Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xiv + 384pp. 15 illustrations. Bibliography. $29.00 hbk.In Queer London, Houlbrook weaves together a rich diversity of material - oral and published memoirs, biographies, newspaper reports and opinion pieces, and a vast range of archival materials - into a compelling and thought-provoking narrative. He has already produced a guide to researching gay and lesbian history in The National Archives and Queer London reveals how much material shedding light into all sorts of unlikely corners can be found in public records: court proceedings, records of the Metropolitan Police, the files of government departments and committees, as well as records of the relevant local administrations, and of voluntary bodies concerned with public morality.
The diversity of queer culture during the period is foregrounded, with a variety of subcultures which did not necessarily interact. There were geographical differences, as well as distinctions of class, economic status, respectability, and modes of self-presentation. These cultures also changed over time, in ways that were not simply about definition - from a popular perception of men who desired men as ‘effeminate queans’ to a concept of ‘the homosexual’ who might well appear conventionally masculine - but in actual socio-cultural practice and presentation. There were also continuities, for example the persistence of the same sites as gathering places through various mutations, such as the opening of a respectable members’ club at the site of the demolished Brydges Place cottage.
Houlbrook draws attention to the considerable variations both topographically and temporally in pro-active policing of homosexual activity, and demonstrates the extent to which this was often contingent upon other factors. He also provides a strongly revisionist view of the argument that the increased crackdown of the early 1950s came from the top down as a result of the appointment of men with pronounced homophobic views to key government positions, arguing that practices such as the deployment of police agents provocateurs were in use well before that period and that the causes of the ‘witch-hunt’ (and its chronology) were rather more complex.
His account of the ways in which working-class ‘rough trade’ negotiated the business of having sexual interactions with men of higher socio-economic status while retaining self-identity as normal, manly and tough raises many intriguing questions, which could perhaps be productively generalised - Houlbrook himself suggests that the links between manliness, dominance and aggression also played out in this group’s relationships with women. He suggests that ‘trade’ was often actively complicit in engendering interactions, under the excuse of doing it for the money, but that the tensions created could result in violence or blackmail. This sensitive exploration of the ways in which lower-class men constructed their participation in queer urban culture is a salutary corrective to the othering visions of middle-class men of working class male bodies as ‘real men, ‘more instinctive and spontaneous’ than themselves, manifesting ‘straightforward pagan coarseness’ and ‘earthiness’ (p. 211).
Possibly Houlbrook, in an understandable desire to avoid the negative tone of standard narratives of homosexual life during this period and to accentuate the potential for more positive stories, glides too readily over the suffering, the perils of exposure, and the suicides: such as that recorded by George Ives in his 1940 diary of a bank manager ‘of the highest character’, caught with a partner in a cottage in Hampstead and unable to face the loss of job and disgrace. But this is a praiseworthy and extremely rich study of the extent to which men might create and participate in queer cultures in spite of the illegality of homosexual activity, the mechanisms of surveillance, and pervasive societal hostility. It demonstrates the value of meticulous attentiveness to a specific geographical location during a relatively short period of time.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine