My (highly attenuated) attention was recently directed to an LWT doc from 1981 available on YouTube . It compares the pre-war, pre-gay world of ‘sisters’ (‘musical’ friends you didn’t want to fuck) and ‘trade’ (‘normal’ working class ‘real’ men you really did), with the post-Stonewall, butched-up, Marlborough Man world of gay-on-gay early 1980s love action.
I can’t remember seeing it before, and the pioneering gay-interest series Gay Life that it was part of was originally broadcast only in the London area – when I was revising for my O-Levels in Yorkshire. But perhaps I somehow did, and it shaped my entire worldview – and so I naturally repressed the memory of it to protect my fond image of myself as my own man.
Gifford Skinner, the delightful old quean in tweeds talking in the first half about his 1930s sex life, is very much his own man – though it’s difficult now not to see him in a Harry & Paul sketch. He is here a living and still very lively link with London’s vanished world of ‘trade’: otherwise ‘normal’ working class young men and soldiers and sailors who would sleep with (usually middle or upper class) queers, for a few bob, a few pints, or just a few laughs. Born in 1911, the son of a publican, he would have been in his twenties in the 1930s, and 70 when the documentary was made. (Today – I can’t find a date for his death online – he would be 110 years old.)
What strikes me about Gifford’s reminiscing, apart from his wonderfully mannered way of talking – ‘My DEAR!’ – is how this veteran from an era of supposed sexual repression and rampant homophobia, guilt and self-loathing, talks so frankly and fearlessly, so matter-of-factly about his adventurous youth, and his enthusiastic and very definite desires. The opposite of how things are today in our ‘liberated’ age – when everything has to be ideologically-filtered and pre-censored in order to avoid offence and cancellation.
There’s the fixation on his fellow infant school-chums’ bottoms:
‘We did an awful lot of marching in those days – and I always used to look at the boy in front, his bottom, the crease came from side to side, I found it was absolutely fascinating’.
Followed by his adult love for ‘real men’ and ‘rough types’. And his attitude towards his ‘sisters’, exemplified in a typical exchange he recounted with one of his ‘bits of trade’ – who found it difficult to understand why he didn’t want to sleep with his friends:
‘“Why do you like going with me? Why don’t you go with one of your friends, they’re so elegant and attractive – like Jeremy?”’
‘“Oh MY GOD! I couldn’t go to bed with HER!”’
‘They always thought it strange that we would run the risk of taking a stranger back home instead… It was absolutelyimpossible. I couldn’t consider such a thing. I really liked the real thing or nothing.’
The ‘real thing’ was particularly guardsmen, who could be found in large numbers in Hyde Park on any afternoon. Where you could ‘spot them a mile off’.
‘They had to wear their red tunics when they were out, no civilian clothes were worn, magnificent red tunics. They looked very, very smart indeed – they were magnificent really. You would tell them a mile off. The colour was gorgeous against the green in Hyde Park!’
But perhaps his recollection that stays with me the most is his memory of how many of the military men had a mate or ‘oppo’ that they were ‘inseparable from’ – especially sailors. And so, they would both come back to Gifford’s, one of them sleeping in the living room chair while the chosen one spent the night in bed with the welcoming host. His lonely, cold, creased up, best pal listening to the sounds of magnificent giggly sodomy next door.
Also fascinating is the testimony of the late Dudley Cave, as an example of the 1940s-50s new-wave of self-identified ‘invert’, speaking from the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard phone room, having been one of the founding members since it was launched in 1974. (And where he was still working, and still being eminently charming and helpful to everyone, when I volunteered in the late 1980s – back when I still had some milk of human kindness about me).
Joining the army in 1941, aged 20, and distressed about his ‘abnormal’ desires, a sympathetic army psychiatrist loaned Dudley a copy of Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion in the Male, and he recognised himself within its pages immediately. Right down to the supposed preference for the colour blue and the ‘triangular’ pubes allegedly common to the ‘inborn’ invert or homosexual. Although some of Ellis’ notions seem laughable now – but perhaps no more so than some of the contemporary pseudo-science of congenital gay creationism – it helped Dudley be much more accepting of his sexuality. And in fact, set him on the road to become an advocate for gay equality after the war.
