Peter Parker

Rooms with little left to view: the queer spaces of E.M. Forster and others

Diarmuid Hester goes in search of the private places of eight remarkable figures from the 20th century, to find only Derek Jarman’s cottage preserved intact as a shrine

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage on the shingle at Dungeness. [Getty Images]

In this intriguing and idiosyncratic book, which aims to present ‘a new history of queer culture and identity over the past 125 years’, Diarmuid Hester recalls how he went to look at E.M. Forster’s former sitting room in King’s College, Cambridge. This once ‘intimate space’, filled with possessions accumulated over a long life, in which Forster wrote and entertained many notable guests from 1946 to his death in 1970, had been repurposed as the college’s ‘grad suite’, filled with battered furniture from Ikea, a football table and a television set. The only remnant of Forster’s residency was a large mantelpiece designed by the writer’s father.

The exotically furnished homes Josephine Baker created in Paris mirrored her exuberant character

In his search for queer places and what they meant to individuals and the wider community, Hester experiences other disappointments. Someone who now occupies the former house in Jersey of the surrealist photographer Claude Cahun ‘seems affronted’ by Hester’s interest in the property, while the remaining walls of James Baldwin’s 300-year-old farmhouse at Saint-Paul-de-Vence have been absorbed into a modern housing complex that can only be viewed through an imposing steel gate. An attempt to maintain the cluttered Lower East Side apartment of the underground film-maker Jack Smith as a museum was thwarted because, after a long legal battle, everything passed to his estranged and disapproving sister, who sold it all off to a gallery.

Although Hester doesn’t mention it, Forster had never wanted his room to become a place of pilgrimage. In a letter written a few weeks after the writer’s death, the college’s provost wrote: ‘There can be no intention of turning Morgan’s room into any kind of antiquarian “shrine”. He himself took care that this would not happen. All the pictures and personal oddments in the room have been left to individual friends.’

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