressed a button, and hey presto a sail unfurled, Nick killed the engine and we locked onto the wind.  The wrong type of wind.

Seasickness can be more or less controlled if the boat dips and dives up and down.  You know what’s coming next, and with eyes fixed on the horizon it’s doable.  Pitching side to side is also doable. (I once survived a rusty tub in the gulf of Thailand that did this, disappearing between enormous waves.) What I couldn’t cope with was a combination of  those movements making the boat do a corkscrew motion, despite wearing  a sea-sickness patch behind my ear,  acupoint wrist bands, and popping homeopathic pills.  The earl grey tea churned in my stomach.  I  tried to put a brave face on it, if not a pink, healthy one.  ‘Eight hours’, I kept thinking, ‘eight hours and there’s no escape’.  ‘There better be bloody whales’, I thought.  Eventually ‘I’m going to be sick’ predominated.

By 7 am my bladder dictated the course of events, just after I’d tentatively enjoyed a bowl of muesli and felt a tiny bit better.  I may be very close to Nick and Jane, but not close enough to pee in a bucket in front of them, though it was kind of them to offer.  Besides sitting on a bucket in the small space between benches, where, because I’m short, I could barely steady myself against the opposite bench,  seemed an impossibility.  I don’t think even a penis would have helped.  (Yes, yes, I have penis envy. How could I not with four brothers boasting about how they could make their pee foam?)  ‘Down below’ was where the worst of the churning happened and I’d put off the moment for three hours.  Things were already banging about in the cabin, and I joined them reluctantly, zig zagging my way down to the loo at the bow end. There’s that moment when you think, shall I sit on it, or put my head down it?  And then there is no choice.

Crashing into my berth, clasping the bucket kindly presented by Nick, I wanted to die.   I’d been looking forward to this?  Nevertheless I shouted up “I’m coming up” heave “if there’s a whale” heave, “I don’t care how bad I am,  call me.  Bleauch”.  My vision of a quiet sail in glorious sunshine, lolling on the bow in my cozzie, taking the occasional dip and coming up laughing couldn’t have been more deluded.  I was right, I wasn’t much use on the boat.  In fact I must have made the trip very unpleasant for them too.

After what seemed like hours, Nick called down “we’re just about at the Stellwagen Bank”.  This treasure of a marine reserve, just north of Cape Cod is apparently one of the best places in the world to watch whales.  Protected by a submerged shallow bank, where mastodons once trod, whales now feed in the abutting deep waters.  If there was a chance of seeing Humpbacks, this was it.  Excitement is surprisingly reviving.  So is fizzy orange juice and cheesy goldfish biscuits.  My eyes haven’t worked so hard since I lost a contact lens in the main square in Marrakech.  I scanned and scanned the sea around us.  Jane sang whale songs.  Nick used his binoculars.   Hope was palpable; possible disappointment, the other large mammal in the boat.  The tension was unbearable, though fortunately the sea was much more bearable.  We had the right sort of wind at last.  Then I had an idea.  My father, dead some 48 years, regularly finds me parking places.  I wondered if he did whales too?  And he did!  Right by the boat.  Two of them.  They can’t have appeared for more than a few seconds, but believe me that is enough.  It’s the hugeness of these mammals, when most of the time you just see gulls on the sea or the odd fish.  To know they are there.  That they exist.  It’s impossible not to be awed. We couldn’t positively identify which whales we had seen, maybe Minkies, maybe Finbacks?  Whatever.  I could die happy.

We sang more whale songs and celebrated our luck, scanning all the while.   “Fin”  I shouted.  A large black fin, unmistakable in its pointyness, but surprisingly floppy cut through the waves right beside the boat-  a basking shark, passing us and passing us, and passing us;  meters of the thing.  (A basking shark can grow  14 meters in length.)

Cap'n Nick

Cap’n Nick

The sight of it made me very glad that I wasn’t having a little dip.  Even though they don’t eat people, I didn’t relish the idea of meeting  a thing that big swimming along with it’s  mouth agape.  It might just want a proper meal for a change.  Plankton doesn’t look particularly filling, it’s hard to believe it can nourish a creature that large.  However it was satisfying to imagine entertaining my grandsons with tales of the great-big-enormous-shark by the boat.

