Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957
(Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 384pp
One of the most compelling portraits of London as an imperial capital in slow decline is provided by Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway (1925). Despite the fact that much of the book is narrated from socially conservative subject positions, the cumulative effect of Woolf’s obliquely sceptical feminism is critical of the emblems and performances of nationalism. This effect is at its most acute in the portrayal of the vain and pretentious character Hugh Whitbread, a minor official in the peripheral fiddle-faddle of government:
He had been afloat on the cream of English society for fifty-five years. He had known Prime Ministers. His affections were understood to be deep. And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood to his credit; an improvement in public shelters was one; the protection of owls in Norfolk another; servant girls had reason to be grateful to him; and his name at the end of letters to the Times, asking for funds, appealing to the public to protect, to preserve, to clear up litter, to abate smoke, and stamp out immorality in parks, commanded respect.
>(Why do people keep saying Woolf had no sense of humour?) This unctuous functionary signals, for Woolf, a sclerotic tendency in public service. The respect he commands is mainly his own. His achievements are presented, here, as being amusingly trivial, even if the phrase ‘humble reforms’ stems from his own false modesty; and yet, in truth, several of them have considerable resonance. The abatement of smoke, for instance, remained a major issue for the health of Londoners until the 1960s. (It still is a major issue, if you count car fumes.)
As for ‘immorality in parks’, although a certain prurience is suggested in the phrasing, the social issue itself was no small matter. The public parks served the unintended purpose of providing the ‘private’ spaces to which people — working-class people especially — did not have access in their domestic lives. If you lived in close confinement with others, sharing your bed with siblings or sleeping in workers’ dormitories, all matters relating to courtship might have to be conducted in the streets or other open spaces. Men who had sex with other men might have to conceal what they got up to from prying eyes (at home, at work, on the beat), but in many ways they had it easier than men who were interested in women: not only were the conventions of congregation freer for men with other men, but, when it came down to the mechanics of sex, men’s clothing was more easily manipulated than women’s, as were men’s sexual organs. For such men as these, sexual activities in parks were a relatively easy recreation.
It was as a result of the efforts of the likes of Hugh Whitbread that London’s parks and squares eventually came to be afflicted by the scourge of lighting and cast-iron fences. Not until the Second World War — when railings where melted down for armaments and the blackout prevailed — were public spaces returned to their optimum condition (for men, at least) of openness and obscurity. However, Matt Houlbrook quotes a Reverend Peel, who complained even back in 1922 that Hyde Park was ‘little less than a brothel … a disgrace to a civilised country’ (p. 60). There was clearly much stamping out to be done.
Whatever the era, whichever the season, whatever the political stamp of the administration, all cities are queer. Only certain cultural and touristic moments make them seem more so at one time than another: London in the 1890s, Paris in the 1910s, Berlin in the 1920s, New York in the 1950s, San Francisco and Amsterdam in the 1970s, Sydney in the 1990s… Just as nationalist governments always characterise queerness (and, indeed, HIV) as an infection from abroad, so queers themselves (or those who can afford to) travel abroad to find the great sexual space. But the reality of queer life is always local to where men live and work. That said, there are often resonances across cultures and periods. For me, Matt Houlbrook’s London is every bit as vivid and mysterious as Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad in the 1001 Nights.
Queer London has never gone in for the hyperbolic myth-making of the Big Apple. One has only to think of the distinct reputations of the Everard Baths in New York and the Union Jack Club in London’s Waterloo Road to see how some of the most active ‘gay’ institutions in London’s recent history have remained unremarked (until now), unlike such monuments of Manhattan’s gay sexual revolution as the declining riverside wharves, the meat-packing district and the bigger bathhouses. Although some recent writers of gay fiction have led the way in reconsidering some of the less visible institutions of London’s gay ‘underworld’ — Alan Hollinghurst made interesting use of gentlemen’s clubs and gymnasia in his first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), as Neil Bartlett did of bathing establishments in Mr. Clive and Mr. Page (1996) — historians like Houlbrook are doing the factual spadework in the archives, mining veins of evidence that we previously only imagined or optimistically assumed would be there.