(Interestingly, according to this 2004 tribute by Peter Tatchell, Dudley who was a survivor of Japanese POW camps, found that homosexuality was ‘more or less accepted in the Army’, and contrary to the obsession that was to develop after the war, no one was disciplined for it – despite there being rather a lot of it going on – and the worst prejudice he ever experienced was being chided for ‘holding a broom like a woman’.)
The sexual historian Jeffrey Weeks also pops up in the second half of the doc. He isn’t quite as entertaining as Gifford – a very hard act to follow – but he is saying eminently sensible things about how the modern gay identity emerged out of the taxonomies of 19th sexologists, who ‘discovered’ a new species, ‘the homosexual’, making same-sexing a condition or essence rather than an act or sin. And how it is time to move beyond these rigid definitions that ‘don’t correspond to the range of desires of wishes or needs that they actually have’.
That, in other words, the pre-gay world of ‘so’ Gifford and his ‘rough’ chums had something going for it.
But the 1980s was to take no notice of Weeks, or Gifford. What actually happened was of course Aids and Thatcherism-Reaganism. Which largely succeeded in locking down the sexual openness and experimentation of the ‘gender bending’ early 80s and reaffirmed instead both the gay identity and its ‘pathology’. Quarantining queer desire in the queer body.
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.
Gibraltar, otherwise known as ‘The Rock’, is the full stop to the sentence of Europe. It has been besieged no less than fourteen times. The Ancients thought it was a pillar holding up the end of the World. In the Middle Ages Jews fled here from the red-hot instruments of the Spanish Inquisition. Aeons ago, the last survivors of the ancestors of Homo sapiens also retreated to this toothy promontory of the Iberian peninsula, lasting a few, increasingly lonely, thousand years more in the dark caves that abound here, before being finally snuffed out by Progress.
Even today, rare and exotic creatures survive here that have long since become extinct elsewhere in Continental Europe. Off one of the narrow, steep, cobbled streets, down some worn steps, there’s a dark cellar bar, that holds out against not only the Twenty First Century but much of the latter half of the Twentieth. This is the domain and refuge of the last of the Sea Queens, Lovely Charlie, landlocked in the last corner of the British Empire.
The brick walls and vaulted ceiling of Charles’ domain are completely covered in battered Royal Navy Ensign flags. All of them have personal messages scrawled across them in Secondary Modern hands: ‘To Lovely Charlie, from the lads on HMS Sheffield – We think you’re magic!’ (dated 1981, the year before it was sunk by an Argentine Exocet in The Falklands); ‘Donkey Nob Was Here – 1979’’; and ‘Royal Marine Commandos do it in boats – 1989’. Signed photos of sunburnt, laughing young men with cans of lager in their hands and their arms around each other’s shoulders cover the wall next to the bar, together with postcards from Hong Kong, Belize, Brunei, Germany and Kuwait.
Tonight however Charles’ Hole in t’Wall bar – the finest bar on the Seven Seas – is completely empty, except for Charles himself, a well-preserved, handsome middle-aged man with glittery ear-studs and immaculate hair, sitting at the bar, and his snoozing big black labrador, heavy eyelids sagging. ‘Well, come in, luv,’ he says, happy to see a face. ‘Sorry it’s so quiet tonight. The Fleet’s out. Mind, it always fookin’ is these days! Are you a matelot? ‘No? What’s that you say? You’re looking for one? Aren’t we all, luv!’ he laughs, and gets me a bottled beer.
‘It was best when the frontier with Spain was closed,’ he reminisces, in his effortlessly camp but strangely butch Gibraltarian English, comically spiked with some coarse, regional Brit expressions he’s obviously picked up from his clientele. ‘When Franco shut the border in 1967 that was the beginning of twenty years of bloody bliss, y’know. When hundreds of sailors have been out at sea for weeks and they dock here, they’re not going to let the fact that there aren’t enough single women on Gib to make a football team stop them having a fookin’ good time, luv!’
‘And they didn’t mind their mates finding out; they’d just say, “I bet you had a fookin’ good time with Charlie gobblin’ yer last night!” and everybody would laugh. Of course, who gobbled whom wasn’t always the way they painted it – but that was something private between me and them. Things aren’t the same now. I still get offers – but they’re much more furtive; they’re afraid that everyone will think they’re gay just because they had a bit of fun with Charles. And then in 1987 they only went and opened the fookin’ frontier, didn’t they? Now most of the lads head off for the bright lights of Marbella. I can’t compete with dolly-birds and disco, can I luv?’
