Obituary: Esme Langley
Friday 28 August 1992
ESME LANGLEY was an exponent of practical feminism who made no concessions to conventional society in her own way of life and writings.
Born in Yorkshire in 1919, she had a happy childhood in the north of England where her passion for languages first became manifest - she learnt half a dozen, including Swahili and Chichewa, and was studying Russian at the time of her death. During the war she served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), teaching typing and shorthand (she was a formidably fast and accurate typist) and worked on War Office cyphers, being regarded by her superiors as too valuable for release from the army to join the Bletchley Park 'Enigma' team, as she had wanted to do.
Pregnant and penniless after the war, Langley embarked upon her first unorthodox vocation - that of single parent, a rare and courageous choice in those days. Although she never married, she had three sons and six grandchildren. Her autobiography Why Should I Be Dismayed? was published in 1958 under the name of Ann Bruce.
After several years in the BBC's monitoring unit at Caversham, Langley embarked upon magazine publishing in the early 1960s. Her own encounter with prejudice had given her a strong urge to fight for minorities, and so she set up the Minorities Research Group and published Mainland for the homeless and, in 1964, Arena Three, to give the general public and - perhaps even more important - lesbians themselves, a fairer and more evenly balanced picture of female sexuality.
I was secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society at that time, and remember warning Langley of the minefield of ignorance and prejudice she was venturing into. With more initial subscribers from the US and Canada than the UK, and some distinguished supporters, including Iris Murdoch and Naomi Jacob, Arena Three was an immediate success, and disclosed an untapped well of loneliness. Whether or not she was initially prepared for the human avalanche which descended upon her - 'People you just wouldn't believe if you read of them in a novel' - Esme Langley shouldered the sole legal and financial responsibility for breaching the public wall of silence and bringing lesbianism into the arena of public debate. This work preoccupied her for most of the following decade. Like other pioneers, she was not always enthused by some of the subsequent offshoots of her endeavours, disclaiming any sympathy with 'social ghettos'.
Though Esme's formal education ceased at 16, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by a US university. Her interests were wide-ranging. She once organised a motor-cycle safari across the Himalayas. She spent a year working in Africa for the government of Malawi, and lived for some time in Spain. She was an avid crossword fan and loved music ranging from Mozart to Billie Holiday. She was a Buddhist. Her copious letters sparkled with dry wit, often inciting hilarious mirth.
Esme Langley was one of the most remarkable and life-enhancing people I have known, and many whose lives she touched will recall her with gratitude and affection.
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