Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, first Earl of Kilmuir, might seem an odd subject for today’s blog.Not only wasn’t he queer, but he worked tirelessly against any attempt to decriminalise homosexuality, and may well have been behind the “pogrom” of the 1950s that deliberately targeted gay men for persecution. It’s easy to look back with a sense of superiority, but his opposition to homosexuals was but a footnote in a life which was generally lived well.
Born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a grammar school headmaster and his second wife, Maxwell Fyfe studied at a Scottish independent school before going on to read the Greats (Literae Humaniores, a Classics course based on the history of human learning) at Oxford. He wasn’t a remarkable scholar, more interested in contemporary politics than the ancients, and achieved only a third-class degree. His education was briefly interrupted in 1918 when he took time out to spend a year with the Scots Guards at the end of the First World War. Continue reading →
Ten years passed between the publication of the Wolfenden report and the legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The history books usually gloss over that decade, seeming to assume that’s just how long it takes to implement major social reform. Governments aren’t known for acting quickly.
Yet glossing over that key decade is to do a disservice to the men and women who campaigned tirelessly through it, the people prepared to come out of the closet and demand equality for the first time. That the government was so slow implementing change based on the conclusions of a report they’d commissioned suggests that the Wolfenden committee was charged with looking into homosexuality, not with a view towards changing the existing laws, but upholding them. When the verdict came down in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, a lot of people in power were both surprised and dismayed. Continue reading →
Peter Wildeblood was born in Italy in 1923, the only child of Henry Wildeblood, a retired engineer from the Indian Public Works Department, and his second wife Winifred, daughter of an Argentinian sheep rancher. (He had older brothers from his father’s first marriage, but as they were already grown with families of their own when Peter was born, he was raised as an only child.) His father was sixty at the time of Peter’s birth, a circumstance which in later life he wondered was responsible for his sexuality.
Wildeblood was raised and educated in England from the age of three. He attended boarding school from seven, and at thirteen won a scholarship to Radley College, a public school near Oxford. From Radley he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, although he was forced to drop out after ten days because of ill health. It being then 1941, shortly thereafter he enlisted with the RAF and trained as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (a British colony at the time; now Zimbabwe), but after a succession of crashes he was grounded and retrained as a meteorologist. He remained in Rhodesia for the duration of the war, where he had a number of sexual experiences with women, which only served to confirm his suspicion that he was homosexual. When he returned to Oxford after the war, he spent many of his weekends in London, where he moved in almost exclusively queer circles. Continue reading →
In 1954, following the high-profile convictions of Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood for homosexual crimes under the infamous 1885 Labouchere Amendment, and more significantly the turn of public opinion against the prosecutors of that case, the Home Secretary ordered that a committee which had been set up in order to look into the matter of prostitution also consider the criminality of homosexuality.
The committee comprised three women and twelve men, chaired by Lord Wolfenden, for whom the report was named. The committee members came from legal, medical, educational, and religious backgrounds, although despite this and the subjects they had been charged with investigating, they were surprisingly coy — Wolfenden suggested at an early meeting that they refer to homosexuals as Huntleys and prostitutes as Palmers (after the biscuit manufacturer, Huntley & Palmers) in order to protect the delicate sensibilities of the ladies in the room. A suggestion which the ladies promptly rejected. Continue reading →
Alan Turing at 16
Alan Turing was born in 1912, second child of Julius and Ethel. His father held a position with the India Civil Service, but his parents returned to England before Alan’s birth, keen for their sons to be raised in England. When his parents needed to return to India, they left the boys in the care of a retired army couple during their absences.
Turing’s extraordinary intelligence showed itself early, as did his enthusiasm for learning. When, at thirteen, a general strike was called on the day he was to start at a new school, he cycled sixty miles unaccompanied in order to attend on time. The school, however, placed greater emphasis on Classical learning than the sciences, and the headmaster wrote to his parents, warning: ” If he is to stay at public [private] school, he must aim at becoming educated. If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a public school.” Continue reading →
London in the 1950s
The 1950s was a dark decade for queer Englishmen. Between 1945 and 1955, arrests for “gross indecency” soared to over 2,500 a year, with an average of 1,000 men being incarcerated annually. It was a marked increase, seen by many as a targeted persecution, and became known as the “gay pogrom.” Those who believe that narrative trace the cause to the huge number of servicemen, freshly discharged from the war with nowhere to go, unable to find work. The big cities, and especially London, teemed with them. England was proud of its returned heroes, but didn’t know what to do with them and worried that, left without a purpose, they would fall into corruption and vice. The pogrom was, in the eyes of many, a desperate battle to preserve the innocence of men freshly returned from war. To compound matters, the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, had promised “a new drive against male vice” that would “rid England of this plague.” Continue reading →
Subtitled The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
, Brideshead Revisited
was written in a three month period in early 1943 while Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was on leave from the army.
On the surface, Brideshead is a simple story of friendship gone awry. Charles Ryder, while an undergraduate at Oxford, meets and becomes friends with Lord Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord Marchmain. Brideshead is Sebastian’s family seat, inhabited by his mother, elder brother, and sister. Lord Marchmain, who converted to Catholicism in order to marry Sebastian’s mother, has renounced both his church and his marriage, and moved to Venice to be with his mistress. So abandoned, Lady Marchmain finds ever deeper solace in her faith. Continue reading →
Poet’s Corner is the name given to the section of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey where some of England’s most famous writers are interred or memorialised. In 1985, a slate was added, commemorating sixteen poets of the Great War. They were Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.
What is immediately noticeable from looking at their biographies is how similar they were. All but three attended public or independent schools, followed by Oxbridge or prestigious discipline-specific universities. Most attained the rank of Lieutenant or higher: only two were privates. (Those two facts are linked: most public schools held Officers’ Training Corps as a standard class, preparing the sons of the wealthy and titled to command other men. After war was declared, men with OTC experience were drafted as officers, even without prior military experience.) Most moved in literary circles or were published prior to the outbreak of war. They all knew most of the other fifteen men with whom they’re now remembered. Continue reading →
I’d apologise in advance for the gratuitous photo-dump in this post, but I’m not sorry. Not the slightest bit 😀
The concept of romantic friendships has been around since before the days when Plato gave his name to loving somebody without involving sex. To the Greeks (or at least the Athenian Greeks), it was a model of virtue and purity to which many aspired, and classically-educated Europeans for centuries after strove to emulate.
Today, the England of the past has a reputation for stuffiness and repression which the men and women living at the time would struggle to recognise. Partly because homosexuality as a concept and identity didn’t exist until the latter half of the nineteenth century, men in particular were much more tactile and affectionate with each other than, well, today. Continue reading →
First published in 1953, Mary Renault’s lyrical novel The Charioteer is the story of Laurie “Spud” Odell’s coming-of-age, set against the backdrop of the Second World War. That Renault was informed by the works of Freud is apparent from the very first chapter, when five-year-old Laurie’s father walks out.
Laurie is in bed, but not asleep. Ten o’clock has come and gone — “Nine was the wild outpost of an unknown continent. Ten was the mountains of the moon, the burial-place of elephants: white on the map.” Understanding that he only remained awake past bedtime when he was sick, Laurie decides that he must be going to die. Continue reading →