A chance encounter with a gangster drug dealer led to…
Martin Edward Pugh (aka Martha) died of a brain tumour on 1st April 2022. He was a legendary London club kid, party animal, QX legend and for many years, my best friend.
It was a blisteringly hot, Bank Holiday Monday when we met. It was 1992. We were both due to start work at MX magazine. At the time, it was THE queer, weekly scene fanzine, shamelessly modelled on HX in New York. It seeped a filthy cocktail of clubs, drugs, sex and satire, splattered over 36 pages on cheap paper. It was more comic, than magazine, but it had big punk vibes and fuck-you attitude.
Embodying that carefree spirit, nobody turned up to the offices in Soho to welcome us into our new roles. We’d both been given a start date, but it seemed the entire staff were still partying. We waited all day. From 9am ‘til dusk.
The West End was a ghost town that day, and we’d been deserted. On the steps of that locked-up building, expectant and confused, we bonded like sailors clinging to a rock. We were strangers, thrown together by raving, absent queens, who’d eventually become our employers for the next decade.
He introduced himself as ‘Martin’ that morning, but by lunchtime, he was ‘Martha’. By sunset, we were sisters. I’ve met some odd characters in my life, perhaps, I’m drawn to them, but NOTHING compares to Martha. He existed in a realm of surrealism, oversexed fantasy and dark absurdity. This self-made world was neither a pose, nor a choice. He was wired that way and you either went with it or fled from it.
Over the 8 hours we spent, sat in that doorway, waiting in vain, we traded life stories and dreams. Martha shared tales of go-go dancing at Propaganda at Bang and Pyramid at Heaven. These were clubs I’d attended with enthusiasm throughout the ‘80s.
He hadn’t been an erotic podium poseur, but rather, an avant-garde creation, drag jigsaw and jumble sale catwalk star. He squealed with delight that his DIY fashion and bizarre disco moves had seared themselves onto my memory.
While Martha’s weirdness was relentless, he was also endlessly gentle, kind and loyal. As a friend, I don’t doubt he would have died for me. In many ways Martha seemed perpetual, which makes his death both shocking and hard to accept.
He was closer to cartoon than human, and more fable than fact. Martha transcended normality, but nobody escapes the bane of mortality. Not even Martha. Still, I’m gobsmacked he’s gone.
Ab Fab on acid
MX became QX. We went from serviced offices, to operating from Tony Claffey’s living room in Shaldon Mansions. Martha was Ad Sales Manager, and in the space of a few years, I progressed from columnist to Editor.
The debauched chaos of that office makes Trainspotting look tame. We once racked up lines of coke on the scanner and while someone snorted the powder, we captured the image and put it on the front cover. It looked terrible, but we published it anyway. It was concept over content. Rock and fucking roll.
Thrills and pills
I found a 3-bedroom flat in Clapham South and Martha moved in, alongside Melonika Vodka, who painted banners for Trade and dated a stripper called Grease Monkey. The madness was exhausting, hilarious and unhinged. We worked in the same office, lived under the same roof and partied alongside each other for years. We never argued or grew bored of each other.
If anything, we just became more hysterical and devoted to our mission, whatever that was. Over time, a gay pseudo-lingo became our lingua franca. We gibbered in psychedelic abstract nonsense and wept with laughter at our private Polari.
Queens of gibberish
We giggled in Diazepam dialects and junkie in-jokes. We just loved each other’s company. Shock, awe and laughter were our currency. Martha always left me in the shade. There was no competing with his endless access to nonsense.
At some point in the mid-‘90s, Martha decided to expand his repertoire and become a club promoter. Our Clapham flat rocked to the sounds of my vinyl and glowed with Melonika’s décor and UV lights, so it seemed like a natural progression.
High on hope
Dirty Dicks at Madame Jo Jo’s was conceived as a post-Trade, Sunday afternoon rave. Despite his apparent chaos, Martha designed flyers and full-page adverts. He booked DJs, go-go boys and a double decker bus to ferry the fucked-up from Turnmills to Soho.