‘But it isn’t about sex,’ explains Charles, sipping a mineral water (he’s teetotal). ‘It’s the company. The camaraderie. It’s my duty to run this bar! I’m a legend in the Royal Navy, y’know. I’ve been to Portsmouth and Plymouth. They treated me like a real Queen. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for me. I was really moved. I was in Edinburgh once, and a lad came up to me and said, “It’s Lovely Charlie, isn’t it!’ He was very sweet. He whispered, “Look, Charles, you can’t wear that much jewellery around here. They won’t understand”.’
‘I’m passed down, father to son. I had an eighteen-year-old sailor come in here last month, his first time. He said: “That door’s new,” pointing to that door over there to the pool-room which I had installed about ten year ago. “How did you know that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, ‘my dad’s got a picture of him sitting on your knee. It was the year before he met me mam.”
‘They like to tell the newbies that they’re going to sell them to me for a round of drinks, y’know. Of course, that doesn’t happen. I’d never take advantage. But they like to wind up the youngsters. One lad came here with his Dad – the Navy has a Father’s week where they fly fathers who were in the Navy out here to travel home on board ship with their sons. He said: “Well, ‘ere you go Charles, you can ‘ave your wicked way wiv ‘im if you keep the drinks comin’!” I laughed and said, “Well, you’re his dad, so I suppose that makes it legal!” You should have seen the poor boy’s face!’
‘Oh yes, occasionally you get trouble-makers. They come here saying how much they “’ate fookin’ queers”. Everyone goes quiet because they know he’s going to get a tongue lashing from me. I usually say something like, “And I ‘ate fookin’ ugly cunts like you, luv!” Everyone usually pisses themselves laughing. And usually,’ adds Charles, winking, ‘they end up staying the night…’.
‘I can’t go on forever, though y’know. I’m not as young as I used to be. But the matelots, bless ‘em, they don’t notice any of this decay! They always say, “Oh, Charlie, you never change!” and I say to them, “Well, no, but the wattage does!” Charles laughs. ‘Every year a bit less. I started off here with 100W bulbs. Now I’m down to 10W. And tinted!’
‘What’s that? Why do the lads love me so? Oh it’s because they know I love them,’ he explains with a shrug. ‘And I’m always here. Unlike barmaids, I don’t regard them as a problem or as a meal-ticket. And, of course,’ he smiles, winking, ‘they do like my outrageous behaviour. They always insist that I wear all my jewellery when they come to visit.’
A few hours and a crate of beer later I’m staggering back to my hotel and can’t help thinking that the reason the sailors treat Charles like a star is simply because they recognise one when they see one. ‘Lovely Charlie’ is, well, lovely. And priceless. When he finally calls last orders, or runs out of wattage, a little but precious piece of British maritime and marytime history will be lost forever.
This piece was originally published back in 2000 (and collected here), but I’m very happy to report that Charles is still going full steam ahead, and so is a recently-refurbished Charles’ Hole-in-the-Wall bar – he’s even upped the wattage! (Castle Street, Gibraltar; opens at 9pm.)
UPDATE Jan 2015:
After forty years quenching the thirst of the Royal Navy, Charles’ world famous Hole in T’Wall Bar is closing. But Charles’ matelot fans are giving it a jolly Jack tar send-off – and showing Charles how much they luv ‘im. GBC ran a feature on the closure, which includes footage from the bar – and a rather wonderful big framed photo of what looks a lot like Charles in drag (that I somehow seemed to miss during my visit):
Once upon a time the streets of the capital heaved with jolly sailors and guardsmen looking for gentlemen to have fun with. Then gay liberation came along and ruined it for everyone, moans Mark Simpson
(Independent on Sunday, 11 September, 2005)
I consider myself something of a traditionalist. I enjoy traditional activities, such as cruising the Dilly, picking up guardsmen, sailors, dockers and young working men.
I am, in other words, a hopeless romantic. For “trade”, the masculine erotic economy which girded the loins of the greatest city in the world, lubricated the pistons of the greatest Empire, and made saucy sense of the British class system is gone forever. The docks have gone, the sailors and guardsmen are all but gone – and, criminally, don’t wear their uniforms on the street any more, making them very difficult to spot. And as for the working men, well, they all live so far out of town these days and drive so fast in their white vans that it’s almost impossible to collar any.
