More Mr Pooter than Joe Orton: George Lucas’s gay life in London

In January 1948, George Lucas, an unremarkable 21-year-old Roman Catholic who had just been demobbed from the Pay Corps, was living unhappily in Romford with his ill-matched parents, who relentlessly taunted him about his homosexuality. He would shortly get a job at the War Office and so embark on a lifetime’s career as a civil servant, commuting to central London every day to work at his desk and spend his evenings in search of sex and companionship, largely among the servicemen who hung around Marble Arch. In later life Lucas would trawl the pubs, streets and urinals of central London, more often than not paying for sex, and always keeping

Sir Roger Casement never deserved to hang

Telling the story of Sir Roger Casement’s life is a challenge for any biographer. In the land of his birth, he is remembered as a national hero. His remains lie in the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin beside the graves of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. He is there because he was hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. The awkward fact that Casement had become opposed to the Rising and had tried to prevent it does not fit either the heroic Irish narrative of his life or the official English account of the wartime traitor who died on the gallows.

Victims of a cruel prejudice: the last two men to be executed for sodomy in England

Seventy-three prisoners were condemned to death at the Old Bailey in 1835 at a time when there were more than 200 capital offences on the statute book. Nevertheless, all had their sentences commuted apart from two: James Pratt and John Smith, who were convicted of ‘the detestable and abominable crime’ of sodomy. The indictment stated that the accused had been ‘seduced by the instigation of the devil’ ‘The love that dare not speak its name’ may forever be associated with Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde, but the same reticence was clearly evident in the first half of the century. When in 1828 Sir Robert Peel introduced the Offences Against the

The data-spew about Bob Dylan never ends

When it comes to Bob Dylan, Clinton Heylin is The Man Who Knows Too Much. Since publishing his first biography, 1991’s Behind the Shades, he has become the world’s most committed Dylanologist, doggedly untwining the facts from the artist’s self-serving fictions. When he describes Dylan’s wildly unreliable 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One as ‘all a put-on… all a lie’, he has the receipts. As he never tires of pointing out, scholars and diehards are in his debt, but amassing data from sessions, setlists and now 130 boxes of Dylan’s formerly private papers is not the same as telling a good story. For someone innocently hoping to understand one of the

How the Aeneid was nearly destroyed

According to legend, Vergil declared of himself ‘Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope: cecini pascua, rura, duces.’ (‘Mantua bore me, Calabria took me; now Naples holds me: I sang of pastures, fields, and leaders.’) In her rigorously researched biography, the American classicist Sarah Ruden shows that this is largely true – even if the author of the Aeneid was in fact born 30 miles from Mantua, in a little village called Andes, in 70 BC.  Ruden must necessarily rely on Vergil’s most influential biography, written by Suetonius more a century after his death. And there’s no reason to doubt the skeleton of Suetonius’s life: that Vergil was unmarried,

Like an episode of Play School: Dr Semmelweis, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, reviewed

Bleach and germs are the central themes of Dr Semmelweis, written by Mark Rylance and Stephen Brown. The opening scene, set in the 1860s, presents the harmless old doctor as a charming oddball who adores playing chess with his happy, clever wife. This is code: Semmelweis is an intellectual and a feminist whom it’s safe to like. We flip back to 1837 and meet Semmelweis as a student at a Viennese maternity hospital where the male doctors kill three times as many patients as the female nurses. How come? Well, the males sport filthy aprons spattered with their victims’ blood while the nurses wear freshly laundered habits. So the high

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

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

Cheerful meanderings: Caret, by Adam Mars-Jones, reviewed

The novelistic tube or nozzle through which experience is squeezed in order to be bletted on the page in words, and in turn create the illusion of experience in the reader, is a slender one. Novelists have often perversely focused on the narrowest of lives. Xavier de Maistre wrote an entire travelogue in the 1790s about 42 days spent in his room, while Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s debut novel in 1985 was about a character refusing to leave his bathroom.  Should undertakers ever have suntans? And when does ‘mummy’ become ‘mum’ as a form of address? These spectacular exercises in technique present a parallel to what has always been the case, the

‘We cannot turn back’ from the League of Nations, said Woodrow Wilson – but did just that

It was a vision that President Woodrow Wilson could not resist. The Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations founded during the negotiations, were meant not just to end the first world war but all future wars by ensuring that a country taking up arms against one signatory would be treated as a belligerent by all the others. Wilson took his adviser Edward ‘Colonel’ House’s vision of a new world order and careered off with it. Against advice, Wilson attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in during negotiations Against advice, he attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in with him during

Love in the shadow of the Nazi threat

The 1930s saw Walter Benjamin write The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marlene Dietrich rise to fame in The Blue Angel and Pablo Picasso paint ‘Guernica’. If history books mention these events, it’s usually as footnotes to the main European narrative of the pre-war decade. To shift the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Terror and other landmarks to the background, one could turn to the cultural history, or the micro-history. In his new book, the German art historian Florian Illies combines both genres to reconstruct the 1930s. Snippets from period documents, including private letters and diaries of notable figures of European and

Life’s survivors: The Angel of Rome and Other Stories, by Jess Walter, reviewed

Anyone who has read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins will want to turn straight to ‘The Angel of Rome’, the title story in this second collection by the versatile American author. Like the novel that elevated Walter from an underrated writer of police procedurals and thrillers to one capable of bestsellers, ‘The Angel of Rome’ is set in Italy and features a filmset and glamorous actors. Both are also partly based on real life. In Beautiful Ruins, Walter plays with what happened during the filming of the 1963 epic Cleopatra. Here he bases the story on an episode in the life of Edoardo Ballerini, an actor who read Beautiful Ruins. Walter,

