Queer London, by Matt Houlbrook

Capital punishments

Richard Canning
Friday 13 January 2006 01:00

Winner this week of the Longman-History Today award, Matt Houlbrook's book on "perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis" starts in 1918 and ends, sensibly, with the 1957 Wolfenden Report. This period has before now attracted little attention, only comprehensively covered in Hugh David's sometimes unreliable On Queer Street. In contrast, so much has been written on Victorian gay London recently. Graham Robb's Strangers may have been the most enjoyable read, but its relentless jauntiness underlined a reluctance to treat social and legal oppression seriously. Matt Cook's London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885-1914 was most persuasive, countering Robb at each turn. It now finds a sort of successor volume in Houlbrook's substantial survey of a more vital moment in British gay history.

Nobody should pretend that a survey of gay London can offer a balanced account of national vicissitudes, and Houlbrook doesn't. Much remains to be written concerning the regions. But the sheer volume of evidence regarding the capital - not least the various Metropolitan Archives and the Public Record Office - more than justifies the decision to concentrate on London, always a magnet to gay men. (Lesbians are not considered, their history distinct from the legal position on).

To some degree, Houlbrook's reliance on legal cases results in an often bleak narration. Better this than whitewash; nobody has fully consulted such sources before, and many treasures are found. Among them is the heroic defence counsel Henry Curtis-Bennett, who had to plead a sort of diminished responsibility for his many prosecuted clients. One, in 1927, had "served in India", which may have "affected his mind". Contrastingly, it is surprising how soon some adopted radical defiance. In 1933, "Lady Austin" told the authorities he anticipated reform as "a vindication of our patron saint, the glorious Oscar Wilde".

I loved "Biogrope", slang term for the Biograph Cinema, Victoria; and the gentleman who escorted his partners into toilet cubicles armed with two carrier bags. Anyone looking under the door in suspicion saw a man on the loo with his shopping. Darker realities are also present, such as the policeman who argued that the "staleness" of many "old urinals" attracted gay men: "they are on heat... like the bitch".

There are, naturally, niggles. The writing isn't always racy, and there's italics mania. Sometimes a simple but worthwhile point comes dressed in jargon. The sentence "The microgeography of public queer life was reconfigured constantly", it transpires, means that Piccadilly rent boys were prone to disappear.

Houlbrook has researched widely. Few will know how frank playwright Emlyn Williams's memoirs were; fewer still can know of "Paul Pry's" 1937 guidebook to London's latrines, For Your Convenience. But some literary sources are absent or underused - Harry Daley, Beverly Nichols, Norman Douglas, Rupert Croft-Cooke. And even if Russell Davies did edit the Kenneth Williams diaries, their author remains Williams himself.

There is, I suppose, a need for a companion volume - a cultural, not legal history. Meanwhile, Houlbrook is much to be congratulated. Queer London is a worthwhile book on a most important subject, and it comes highly recommended.

Richard Canning is writing a life of Ronald Firbank

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