With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.
So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.
Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.
Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”
What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”
He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.
For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.
After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”
So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.
This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,
Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.