Michelle Thornber-Dunwell, the Mother of Vauxhall

She took in lost boys when she owned her Tanning Shop, and now she writes to educate doctors on drugs.  

By Patrick Cash. Photos by Chris Jepson (www.chrisjepson.com)


‘What are the darkest stories?’ muses Michelle Thornber-Dunwell, as she sips on an Americano in Caffè Nero. ‘I’ve had friends commit suicide. I heard of these guys at a Tina party who put a dead guy in the next room and continued the party for the whole day. My friend Josh last year was at a drugs and sex party, he had a heart attack. They dumped him behind Vauxhall bins.’

Michelle’s dropped the volume in her voice as she’s been speaking, and I’ve tensed up. The bland inoffensiveness of busy Nero on a Wednesday afternoon isn’t the place to be discussing these subjects. We’re not on drugs, but we’re feeling the ingrained shame of even talking about drug use in public.

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‘That’s why with these boys I take them home, against my better judgement. I could go to jail if they died. But it’s a massive problem and I can’t stand apart. It’s really, really sad to find a 21-year-old is HIV positive because he’s just arrived in London, gone under on G, passed out, and he’d been fucked.

‘Because he’d been completely unsupervised. And the guys told him “oh, didn’t you know it’s a BBRT [bareback real time] party?” He was raped. He didn’t know who was in that house, so many people had come and gone in that time, but it’s a 21-year-old boy! I’ve had 9 or 10 guys come to me for help because they have nowhere else to go: parents don’t understand, doctors don’t understand.’

I realise the uncomfortable feeling of being overhead by all these nice, ‘normal’, seemingly non-druggy gays in Old Compton Street’s Nero is akin to taking the tube in the morning after leaving a chill-out. Yet there’s also an equally similar, even deeper memory shadowing this feeling; talking about gay issues as a teenager and worrying what straight people might think.

‘I’m a Trade baby myself,’ Michelle continues. ‘My generation are in their 40s now. I grew up on the scene and I’ve seen it go through various stages. When crystal meth came around for the first time in the 90s, I saw most of my friends get really messy. They lost their jobs, started escorting, got HIV positive, got ill, died. Then it kind of disappeared.

‘Around 2008 I started to see crystal meth come back. I was one of the first people who said “this is going to ruin the gay scene” and everybody said “oh, you’re talking rubbish”. Then I got the shop in Vauxhall and I started seeing it more and more. People were dying, paranoid, addicted.’

Michelle gave up her job in accountancy to run the Vauxhall Tanning Shop, as she wanted to have more time to be with her unwell parents. Instead, she became one of the only solid rocks to clutch upon for a lot of men fizzing in a manic whirlpool of chems, clubs, chill-outs and sex parties.

‘They’d come in from the club because I was a sign post. They’d be tweaking and twitching, going under on G, and they’d say ‘can you help me with my G because I’m going to start convulsing when I don’t get my G?’ I’m hiding people, people start masturbating in the back, it was complete chaos. My friends were saying “Michelle, you’re risking a lot here.”

‘But at the same time I’m the sort of person who, when faced with somebody in a state, I just want to put my arms around them and hold them and make them feel safe, because they’re just like little kids to me. I can’t throw somebody out on the street, I just can’t do it. I’ve been told off by police, I’ve been told off by social workers, and it’s been very hard.

‘These are all really bright guys, they’re such lovely people, not all this ‘trashbag’ and this rubbish. Because they’ve got no control, drug addiction is a mental illness, once you get into it. People feel worthless and if you call them a trashbag then they feel ‘I am this’.’

“I take them home, against my better judgement. I could go to jail if they died. But it’s a massive problem and I can’t stand apart.”

As Michelle’s been speaking she’s got louder with the passion of her words. But as I follow her emotional reasoning – that her actions stem from believing in the souls between the lines of mephedrone, that she considers the hearts that pump the blood infused with crystal – I no longer feel uncomfortable at being overheard by polite potential judgers.