Nothing compares with Chips Channon’s diaries for sheer exuberance

‘Why was he born so beautiful, why was he born at all?’ When ‘Chips’ Channon strolled into the House of Commons tea room in 1951, this was the chant with which encircling drunken Labour MPs mocked him. Politically, he was inessential they thought, and epicene. He admitted to being the best-dressed of MPs, but reckoned the young socialist Anthony Crosland to be the most beautiful. As a historical record keeper, though, he has cut a deeper and more ineffaceable mark than any of his tormentors. Nothing compares with the unexpurgated Channon diaries. They are rich, exuberant, copious and shatteringly honest. For those interested in the parliamentary politics of 20th-century England,

A gay journey of self-discovery

Seán Hewitt, born in 1990, realised that he was gay at a very early age. ‘A kind, large woman’ who was babysitting him told him that it was wrong. ‘I was perhaps only six or seven at the time, but she knew. I knew it too. It was as if she had peered into the deep, secret part of my soul and seen what I was hiding.’ Alongside the precocious knowledge came desperate attempts to conceal the truth. Hewitt adopted alien ways of being: ‘I regulated myself; I policed myself.’ As an adolescent, he spread rumours about his exploits with girls. He even watched heterosexual porn on the sitting room

The women’s lips are pursed; the men’s are kissable: Glyn Philpot at Pallant House reviewed

Of all the photos of artists in the studio, the one of Glyn Philpot being served a martini by his white-jacketed Jamaican model Henry Thomas must be the strangest. Taken to publicise his 1934 exhibition, it would be unthinkable now but in the circles Philpot moved in at the time it might, I suppose, have been viewed as cool. For 20 years Philpot had been London’s leading portraitist, a position he inherited from Sargent. His sitters included admirals – four during the first world war – and King Fuad of Egypt, who commissioned a ‘dignified, decent, usual and rather sumptuous’ portrait from the 38-year-old artist for £3,000 in 1923, the

A bitter sectarian divide: Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart, reviewed

Douglas Stuart has a rare gift. The Scottish writer, whose debut novel Shuggie Bain deservedly won the 2020 Booker Prize, creates vivid characters, settings and images without letting his literary skill get in the way of plot. His second novel, Young Mungo, has a similar feel and is in many ways a kind of sequel. The characters are different, as is the Glaswegian housing scheme and the year – we are now in 1993 rather than the 1980s – but the milieu is familiar. The protagonist, Mungo Hamilton, is a frail, fatherless 15-year-old, but appears much younger. His complexion, vocal tic and poor-fitting clothes lead people to think he’s ‘thirteen,

The making of a poet: Mother’s Boy, by Patrick Gale, reviewed

Charles Causley was a poet’s poet. Both Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin considered him the finest candidate for the laureateship, which Hughes later won. Now Patrick Gale has made him a novelist’s poet in this richly engaging fictionalised account of his early life. Mother’s Boy is bookended by two world wars: the first, in which Charles is born, and his father Charlie suffers the injuries that would lead to his premature death; the second, in which Charles, who had written schoolboy verse, ‘although poetry was not really his thing’, discovers his poetic voice while serving as a coder in the navy. The novel’s main subject is the intense, quasi-incestuous relationship

Gay and abandoned: A Previous Life, by Edmund White, reviewed

Edmund White’s new novel opens, somewhat improbably, in 2050. This imagined future, however, springs few surprises on the reader and is in fact almost identical to the present. Indeed, the leap forward in time is merely a narrative device, allowing a 70-year-old Sicilian aristocrat to reminisce about his affair 30 years earlier with the elderly Edmund White, now long dead and more or less forgotten as a writer. Ruggero Castelnuovo has subsequently married a much younger American woman, Constance. The couple have made a pact never to talk about their past lives, but they now decide to write their private ‘confessions’, and much of the book is taken up with

Have we reached peak human rights?

After the Colston debacle, you might be forgiven for having missed the other legal story that broke this week. The European Court of Human Rights has dismissed the complaint in the Ulster ‘gay cake’ case, so the decision in favour of the baker will stand. In case you need reminding, seven years ago a Belfast gay rights activist called Gareth Lee asked Ashers, a high-class bakery, to produce a cake inscribed with the phrase ‘Support Gay Marriage’ for an event he was organising. The bakery owners refused, citing Presbyterian religious scruples, whereupon Lee sued for discrimination. He lost. Our Supreme Court held that he had not been discriminated against because he

A reappraisal of James Courage

James Courage is one of those fine writers who, though he enjoyed considerable success in his lifetime, has now more or less slipped from view. None of the eight novels he published between 1933 and 1961 is in print and most of them are impossible to find secondhand. The same goes for a collection of his short stories published in 1973. He is chiefly remembered for A Way of Love, a bold novel about a homosexual relationship that was published in 1959 and became a minor cause célèbre in New Zealand when it was banned there. Courage was born in New Zealand in 1903, but came to Oxford University in

Were the Sixties really so liberated?

Lolita, the Lady Chatterley trial, the pill, Christine Keeler, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, love-ins, Oh! Calcutta!, the Oz trial — sex, even more than usual, was on people’s minds in the 1960s, that semi-mythical decade which, to stretch a point, lasted from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. That, anyway, is the plausible contention of Peter Doggett, whose Growing Up is a refreshingly undogmatic, well-researched and highly readable survey of some of the emblematic episodes and controversies surrounding the subject during these years. More detailed sociology would have been helpful — how, if at all, did everyday/everynight sexual practices and attitudes change in Barnsley, in Dunfermline, in Ashby-de-la-Zouch?