Victorian philanthropy had many benefits perhaps not anticipated by the original benefactors and philanthropists. Like the parks, public conveniences and bathhouses served major sexual roles in addition to their more respectable, intended functions. One man quoted here remarks on the fact that ‘most of the baths put up for the benefit of the poor to wash — if they had a steam bath — would turn into a gay bath’ (p. 97). But public conveniences became inconvenient to officialdom and began to be locked at the very time of day when they were of greatest convenience to the public (for both peeing and sex) — after the pubs closed. So strongly associated with homosexual vice did they become that, when asked in 1952 for a report on homosexual activity in its jurisdiction, one central London police force responded with a list of public lavatories (p. 22).
Houlbrook has important things to say about the categories with which we have tried to make sense of queer lives. For instance, he plausibly delineates a class-based distinction between the ‘invert’ (upper) and the ‘pervert’ (lower). And, early on in his argument, he reminds us that, although the relevant vocabulary was coined in the late nineteenth century, the homo/hetero binary (in Britain, at least, but this is arguably true of other Western societies) ‘solidified only in the two decades after the Second World War’ and, therefore, ‘within living memory’ (p. 7). Only for a tiny sliver of history — even despite the two Kinsey Reports’ massive evidence of human bisexuality (1948, 1953) — have we so firmly convinced each other that people belong wholly and always to one camp or the other.
London never had smog — that was a linguistic infection that came over from the USA — it had fog, and a particularly atmospheric fog at that. This book has a wonderfully resonant cover photograph of two men in trilbies and raincoats looking out across a fog-shrouded Piccadilly Circus. Eros is aiming his bow down into the murk, perhaps at a hidden gaggle of working-class Dilly boys on the game. This is a twilight world indeed, hiding more than just blackmail and emphysema. If you knew where to look, you could find what you wanted to find, mainly thanks to the visibility of those who could not help being, and had no intention of not being, visible. (Quentin Crisp would be the best known of these men.) But when it came to claiming of rights, the rights of the visible were sacrificed to the ‘discretion’ of middle class men who could pass.
Like the establishments that variously catered to some of their needs, most homosexual men colluded in making themselves invisible as a type, carefully constructing ‘a queer consumer who was not obviously queer’ in order to stay out of the hands of the law or the scandal sheets (p. 85). Houlbrook is especially good on how, in and after the Wolfenden Report, law reform was shaped around the needs of the privileged, formulating an exclusionary model of the acceptable homosexual, neither effeminate nor promiscuous, nor in any other way intrusive on the normative surface of British social life, and how reform depended on restrictive definitions of private spaces and private lives. Wolfenden’s main first-hand evidence was collected from a few homosexual men with whom he was comfortable dining. Reform was thus constructed on the assiduous avoidance of embarrassment and a stolid aversion to diversity.
Houlbrook tellingly quotes one of those witnesses, Peter Wildeblood — ‘I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and … to live with him discreetly and faithfully’ — before dryly observing that Wildeblood says nothing about how such a partner might be met in the first place. (He actually met one of his lovers in the subway at — where else? — Piccadilly Circus.) As Houlbrook quite fairly puts it, these men who were insisting that all queers should meet their own standards of discretion actually ‘constructed a deafening silence around their own public practices’ (p. 260). These were men who came out — participating in the public act of giving evidence to the commission — in order to go back in again. Discretion was everything — at least until it was necessary to re-enter the public sphere in search of sex or love or friendship.
