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Lead book review

London’s gay past will always be a mystery

Our main sources for this clandestine history are random court cases, which often give a sensational, one-sided view

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

13 May 2017

9:00 AM

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.262, £16.99

It’s an important subject: the existence of a permanent and significant minority within London’s life. Gay men and lesbians have always been there, leaving — or taking care not to leave — traces of their existence. But for the historian, a difficulty arises: often the only evidence lies in their occasional brushes with the law. We often know nothing about how gays lived in each other’s company. Letters were destroyed; diaries were scrupulously kept free of anything that could lead to a conviction; and lives were reconstructed around the fictions of a bachelor chambers, or two ladies sharing. How many devoted footmen to bachelor barristers were actually lovers of decades? Everybody involved would have understood that to leave witness to posterity might also mean giving witness to the police courts.

The result is, in individual cases, not a blank but a façade of heterosexuality. Some art historians are still apt to suggest that a figure like John Singer Sargent, who left no trace of a love life apart from a body of rapturous private drawings of a nude lift attendant, Thomas McKeller, is likely to have been heterosexual. Schubert is another case of there being no letters or clear evidence, but just the signs of a covering of traces and, in my view, the ecstatic private expression of what it is to be taken in a man’s arms in the ‘Suleika’ songs. That is not enough for many historians, and lack of evidence is often taken as a positive sign that an individual was, in fact, secretively heterosexual.


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A certain degree of speculation and intuition may always be necessary to have even a glimpse of this hidden society. Most of what we know about gay men and lesbians in history are their sexual practices, which were described in criminal prosecutions. These grim vignettes are often records of what, necessarily, we would call rape rather than consensual sex. In the past, a desperate and connectionless gay man was much more likely to force himself on an unwilling partner than now, and Ackroyd’s book is full of prosecutions of solitary men trying to bugger others. The case of Captain Edward Rigby is typical. He was prosecuted for incidents in 1698 when he asked the naive 19-year-old William Minton, ‘Should I fuck you?’ ‘How can that be?’, Minton responded, and Rigby proceeded to attempt it.


There are many fewer records of gay men enjoying the passive role, since the partner would have been a willing player; gossip about the Restoration actor Edward Kynaston, whose ‘arse knows its own buggerer’ is less common than the Earl of Rochester boasting about an argument with his mistress ‘whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy’. There are, of course, still fewer records of consensual acts, apart from the occasional witness of suspicious landlords or neighbours, and these tend to stop dead at the description of the physical acts involved. Fear, fondness, love, excitement: these are not matters that anyone but those involved would be interested in, and they weren’t talking.

Only very occasionally does a witness think of describing how gay people carried themselves, talked to each other and existed in a society of their own making — and when they do it is gripping. Ned Ward, in 1709, records the behaviour of ‘sodomitical wretches’, some of which sounds amusingly familiar, some very odd. They called each other ‘sisters’ and referred to their ‘husbands’ and, Ward said, ‘speak, walk, tattle, curtsy, cry and scold…[like] lewd women’. So far, so Vauxhall Tavern. But they also carried out a bizarre mummery, dressed in nightgown and hood, mimicking ‘the wry faces of a groaning woman’ giving birth to a wooden doll.

This no longer happens in gay London, as far as I know; but when their voices are heard, they are oddly familiar, despite the change of diction. From 1726, a trial records that some gays called each other Fish Hannah, Garter Mary, Mademoiselle Gent, Johannah the Ox-Cheek Woman and Susan Guzzle. Echoes of their talk may still be heard on Old Compton Street: ‘Oh, you bold pullet, I’ll break all your eggs!’ and ‘Where have you been, you saucy queen?’ One man, apprehended by the law in the very act, was recorded as shrieking ‘My dear! My dear! First time! First time!’

In almost all of this the manners are recorded by those puritans hostile to homosexuals, and those determined to stamp them out altogether. From most of history, little self-supplied witness survives. We know from the present day how inaccurate and suffused with fantasy many lurid accounts of homosexual life can be, and some of these accounts, though utterly implausible, are worth reading for the sake of entertainment. Charles Churchill’s ‘The Times’, a poem alluded to but not quoted by Ackroyd, creates an Augustan fantasy of Sodom-on-the-Thames with elegant gusto. The date is 1764 (not, as Ackroyd says, 1746).

Women are kept for nothing but the breed;
For pleasure we must have a Ganymede,
A fine-fresh Hylas, a delicious boy,
To serve our purposes of beastly joy.

There were always, we presume, those who indulged themselves much more freely. Unexpectedly, one of the groups we know most about, because of the constant surveillance of their lives, are the homosexual monarchs; and William Rufus, Edward II, Richard II, James I and William III and their ‘favourites’ are thought-provoking glimpses of what a gay man might look like in each age, given liberty from fear. Similarly valuable are those individuals who, because of social prominence or extreme wealth, were able to protect themselves and their circles from prosecution, if not from gossip.
Horace Walpole and his circle, including Thomas Gray and the millionaire collector and patron William Beckford, are good examples.

One of the pleasures of Ackroyd’s always entertaining book is of seeing these privileged voices percolate downwards into ordinary society. The clergy were at it in the 19th century, publishing charming verse like E.E. Bradford’s

Smart-looking boys are in my line
The lad that gives my boots a shine…

By the 20th century, these voices were everywhere, and we have little difficulty in seeing what gay Londoners thought of their own lives. It is true that the subject is often dismissed or marginalised by cultural controllers; interestingly, Jeremy Bentham’s treatise on sexual irregularities, probably the first modern argument in favour of decriminalising a practice that did no harm to anyone, remains in manuscript and has never been printed in full. But the emergence of voices that until recently were almost entirely silent is a powerful force.

Ackroyd’s book, though much to be recommended, does regrettably fall short when it approaches the present day. He acknowledges the help of a younger assistant ‘for furnishing details of the contemporary urban scene’, but it remains very sketchy. In my social lifetime, the gay male​ ​ centre of London has shifted between locations: from Earl’s Court to Soho to Vauxhall to Shoreditch and now, apparently, back to Vauxhall, every previous ​oasis​ being roundly condemned as ‘dead as a fucking doornail, dear’, as the caravan moves on. Ackroyd gives a half-hearted acknowledgment of the closing of many gay venues, without explaining the two causes: gay dating apps, which make it unnecessary to buy a pint before sizing up a man, and the explosion in property values. The owner of many a down-at-heel gay bar has found that it would make more money if converted into luxury apartments for Chinese investors.

The history of gay nightlife over the last 30 years needs telling: the Bell in King’s Cross; the opening of the Village in Soho with plate glass windows (not blacked out); the Fridge in Brixton; Trade, the first all-nighter, where orderly queues used to form in front of the dealers; Crash in Vauxhall, where I once saw Yoko Ono perform on stage to an audience of ravers, who completely ignored her antics, and onwards. Even now, very few people write any of this down: the paucity of solid evidence even about a nightclub as famous as Trade, which only started up in 1992, is shocking.

The best thing about Peter Ackroyd’s thoughtful book is that it reminds us that from earliest times there have probably been places where gays congregated. These minorities were not meant to be heard about, and they had no idea of sending any message to posterity. The only thing that survives of them as individuals, if they were very unlucky, might be a police officer stating in court that ‘he should never have taken [the accused] for a man but for the crinoline’.

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