Sometimes I buy a book based purely on its cover.
Just before Christmas I found myself in Gay’s The Word (a very fine bookstore), looking for some holiday reading matter. I picked up several books, some of which I had been looking for, and some of which I had read other material by the same author.
Queer London just jumped off of the shelf, with a really nice cover and a snappy title.
The book covers the period 1918-1957 which is, of course, the time from the end of the first world war to the publishing of the ‘Wolfenden Report’, which presaged the limited decriminalisation of gay sex in the UK. It’s a fairly dry read at times (it shows its roots as a PhD thesis), but I was gripped by it. The stories of London from a time when being gay was very different, and yet recognisable, are fascinating.
The description of life in the East End was particularly interesting, as large parts of my family come from that part of London. A key argument in the book is that applying the word ‘gay’ to historical cultures is a tricky thing. Today it means so much more than a simple tag for people like me. The author identifies three distinct subcultures among what would now be labelled gay people in the time under question, and each is quite different from the understanding we now have of what it is to be a gay man in London.
I find information about how other cultures deal with people like me educational. I find it easy to lapse into an assumption that our current method of handling gay people is somehow inevitable, when clearly it is not. To find a different (subtly perhaps, but quite distinct) way of living with gay people quite so close to home was the surprise as I read this book.
Queer London Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 Matt Houlbrook The University of Chicago Press