It’s LGBT History Month. So I thought I would share with you my hitherto hidden love for my favourite ‘gay’ novel. The Heart In Exile, published in the UK in 1953, by Rodney Garland – real name Adam Martin De Hegedus, an Hungarian émigré.
Though as the date and morose title, the use of a nom de plume – and my fondness for it – would suggest, it’s not very gay at all. In fact, it’s thoroughly pre-gay.
Like the 1961 film Victim, it involves a suicide, but this time of a gentleman barrister, apparently over a bit of rough, rather than the other way around.
When this book was published, the UK was still on the ration. Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ was in the charts. The scuttling of Britain’s post-war imperial pretensions at Suez was three years off, the Wolfenden Report, with its charming ‘Huntleys’ and ‘Palmers’ euphemisms for homosexuals and prostitutes (to save the sensibilities of ‘the ladies in the room’), wasn’t to be commissioned for another four years – and its recommendations wouldn’t be enacted into law for another decade and a half.
The Heart In Exile is not so much a novel as a gumshoe tour of the now vanished twilight demimonde of post-war London homosexual life, or ‘the underground’ as the narrator, Dr Anthony Page, a psychiatrist (yes, it’s perfectly 1950s in every detail), dubs it, only slightly ironically, as he tries to get to the bottom of why his sometime (boy)friend Julian Leclerc, recently engaged to be married, killed himself.
A clandestine world of ‘known’ pubs, full of gentlemen, ‘pansies’, toughs, ‘criminal elements’ and young soldiers, sailors and airmen on leave and looking for a cheap good time.
(I think you are probably beginning to see the appeal.)
Known pubs that would eventually become rather too well ‘known’, thanks to the ‘undisciplined’ ‘screamers’ and other non-respectable types giving the game away, according the eminently respectable narrator. The police would raid, names and addresses would be taken, ‘one or two wanted persons detained’, the publican ‘warned to be more careful in future’. A warning he would heed, and then the pub would become unknown – and empty – again. The queer pub life-cycle beginning again somewhere else.
‘These meeting places of the underground changed all the time, like the publishing offices of clandestine newspapers, and the changes were usually abrupt. The underground took up a pub, and met there regularly, which mean that a good deal of the undesirable element came too. First of all the “obvious”, young and not-so-young pansies, who either couldn’t conform or didn’t wish to. This may have been due to social background: they had never had any training in discipline and they had little to lose. A few drinks did the trick: they got into high spirits, let their hair down, and screamed – and the underground was given away. Another unpleasant element that was often attracted to a pub of this sort consisted of those who lived on the fringe of the underworld: the near-criminal, the delinquent, the deserter.
As a consequence, the pub in question soon gained an unsavoury reputation. It was raided by the police. Names and addresses were taken, one or two wanted persons were detained and the publican was told to be more careful in future, otherwise his licence would not be renewed. He heeded the warning and, if next day a too-obvious-looking person turned up, he refused – with a heavy heart – to serve him. A few days later the pub was “clean” again, which meant that it was empty: the clientele dwindled to a few locals, postmen, commissionaires, charwomen and some respectable married men from other districts, who didn’t want to visit pubs in their own neighbourhood.
The underground, fairly well used to abrupt changes of their meeting-place, took up another pub after the raid, and the same cycle of events was repeated. It became crowded and famous, then notorious, and did very good trade; then it was raided and became empty again. In and near the centre of London there were comparatively few pubs which had not at one time or another been taken up by the underground.’The Heart in Exile, (p.57)
Today, London’s established, post-Wolfenden, very gay venues, which once seemed as permanent as The Tower of London and the neon of Piccadilly Circus are also now fading into obscurity – once again thanks to too much information, but this time in the form of apps rather than police raids. The ‘underground’ is now so over ground, so connected and accepted, that it doesn’t seem to need actual, physical meeting places any more. Everyone is too busy cottaging and gossiping online.
With the odd effect that the business of pickups is perhaps now more ‘discreet’ than it was in the pre-gay era – while ‘gay sex’ is once again no longer quite so gay as it was in the post-Wolfenden part of the 20th Century, involving as it does increasing numbers of ‘bi-curious’ men who for the most part have no interest in the gay identity, just ‘no-strings discreet fun, yeah?’.
The Heart In Exile is also a study in class – because Britain before The Beatles was all about class, and so of course was ‘inversion’ (the narrator’s favoured term). As documented in Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London, gentlemen preferred ‘trade’ – ‘normal’ working class young men who were happy to be bought a few drinks by a classy fella, and maybe get noshed off later.