All that’s left is a gay disco in the East End called, mockingly, “Trade” where you can find shirtless gay lawyers on horse-tranquilizers eyeing one another up while dancing frantically at 5am. If you really want to.
Gone too are the painted queans, such as Quentin Crisp, and the respectable gentlemen in evening dress who pursued trade – trade who, for sex, for violence, for love, for money, for a few beers, for something to tell their mates about, frequently allowed themselves to be caught. Gone are the jostling, smoke-filled “known” (not “gay”) pubs. Gone is the whole vibrant and complex pre-gay bachelor world of male-male intimate relations that meant that perhaps most sexual activity between men before the 1967 decriminalisation involved men who were not queer. What we now call “homosexuality” or “the gay scene” was a much, much bigger business before so-called liberalisation.
Contrary to received wisdom, today’s out-and-proud gay world is in some ways a marginalised, airless, incestuous one compared to what went before in the “bad old days”. It’s only in the last 30 years or so, in other words, the period corresponding to the rise of “gay liberation”, that we have begun to believe that to have sex with another male you have to belong to a separate species. That, regardless of your interest in the ladies, if you wake up in bed with another male you have to move to Old Compton Street or the Castro, pronto.
As Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-1957 makes remarkably clear, just a few decades ago, significant numbers of (working-class) young men were not only moving freely between male and female partners but were happy to brag about it. So long as they were “butch” and active – or claimed they were – it would merely enhance their reputation with the lads. It certainly didn’t mean that they were “confused about their sexuality”.
Though you, dear reader, may be about theirs. It is, after all, a world that is almost unintelligible to us today. Even my nostalgia for “traditional” activities is precisely that: nostalgia. A slightly perverse, contemporary projection onto the past – a past that is now too “queer” and unfamiliar to grasp fully, possibly even by those who are still alive to remember it. As Houlbrook puts it:
“Working class encounters with the queer transcended contemporary understandings of ‘homosexuality’ or ‘homophobia’. Intimacy, sex, blackmail, theft, and assault constituted a continuum…”
A rather more exciting continuum than most homos today can handle – or would want to.
Perhaps this is why many gays today simply refuse to believe such a world existed, except as some failed prototype for the wonderful, self-contained, self-centred gay world they now live in: “God, all those sad, oppressed, self-hating homos chasing after straight men – why didn’t they get themselves down to the gym and buy some camouflage trousers?”
Thankfully, Houlbrook isn’t one of those gays. He’s a historian. “The world mapped out in this book is not a ‘gay’ world as we would currently understand it,” he writes. “The places are different. Soho has retained its importance, but today it seems almost impossible that Waterloo Road or Edgware Road could have been the site of equally important, diverse, extensive, and vital queer enclaves between the wars.”
Edgware Road was the site of a large barracks; Waterloo Road the home of the Union Jack Club, a hotel for hundreds of randy young sailors on leave. As one contemporary put it: “The Waterloo Road was awash with seamen, most of whose bodies… were not only able but willing.”
Queer London, with chapters on “Geographies of Public Sex” and “Piccadilly Palare: the world of the West End poof” (spot the Moz reference) goes out of its way to present a map of London’s queer past that doesn’t merely see it as a world that was struggling to turn into Soho during Pride Week: “In exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the 20th century, we should lament possibilities long lost as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired.”
Obviously, it is the lost possibility of sex – and loving relationships – with sailors, soldiers and young working men men that I most lament. So does Houlbrook; or, at least, he sees this as the crucial difference between London’s contemporary gay world and its queer past. Unlike many other recent urban gay histories, this book gives equal attention to those who considered themselves “normal” but nonetheless socialised with, had sex with, and often loved other men. In other words: trade. The men who were at the very centre of the queer erotic economy and without whom Saturday nights in 1930s Soho would have been very dull indeed.