Unfortunately, on the launch date, Trade was more spectacular than usual. Nobody wanted to leave. As the bus idled outside, queers went wild inside Turnmills. Drenched in sweat and with eyes on stalks, I dragged myself from the underground gurning melee to join Martha’s road trip to Dirty Dicks.
Just an illusion
Martha had been indulging all weekend and was more deranged than usual. There were no customers for his shuttle to Soho. It was just the two of us, tripping and dripping next to an empty bus.
Martha invited me onto the unoccupied vehicle and then proceeded to introduce me to invisible customers. He minced up and down the aisle, collecting make-believe cash from people who weren’t there.
Delusions of denial
I blinked with incredulity, as he thanked empty seats for their custom and snapped, ‘Stewart, can you give these passengers a ticket, please?’
And you know what? I did. I colluded with the illusion. His commitment to the fantasy was so overwhelming, I almost saw the passengers that didn’t exist. I DID see the bus driver’s face, which was a vision of alarmed stoicism.
When the bus pulled up outside Madame Jo Jo’s, we stepped onto the street and Martha directed non-existent people from the bus, into the club. I stood next to him and smiled weakly, politely nodding at nothing. Martha cracked jokes with thin air and scolded me for not giving assistance to a disabled passenger. I apologised to this figment of Martha’s imagination and I may have even mimed folding up a wheelchair.
Obviously, the entire escapade was a disaster, but Martha’s hallucinogenic coping strategy remains the best piece of theatre ever staged, and never seen by anyone, but yours truly and that poor bus driver.
I HAD to go along with it. I couldn’t burst his bubble. That was our unspoken contract. It was a challenge to sanity, reality and acting skills, but I loved him too much to question his vision. Also, once I started conspiring with the madness, there was no backing out.
Martha didn’t mention the empty bus for months, then one day, he turned to me, in front of friends and said,
‘Remember that double-decker bus from Trade to Madame Jo Jo’s! It was SO busy, wasn’t it Stewart?’
I agreed, that yes, it was packed. In that moment, I doubted myself. Maybe I’d hallucinated an empty bus. Perhaps it had been rammed. Martha’s magic was strong and lives on to this day.
West coast rollers
In 1997, at my birthday dinner in Sarastro, Covent Garden, Martha produced two plane tickets to San Francisco and announced we were headed to California. We were both pretty broke at the time, but I’d learned not to ask questions. It remains the most unexpected, generous and outrageous gift to grace my existence.
It was a life-changing journey for both of us. We stayed with the legendary Ken Bunch, one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (Sister Power Hungry Bitch). It was a wild circus of intoxication, discos, psychosis and debauchery.
Tales of the City
We went to The End Up and stayed there for DAYS. The Hole in the Wall, a hard-rock gay biker bar, was our boozer of choice and we were beyond thrilled that it opened at 6am. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle we didn’t OD, get murdered or become incarcerated.
At one point, Martha DID go on the run from the SFPD, in cycling shorts and a vest, but that was an imagined scenario brought about by sleep deprivation.
Fun on the run
Due to a jauntily side-slung bum-bag, he knocked a bottle of wine from the shelf of Safeway’s on Market Street. He then ran screaming from the shop and spent the next 36 hours hiding in people’s gardens, interspersed with whispered, panicky calls from phone booths all over the city.
Oh, how we laughed, when we finally landed with a bump many days later. We had an absolute riot and fell in love with the city.
Martha on the move
We returned to SF for NYE, Folsom Street Fair and Gay Pride over the next few years, and then Martha decided to move to the city indefinitely. He made San Francisco his home and was as loved there as he was in London.
I missed him, but he was happy and he’d found love. That’s all you can wish for your sister. The patients at Optimus Medica have flooded his Facebook page with tributes to the care and joy he brought to his role in their offices.
Martha was a friend like no other. He changed my life in a multitude of ways and made me laugh like nobody else. My heart goes out to all those in the San Fran community who’re missing him. I feel their pain. I understand how quiet and dull it must seem without him. My deepest sympathies go to Ken Bunch, Jeffery and his partner David Carswell.
Following his untimely death, there is a GoFundMe to cover Martha’s bills and repatriate his ashes.
Thanks for the good times, Martha. You will always be my sister and an iconic superstar.