While this kind of dynamic is often characterised as ‘self-loathing’ these days, it was nevertheless a perfect economy of desire. The object remained exactly that, rather than competition. And like the class system itself, everyone knew their place. But at a price. As one of those gentlemen acknowledges to Dr Page, it was not exactly a recipe for domestic happiness:
‘“You see,’ he said slowly, “the trouble with all people like Julian and you and I is that life is made extra complicated for us. We don’t like people like ourselves. We don’t want anybody who shares our standards, I mean educated, middle class and so on. In fact, we want the very opposite. We want the primitive, the uneducated, the tough. Then we are surprised that satisfaction is so difficult to obtain and that our affairs don’t last because we don’t share the same culture. Things are far easier for people who are attracted to others like themselves. Possibly younger, but from the same background. They are usually happy. There are hundreds of dons, museum officials, clergymen, civil servants like that. They settle down to a happy, married life with younger friends. I suppose they go to drag-parties and dress up like Indian snake-charmers or Carmen Miranda, but they don’t hunt and tour the pubs…”’ (p.67-8)
Although the Carmen Miranda Tendency is mentioned in The Heart in Exile, Dr Page doesn’t actually encounter any members of it. Almost every male in the book is either pursuing trade or… trade.
Page does however talk to an ageing aristocratic queen, Lord Harpley (who seems possibly to have been based partly on Stephen Tennant) who reminisces about his trips to Chatham picking up sailors:
‘”…of course, it was usually the other way around and I got picked up instead, and there was actually an occasion when one of them gave me half a crown. Please don’t laugh,”’….“I say,” he continued in his usual inconsequential way, “do you know any American soldiers stationed in London? I’m told some of them are madly queer. I always like their underwear….”’ (p. 128)
There are lengthy discussions between Page and other middle (and upper) class men about why they pursue ‘toughs’, often exclusively, what the appeal of working men might be, that sometimes seem faintly comic now, and no doubt potentially offensive to some. And yet they contain sociological and psychological truths. One of the reasons I like The Heart in Exile is because it is essentially a shrewd psychoanalysis of the post-war middle classes.
‘”There are various explanations,” I said,’… ‘“It may be that the working class has been or still is more easily available and, in the past at least, was less troublesome if mistakes were made. My private guess on Freudian lines is that they have fewer anal fears than the upper classes, but I think more important is that the worker gives us the impression, sometimes quite wrongly, that he’s more masculine and virile than the man from the middle class. There’s something about manual work that gives him a kind of glamour and sometimes something more real than a glamour. Besides, manual work definitely develops certain muscles. Quite often overdevelops them. You get hypotrophically big hands, fat wrists, a large dorsal, wide shoulders…” (p.96)
Much worse – and probably even more powerful – than the objectification of the working man and his big ‘ands and dorsals, is the romanticisation. And I should know. In an exchange with ‘Ginger’, a married ex-squaddie turned mechanic, Dr Page receives this explanation for why this otherwise ‘normal’ man had an affair with Julian, an officer, when they were serving together:
“It’s like this. I couldn’t put it the way you would. I’m only a working bloke. I left school when I was thirteen like, but what I mean to say is this: if a working man likes someone, he’d do anything for him, wouldn’t he?” (p. 174)
This is Scudder on the ladder again. And who could resist?
The Heart In Exile does however acknowledge that times are changing, that the ‘trade’ economy is receding in post-war London. It posits that because young working class men now have money to spend on pleasures and girlfriends – and also on their clothes, hair and bodies – they are less available. Even as they have become more alluring. As Dr Page puts it, in conversation with Tidpool, an ‘upper class invert’ (and MP):
‘”Generally speaking,… the primitive, undistinctive type quite unashamedly goes in for ornamentation. Look at their haircut, for example. Today it’s pure Regency, but few people in the middle class would go in for it. I’m talking about the young, of course, the spiv and the millions who imitate him. Sometimes the effect is ludicrous, but occasionally a chap is so physically attractive that he gets way with a sky blue jacket with twelve inch shoulders and flowery tie.” (p. 98)
The early 1950s had seen the rise of a working class dandyish youth cult in South London which seems to have copied and adapted and elaborated some of the ‘New Edwardian’ post-war styles aimed at the upper classes by Saville Row. Originally dubbed ‘Cosh Boys’, the term ‘Teddy Boys’ stuck after a headline for a feature the phenomenon for the Daily Express shortened ‘Edwardian’ to ‘Teddy’ in 1953 – the same year this book was published.
The Heart in Exile is a good example of how homosexuals can be keen observers of masculine trends – perhaps the keenest. (See also Colin MacInnes.)
Little wonder Tidpool moans to Dr Page:
…”It’s an awful thing to confess, but I feel that a certain amount of unemployment would make things easier for us.” For a moment I didn’t know whether he was speaking on behalf of the Federation of British Industries or the underground. But he continued: “I mean, look at the West End today. The war years were exceptional. What a harvest,” he sighed; “but compare the years before the war with the present. You went out on a Saturday and between Leicester Square and Marble Arch you usually found something. Young men from the suburbs, from the provinces. They were yours for the asking. Sometimes it cost money, but not much. Boys accepted us because we were class; and not only that: they liked us because, unlike women, we didn’t cost them money. I suppose we made a fuss of them, which their girls didn’t. Anyhow, today they can afford women, and if they don’t want women they have plenty of money for other amusements…. And what’s more tantalising is that the young worker today is so good looking, so well-built, well-dressed…” (p. 99)
The decline in the availability of young working class men contributes to the emergence of a new type of homosexual, the outlines of which have been traced here by Neil Bartlett as the beginnings of 1970s/80s ‘clone culture’. Essentially, younger ‘inverts’ had begun to turn themselves into the trade they were looking for.