So we learn that “the most distinctive venues” were either military pick-up joints like the Grenadier (Wilton Place), Tattershalls Tavern (Knightsbridge Green), the Alexandra Hotel (Hyde Park Corner), and the Packenham and Swan (I’ll be visiting them all very soon, just to make sure they’re no longer “in business”); or those in working-class neighbourhoods in east and south London: dockside pubs like the Prospect of Whitby (Wapping Stairs), or Charlie Brown’s (West India Dock Road). In these venues, dock labourers, sailors from across the world, and families “mingled freely with flamboyant local queans and slumming gentlemen in a protean milieu where queer men and casual homosexual encounters were an accepted part of everyday life”. Perhaps Houlbrook is a little nostalgic too, after all.
To regard London’s trading scene as merely “prostitution” or “exploitation”, as many are inclined, is again to impose modern, patronising values on transactions: “Working men’s desires were more complex than the term ‘prostitution’ allows.” Money was not always exchanged (especially with sailors), but even when it was, most of the “normal” men trading themselves had jobs. For the most part, trade was an enjoyable and rewarding pastime activity that could also become a lasting emotional attachment.
Guardsman were notoriously rough renters (very capable of blackmail and violence, which was perhaps part of their appeal), but as one interviewed in 1960 admitted:
“Some of us get quite fond of the blokes we see regularly… they’re nice fellows… and interesting to listen to. As for the sex… some of the younger ones aren’t bad looking…”
Or like the newly married Jim writing rather sweetly to his gentleman friend, John Lehmann:
“I wish I was still seeing you Jack as you were the best friend I ever had… you were always such a good friend to me we had good times together Jack and I hope I shall see you some time.”
Trade was a young man’s game, which usually lasted only for the period between adolescence and marriage. Once married, working-class men and their unruly erections would “move on”.
Why did the world of trade end? In part, because, like Jim, it got married. The post-war years saw a rise in prosperity which not only undermined the economic rationale for trade, it also made marriage possible much sooner. Rather than getting married in their late twenties and early thirties, young men were marrying in their late teens and early twenties. The rough and tumble world of “raucous male homosociality” was disappearing. Young men were socialising much more with women, who were now entering public life with money to spend themselves (and today, if the tabloid stories are to be believed, are lining up to be smuggled into Knightsbridge Barracks). Trade ended because the bachelor-culture of pre-war London ended.
Ironically, the final blow to trade and the public world of queer sex was delivered by Wolfenden Report of 1957, and the Act which decriminalised sex between consenting adult males in private 10 years later.
Key Wolfenden witnesses, Patrick Trevor-Roper (a Harley Street consultant) and Peter Wildeblood (diplomatic correspondent for The Daily Mail) pleaded for homosexual respectability in the language of the private middle-class home (sounding uncannily like gay marriage lobbyists today). Wildeblood claimed:
“I seek only to apply to my life the rules which govern the lives of all good men; freedom to choose a partner and… to live with him discreetly and faithfully… the right to choose the person whom I love.”
However, as Houlbrook points out, both witnesses glossed over the queer spaces in which they were going to meet that partner. Wildeblood famously met the airman McNally in a Piccadilly Circus subway; Trevor-Roper was cautioned by a policeman in St James’s Park, a veritable bazaar for strapping Guardsman during the war.
To which I might add that for Wolfenden the “real perverts” were not the “congenital inverts”, but the “otherwise normal men” who took part in these aberrant activities, often in public. This is why prosecutions for indecency actually trebled in the 10 years following “decriminalisation” in 1967 (many of those convicted were married). Wolfenden, which was also a report into street prostitution, encouraged the law to go after the “real perverts”. All male sexual contact involving those under 21, those staying in hostels or hotels, rooming houses or prison, meeting in parks and public toilets (they were not “in private”), or while serving in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, remained illegal. In other words, probably the vast majority of homosex in the earlier part of the 20th century.
Even the consensual activities that led to the Montagu Scandal and public backlash which prompted the Wolfenden Report and eventually the 1967 reform itself would still have been illicit after “decriminalisation” as they involved members of the RAF and were not conducted “in private” – and would remain so for much of the next 40 years.
It’s probably just more sour grapes on my part, but it’s tempting to conclude that the law reforms of the last few years, such as the equalisation of the age of consent, ending the ban in the Armed Forces and Merchant Navy, and relaxation of the laws on “soliciting” and “indecency” in public, happened not so much because of the tireless campaigns by gay equality reformers, or even the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, but simply because, one or two cruisy parks aside, most “traditional activities” in London had already come to an end.
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