“There’s the tower” said Nick.  Most Americans get the answer wrong when asked where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World in 1620.  Those who have visited Provincetown can’t fail to clock the 252 feet high Pilgrim Monument that marks the spot.  It also marked our final destination.  We’d taken just over 8 hours and put 55 miles of heaving sea behind us.    There was Provincetown, Queen of the East Coast, or should I say ‘Drag Queen’.

Over there they do it in wood

IMG_5124Our family have never been close.  Not particularly alienated, I just get the sense that we couldn’t be bothered.  There was a natural division, four boys then a girl.  Obviously, with bedrooms and all that, the boys went in two by twos.  My mother used to introduce me “This is Mary, my P.S.”  And I was, if not exactly an afterthought, a change of sex in the family, born four years after the last boy.  ”The first  girl born for 60 years”, said my mother through gritted teeth,  when I pulled on my favoured dungarees.

At some point, looking after her in her 80s (when, demented, she became a sweet old lady) I realised one of the reasons we were not close was she operated on a kind of divide-and-rule system.  She was a fantastic grandmother however, the sort that you find on all fours behind the sofa, or flipping pancakes in a sweat.  One that the grandchildren wanted to keep in touch with even when they grew up.

Which brings me to Nick, my nephew from the north, who escaped far west, and beached in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Nick who diligently visited Judy whenever he came back to the UK,  and dined me finely.  Being the eldest son of my eldest brother, we are almost as close in age as I am to his father, and feel like mates.  When Nick married his long-term partner Jane in the summer I thought I’d go.  Then I revised this plan (how much do you actually see of a couple on their wedding day?) to visit a respectful time afterwards.  I didn’t really know Jane and I wanted to.  Now I do, and am the richer for it.

Coming from an area full of stone houses with walls a meter thick, and strange prehistoric bristle-tailed hopping silver fish, it was homey to see these early settler houses doing a good impression of villages round here in the Cotswolds.   I don’t know if Marblehead has weird silverfish, but they do have cockroaches, or, as Nick pointed out, Palmetto bugs.  (Which is what you have if they are in your house; in your neighbour’s house they are cockroaches.)  I examined the map before I left.  There was a Gloucester, Worcester,  Essex and Truro…hundreds of English names. Did the settlers land, and think “goodness me, this looks just like Gloucester” or did they think “know what, lets call this place after the old country” and wiped away a tear.  Maybe it made them feel less lost in a New England.  I think of them whenever I use a cup for measurement, carefully unwrapping little tea cups from protective cloth and examining them for chips after their journey across the ocean.

Marblehead is a little-tea-cup kind of a place.  Houses preserved in ‘revolution’ style by assiduously applied planning rules (even ones built in a later era).  Made of  clapboard, they are painted a gorgeous palette of colours (which I found to be rather more subtle without my sunglasses).  Much be-flagged and neat as a pin, it would be picture postcard perfect if  only they’d pick up after their dogs.

Being on the coast, Marblehead is all about boats, the Boston Yacht Club predominates.  Nick has a modest boat and we discussed plans the next morning over breakfast at the Driftwood Diner.

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe - child size portion

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe – child size portion

We would sleep overnight on the boat and make a 4 am start for Provincetown, Cape Cod.  I wondered about the wisdom of sharing a small boat with a honeymoon couple, but assumed they’d be past the heavy rocking stage having been a couple for ten years.  I worried about my usefulness on the boat.  The last time I sailed was at school on Frensham Ponds, where the limit of my technical lingo was ‘duck’, or ‘watch out’ or ‘oh shit’.  I wondered about the wisdom of having a barbecue on the boat.  I worried about my propensity to sea sickness, combined with jet lag.  But most of all I thrilled at the thought of possibly seeing humpback whales on the Stellwagen Bank.IMG_5121 IMG_5147 Continue reading