Page discovers a trend close to my heart:
‘“Do people often try to pick you up?” I said’. ….
‘“Well.” He began to think. “I don’t count the gym, because it’s full of queers.”
“The gym?” I said.
“Yes. Full of them.”
For a moment I felt surprised; then I remembered the occasion when Terry had taken me to a swimming pool. This was, I imagined, a new post-war trend in England. A considerable proportion of young homosexuals regularly went to gymnasia and swimming pools, not only to look at, or try to establish contact with, attractive young men, but also to improve their own physique, and thereby their chances of success.’ (p. 136)
It seems as if the increased spending power of young working class men in the post-war period that made them less susceptible to the charms of gentlemen (and which was to give rise to rock and roll and pop culture) also made it possible for young working class ‘inverts’ to have more options than in the past.
‘Terry’ is Page’s live-in male housekeeper, a young working class submissive ‘invert’ from the north who has reconciled himself to his sexuality, who dotes on Daddy Page – but Page is unable to return his love, and is anyway currently, and perhaps conveniently for the purposes of a very pre-Wolfenden book on homosexuality in which no actual sex occurs, celibate. Though he is at least able to admire Terry’s back muscles when scrubbing his kitchen floor. Terry goes to the gym, swims and has a familiar wardrobe.
‘Sartorially he was typical of at least one section of his generation all over the Western world. He had one suit, a single-breasted gabardine affair, for uneasy, representative occasions. He was more at home in blue jeans, lumber-jackets, moccasins and loafers, windcheaters, cowboy shirts, in essentially masculine, revolutionary, anti-traditional, almost anti-capitalist garments. All of which, oddly enough, emanate from the most demonstratively and aggressively capitalist state in the world.’ (p. 180)
But Terry and the proto-clone/hipster is not the star of this novel. No, the object of this novel is a proto metrosexual. A young Teddyish tough whose photograph Dr Page finds hidden behind a framed photo of Julian’s fiancé when searching his flat.
‘In real life his hair might have been reddish and, masking the top of the photograph with my hand, I tried to work out what he must actually have looked like. I was sure now that he was English, more likely from London than the provinces, and I was sure he was “normal”. He wore a dark jacket – obviously “semi-drape” – a spear point collar and a dark tie in a Windsor knot. He was the type some middle-class inverts look at at street corners with nostalgia, a type sometimes dangerous, but always uninhibited. He would spend a good deal of money on clothes as dramatic as his haircut – more than people like Julian or I or anybody in our social group. We would not be allowed to call attention to ourselves in such blatant if successful ways as Ginger. As so often, I began to wonder whether these young metropolitan working-class males effect this remarkable self-dramatisation for their women. Maybe, I thought, but it was doubtful. They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’ (p. 53-4)
‘They wanted to assert their personality and wanted to be admired by both sexes.’
Now, where have we heard that line before?
‘Ginger’ is both the star of both The Heart in Exile and of much of my own work. (Though, unaccountably, I didn’t actually read this book until c. 2006.)
Likewise he’s the real mystery of the novel, not Julian’s death. He is an absence for most of the book. Dr Page tours the London ‘underground’ trying to track ‘Ginger’ (as he thinks he’s called) down, ostensibly to try and make sense of the suicide. He shows a succession of middle and upper class men the photograph. Nobody recognises him – but everyone wants to meet him.
Without giving too much away the lad does finally make an appearance – right at the end of the book. He is of course everything the photo promised and more. He is however deeply mourning the loss of Julian – he was in love with him. Naturally, the young tough, bereft of his gentlemen, falls for Dr Page, who admirably, professionally – and entirely unconvincingly – refuses his advances, and recommends that he return to the normal life that he enjoyed before meeting Julian.
For his part, Dr Page resolves to be nicer to Terry and even take him on holiday with him. A glimpse of the settled private gay domesticity that Wolfenden was to successfully invoke as an argument for (partial) decriminalisation of male homosexuality – to get it off the streets and out of the pubs, and stop the corruption of ‘otherwise normal’ young men, however much they may have wanted to be corrupted.
At least until smartphones are invented.
De Hegedus himself however had no such moderately happy ever-after. Although The Heart In Exile was a great success, critically and commercially, and did much to advance the cause of the underground, he seems to have died by his own hand in the Bayswater area of London in 1958. Was there a ‘Ginger’ involved?
Alas, we don’t know. His death is clouded in obscurity. There was no Dr Page to solve the mystery.
This post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.
There is a new (2014) edition of The Heart in Exile by Valancourt Books.