In fact, I want them to hear her war cry standing up for those lost to drugs. We’re brought up to view chem-casualties with contempt rather than compassion. Drug users are criminals, villains, they’re outcasts and pariahs. Even on our drug-fused gay scene, if you can’t successfully split your drug use from your weekly work routine, you are viewed as a failure. Someone who has only themselves to blame, because they couldn’t handle their drugs. A trashbag. Yet it could happen to any one of us.

‘We need more funding,’ she intones firmly. ‘Not just in London, there are gay men all over the country, where health centres and doctors just don’t understand. That’s why I’ve written several articles [for The Lancet], to try and educate doctors in this country. Because they don’t understand when these guys go mad, there are only certain paths to follow. We need a CODE clinic in Manchester, in Glasgow, and all these people trained.

‘I’ve had a doctor tell me: “Oh, I don’t know how these people can go around, take drugs, and spread disease around, they’ve had syphilis six times”. I said: “Listen, you’ve been trained in science to deal with it, leave your fucking cultural/religious prejudice behind,” and he said “I’m a doctor” and I said: “The shame, I’m a human being – so are they”.’

The Lancet is the world’s leading medical journal and Michelle’s involvement came through her friend Tony Kirby, its former Media Relations Manager. Kirby was initially sceptical but after both he and Michelle lost two of their close friends, Clint and Graham, to chems, he began taking her seriously. She wants doctors informed, because then the government is informed, and these boys need long-term support with long-term issues.

‘They can’t talk to their parents, they feel they’re being judged, or they feel guilty because their parents don’t understand the drug culture. How can they say “I went to London for a weekend and ended up at a sex party on G?” It’s true what David [Stuart] says, parents have a lot to answer for, there’s always that sense of shame or guilt in these young guys that I see a lot.

‘The other thing is sex education in schools, we need to start teaching people it’s okay to be gay so other kids can learn. But kids are not taught that in schools, and when they see a gay boy in school they’ll pick on them. They’ll feel like “oh yeah, I’m being such a man by picking on them”, it’s that kind of culture, it’s a fucked up culture. They’ve got to get it in their heads that “this is natural”, that we’re all human, we’re all a human race.’

But the gay community needs also to remember its own humanity. I began this article with the worst stories because they involve a self-inflicted shame. Many times this week I’ve thought of the Tina smokers putting the dead boy in another room so they could carry on smoking – how dehumanised have they made themselves? We need to wake up, because otherwise we’re sleeping through a generation’s destruction.

Finally, I ask Michelle if she sees any hope.

‘Lots of success stories, thanks to David [Stuart] and CODE,’ she attests. ‘A lot of my friends I’ve sent there have managed to change their lives around. They need the support. And they do have relapses, I don’t view a relapse as a failure, it might take a year, it might take two years, the drugs are very powerful. I love Let’s Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs, I’ve sent lots of people down there because I think it’s a really good thing. We need more of those, gay yoga and book nights, more positive things.’

And what spurs her on? As she considers, I perceive neither of us are paying any attention to our surroundings any more. Because what we’re discussing involves the simplicity of being human, rather than complicated coffee shop etiquette.

‘I hate seeing people suffering. These boys are lovely, they deserve so much better. Their own parents, they don’t want to know. If my daughter was doing all of this, I’d be tearing my fucking hair out.’

  • Read the Story of ‘Stuart’, a boy Michelle took into her home, here.

• CODE Clinic is at 56 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 6AQ every Tuesday from 5-7pm. David Stuart is lead drugs advisor at 56 Dean Street and available for appointments all through the week.

www.code-clinic.co.uk

• Antidote is an LGBT Drug and Alcohol Support Service run by London Friend. Their number is 020 7833 1674, 

10am-6pm, Monday to Friday. 

www.londonfriend.org.uk/get-support/drugsandalcohol/

• There will be a special Let’s Talk About LGBT Sex & Drugs on Monday 3rd November at The Joiners Arms, 116 Hackney Road, Shoreditch, E2 7QL. Everyone who wants to speak gets five minutes, and all welcome, whether to speak or listen. From 7pm, and free entry. 

www.facebook.com/LetsTalkAboutGaySexAndDrugs

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