This apparent contradiction in attitudes and behaviours is something of a refrain for Houlbrook. He accurately points out that ‘The values of discretion, intimacy, and privacy existed in as persistent tension with everyday social practice’ (p. 209). No matter how much one idealised the dream of a quiet, discreet, cosy, safe life with an inconspicuously masculine lover, this ideal chap was never going to be encountered for the first time somewhere between one’s kitchen and bathroom. At some point, a man who was looking for love was going to have to do, in a public space, what the law disallowed, variously, as soliciting or conspiracy to commit an indecent act. In order to achieve the stasis of discretion, a man had to commit a dynamically illicit indiscretion. Catch-22.
The grudging and ungenerous law reform of 1967 is often lazily referred to as ‘the legalisation of homosexuality’ (rather than the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts for part of the population in part of the nation under certain limited circumstances at a higher age of consent than prevailed for heterosexual and lesbian acts) and is ranged alongside abortion law reform and the availability of the contraceptive Pill as significant steps enabling the social changes that, no less lazily, came to be known as ‘the sexual revolution’. But homosexuality in the UK did not have its end-of-history moment in 1967. The shortcomings of the Wolfenden Report, and consequently in the pertinent clauses of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, saw to that.
In the late 1970s a friend of mine went up to London from Norwich for a weekend’s shopping. While there he took a diversion into Hyde Park. At some point he followed a teenager out of a public convenience and, engaging him in conversation, touched him on the backside. My friend was arrested, summarily and efficiently charged with gross indecency, fined thirty pounds, and sent home to East Anglia with a lesson learned. (Gross indecency was the statutory version of Hugh Whitbread’s ‘immorality in parks’.) That would have been the end of it, had the hacks of the notoriously anti-gay Eastern Daily Press, based in Norwich, not been in the habit of scouring the capital’s court reports for anything they could use. Happening on my friend’s indiscretion, they inflated it into a sensation and submitted it to the presses. The next morning, rather than face up to his mother’s discovery in her daily paper that he was gay — assuming that she had not guessed this anyway — my friend drove out into the country, fixed a hose to his car’s exhaust pipe, and killed himself.
This was a cheerful, well-balanced man in his early twenties who was at ease in the gay bars of Norwich and regularly attended our local social and campaigning group. He had appeared in a Joe Orton play that we put on as a fund-raiser. Like so many gay men, he was not out to his mother. But who would have thought, when it came down to it, that even someone like him could be killed by embarrassment?
Matt Houlbrook has cogently demonstrated that any history of queerness must be framed around questions less of sexual identity definition (hetero/homo) than of geographical, topographical and architectural spaces (public/private) and how these are apportioned, or available, to different groups for the performance of different activities. This brings me back to his cover image of Piccadilly Circus in a pea-souper: the very centre of Empire, shrouded in discretion. The supposed figure of Eros (in fact, the Angel of Christian Charity) on the Shaftesbury Monument at the centre of the Circus was sculpted — in innovative aluminium — by an ancestor of mine, Alfred Gilbert. Thinking of this statue in the present context reminds me of another set of photographs of it, taken during a queer kiss-in in the Circus in September 1990. The literally iconic moment of this very public demonstration of same-sex desire came when a queer boy scaled the monument and engaged young Eros in a long French kiss, one hand on the naked god’s buttock, the other clutching his bow-arm, one leg curled around his supporting leg, an admiring crowd calling out encouragement from below.
As exemplified by these two photographs of Piccadilly Circus, London and its queer Londoners have made the transition from fog to snog by way of a hard struggle that has not been purely one of ‘gay liberation’, and still less one of ‘homosexual law reform’. A far more general modernisation has been involved, both in the development of the physical infrastructure, not always for the better, and in changing social attitudes—to class, gender and racial difference as much as to sexual variation. Matt Houlbrook has brought many of these themes together in a fascinating and authoritative history, full of instructive detail and persuasive analysis. His London is queer to the extent of seeming quite ordinarily strange and beautiful.
To Cite This Article:
Gregory Woods, ‘Review – Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957
(Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2005). 384pp’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2007/woods.html. Accessed on [date of access].