Saturday, 23 May 2015 was an important day in Irish history. It was the day when the votes were counted in the same-sex marriage referendum, with 62% in favour. There was a big celebration in the grounds of Dublin Castle, with politicians on a platform, all miraculously on our side. On Irish television news, the headlines informed the nation that Panti Bliss, a brilliantly articulate campaigner, had arrived at Dublin Castle, as indeed she had.
Being gay was all the rage just then. Leo Varadkar, minister for health, soon to be taoiseach, had announced that he was gay, as did a former minister from the other main party, as did a well-known TV news journalist. That day it would not have been surprising had all the bishops of Ireland arrived in their finery to let us know that they, too, wanted to join our club.
In Gay Bar, a brilliantly written and incisive account of gay life in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, Jeremy Atherton Lin quotes the critic Ben Walters on gay history that is “fragile from fear and forgetting, too often written in whispers and saved in scraps”. While the Irish Queer Archive is housed in the National Library, it was hard not to feel on the day of the count that, with all the new freedom, much will be lost and forgotten.
I imagined a walk that two men of my generation – I came to Dublin in 1972 – might do to revisit the gay places that have gone, such as The Gym, a sauna just a stone’s throw from Dublin Castle, or Incognito, another sauna, much favoured by priests. Or the front part of Rice’s pub at the corner of Stephen’s Green and South King Street, or Bartley Dunne’s on Stephen’s Street. Soon, no one will remember when the owners of Minsky’s on Ely Place, believing their clientele to be too stuffy, changed its name overnight to The Shaft, and the place rocked for a while. And then it closed. I pass it sometimes. There is no sign that it was ever there.
The arrival of the big, loud gay venues in Dublin came at the same time as other freedoms. In Barcelona in 1975, when Franco died, there was not a single bar that was clearly designated as gay in the city. In Buenos Aires, a decade later, as military rule ended, it was the same. The explosion of gay bars in both cities came with democracy. They were a sign of the times.
Atherton Lin writes as though he himself is a sign of the times. With gusto and a sense of abandon he describes his own hunger for excitement, with scenes that are gloriously locked in the present moment. He loves what he called “the never enough of nightlife”. He comes into his own when he notices someone in the crowd, such as a boy “both bashful and blithe” in the London club Popstarz: “He had a retroussé nose, and a mouth that was small but with pillowy lips. His eyes looked as dark as night.” In gay bars, he became someone on whom nothing was lost. “Gays,” he writes, “can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.”
His book is also haunted by the dotted line in the gay story, the gaps in the narrative. He moved to LA in 1992, the year when “over four thousand new cases of Aids were diagnosed in the county … Men who slept with men constituted the vast majority of those cases.”
Later, when he lived in San Francisco, he was aware of the ghosts of those who had so recently made the Castro into a sort of mecca. He writes about a DJ in his 40s called Bus Station John who “played ecstatic sets of arcane disco … He was there to bear witness, to testify, using rare tracks from what he called ‘the golden age of gay’, the period between Stonewall and Aids. The music was our time machine. We were conscious the discs on the turntable may have come from the collections of deceased gay men.”
But the ghosts in his book are also those who created gay San Francisco itself, where there were 18 gay bars in 1964 and “an estimated hundred and eighteen within a decade”. Atherton Lin registers the nostalgia that came with all this change, quoting Foucault: “I actually liked the scene before gay liberation, when everything was more covert. It was like an underground fraternity, exciting and a bit dangerous.”
In LA, Atherton Lin is as alert to the past as he is the next prospect of fun, writing about the history of resistance to the police. But nothing comes simply. Some things give him the creeps, like a gay thrift shop: “I cringed when I passed it, imagining the store to be filled with stuff scavenged from the homes of dead queens … I hadn’t found a way to consider the multifarious story of my people – and to read it with, but not through, the disease.”
Atherton Lin’s book is a history lesson, a travelogue, but it is also a display of a rich sensibility, a kind of autobiography using bars as its thread. Although we learn few facts about the author and his boyfriend, referred to throughout as Famous, they have a vivid presence.
He writes passionately about smells. One venue “smelled of all the places where a man’s body folds”. From a guy they took home, “we learned the distinctive scent of blonde males”. When they stop shaving, their beards “were perverted, their bristles perfumed with the sudor of scrotum”.
One gay group, observed in San Francisco, “could be detected from a distance by the stink … Each of them seemed to have a magnificent ass and be writing a book.”
Atherton Lin wants to reimagine a connection between “the golden age of gay” and the future. Early in his book, he quotes Patrick Califia, who wrote in 1998: “When there is a vaccine or an effective treatment or, please Goddess, both, some will return to pre-Aids sexual behaviour. And that’s as it should be. Because there was nothing wrong with that behaviour in the first place.”
In London, where he comes to live, the author continues to enjoy the smells. In one bar: “The room did smell of penis, maybe. Like fog machine or nitrates, syrupy lager spilling over thick fists, smoker’s breath, someone’s citrusy cologne … It stank of the clammy skin of white Englishmen, which is like wet laundry hanging to dry without wind.”
He and his partner moved to Shoreditch in 2007 and stayed for seven years. This allows him to invoke a phenomenon called “the Shoreditch twat” now, of course, part of history. There were three bars that he and his partner called the Triangle: “jolly George and Dragon, sordid Joiners Arms and laid-back Nelson’s Head – a respective five-, ten- and fifteen-minute walk from our building”.
He writes well about another haunting in these London years, the spectre of gay-bashing, quoting Neil Bartlett: “Those nights out were inspiring – but the solitary walks home were foolish. London, in 1986, was not a safe place for a visibly gay man like my twenty-eight-year-old self to be out alone after dark – or even by daylight for that matter.”
The closing of Atherton Lin’s favourite gay venues in London seems to make the city come alive for him. He gets the right to feel nostalgic, which grants him a sort of honorary citizenship. When the last of his Triangle, the George and Dragon, is to close in 2015, he gets to attend the final night, like a rite of passage, or a way to know that he was growing older: “Everyone had come out of the woodwork. I mean look at us, I said to Famous, two termites. We were far removed from the boys we used to be.”
• Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin is published by Granta (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.