Monday, 20 January 2020


Harlequin’s tunic of patches

This is a note on something which interested or agitated me some 30 years ago, and which I have something worth posting, even if I never got to where I wanted to get to with it.
The website of the Weltmuseum Wien discusses one of their holdings, a hirqa:

>>In the twenty-first century a Sufi wears completely normal daily clothing and is, therefore, not externally distinguishable from his surroundings. Once upon a time, an individual who wanted to lead the life of a mystic and had renounced the world donned a robe of rough wool and was identified as a Sufi, derived from the Arabic word for wool, ṣūf. Admission into a brotherhood took place by means of a particular ceremony, at the end of which the novice was dressed in the clothing of a dervish, the hirqa; these are differentiated by colour and style from brotherhood to brotherhood. Often this garment was stitched together out of numerous patches. And it is also related that such patched robes were preferably sewn out of rags that the Sufis had torn out of their garments in ecstasy. The tattered clothing of the Sufis expresses poverty. Yet it is somehow also reminiscent of the colourful costume of a harlequin, with his vivid lozenge-shaped stripes. It seems as if the rambling fool of God in the Commedia dell'arte had slipped into the role of the half-clownish, half-demonic prankster, in order to expose the structures and mechanisms of society, attracting ridicule and disdain upon himself. Spirituality and humour are not mutually exclusive. Both can be understood as effective attempts to reveal the complex and paradox situations of which real life is so full. <<

Everyone agrees that the harlequin costume is a stylised version of a robe of patches, evidently deriving from clothes which have disintegrated, and that this is the start even though actual stage costumes were robust, specially made and not at all likely to fall apart in mid-performance. The interesting question is whether the harlequin costume was directly borrowed from Islam, referring to the Eastern links of Venice and Genoa and of course to the Ottoman culture, bringing the East right to the borders or shores of Italy. The Viennese ethnographic museum does not make this claim, and the likely extent of borrowing is the costume; dervishes might dance, but they were not stage figures and did not “become” Harlequin.

More light is shed on this by Geo Widengren, Harlekintracht und Mönchskutte, Clownhut und Derwischmütze. Eine gesellschafts-, religions- und trachtgeschichtliche Studie. 1953 (in: Orientalia Suecana). In this cross-cultural essay, the Swedish scholar records a Syrian book on saints’ lives which records religious rebels going around the country wearing clothes of rags. The book was by John of Ephesus and was written around 550 AD. It is in Syriac. It seems likely that this practice inspired the Sufis, at least if it was continued over later centuries. I don’t have detailed references on radical Christian groups in the Near East which would be closer in time to Sufism.;“It is likely that Sufiism, as it developed from the ninth century onwards, itself owed much to certain Christian mystical sects in the East.”- Norman O. Cohn. A robe of patches is a convenient garb which refers back to the “rags” without actually being rags. Widengren clouds the picture by describing also a robe of rags called a centunculus worn by mimunculi, a kind of stage performer of the time. The Syrian ascetic was certainly referring back to this familiar figure and was in fact going round the villages preaching while dressed as a clown. Saint Afrem, the most revered figure of the Syrian Church, is recorded as having a worn a “coat of many colours”, made of rags, and acted like a madman in pursuit of humility. (known as Ephraim the Syrian in English texts)

The holy vagrants whom John of Ephesus describes were a girl dressed as a prostitute and a young man dressed as a clown. That is, they were hippies. Widengren couldn't know this in 1953, but that kind of dropping out, idealism, setting aside of social codes on dress and display, etc., was going to become very big after 1965. As he pointed out, wearing these clothes was a form of asceticism, making yourself ridiculous and abandoning prestige were acts resembling going without food or sleep. He describes the regulations of the wandering monks of Syria, limiting their consumption and requiring them to wear contemptible clothes. This is at a date considerably before the invention of friars in Europe. They were not allowed a home, slept by preference in barns or sheepcotes, etc. They deliberately feigned ignorance and stupidity in order to avoid the honour and respect afforded by other humans to someone who speaks wisely and in an educated way. They became closer to clowns, and so the adoption of clowns’ dress was consistent and not crazy.
Widengren rejects an earlier view by which the mimunculi directly passed on their distinctive stage costume to the harlequins. This view relies on a thousand-year gap during which no evidence has been preserved. (He quotes Sacheverell Sitwell rejecting this theory of continuity.) However, at p.109 he quotes Bieber’s history of Greek and Roman theatre approvingly, suggesting that learned men were also involved in theatre, and could have re-created the centunculus working from Latin texts like Apuleius, and that this could have been copied by the popular theatre and also Commedia dell’Arte. He does not, in the end, say that the diamond tatters of Harlequin are borrowed from the Sufis. I do not know of a serious writer describing how this could have come about. In contrast, he seems quite interested in how the original of the “mesnie Hellequin” could have been processions of young men impersonating Odin’s Wild Hunt, appearing especially on Shrove Tuesday (Fastnacht), and evolving through ribaldry into pure comedy, in which beatings and theft are simply elements of farce.
Widengren’s paper is now available on the internet, a bootleg I suppose but this is actually one of the most interesting academic papers ever published. His interest in Dumezil’s theories seems to have led him astray, the pursuit of dumezilian patterns in his paper takes him far away from the main idea and is not convincing in the end.
At the time, I wanted to associate the “ragged coat” idea with a story from Central Asia, that shamans would wear a robe inherited from a deceased teacher, so that they would go around in several layers of old and worn clothes, looking like a patchwork. This was probably irrelevant.
When I was a student, I read that Ephraim the Syrian had invented rhyme. I was very excited by this. My attempts to find out about Eastern Christianity in the college library were not very energetic. However, sources I stumbled on more recently state convincingly that this is not the case. Hebrew songs called piyyut are earlier and anyway his hymns don’t rhyme with any consistency. Wikipedia:
>>Rhyme became a permanent - even obligatory - feature of poetry in Hebrew language, around the 4th century CE. It is found in the Jewish liturgical poetry  written in the Byzantine empire era. This was realized by scholars only recently, thanks to the thousands of piyyuts that have been discovered in the Cairo Geniza. It is assumed that the principle of rhyme was transferred from Hebrew liturgical poetry to the poetry of the Syriac Christianity (written in Aramaic), and through this mediation introduced into Latin poetry and then into all other languages of Europe.<<
Most of my favourite facts when I was an undergraduate weren’t actually facts.


Saturday, 4 January 2020


Problems of Adjustment: Patrick Anderson (1915-79)

The birth date of 1915 fits right into the middle of the generation who became New Romantic poets, born generally between 1910 and 1920. As you know, many of them also vocally ceased to be New Romantic Writers as the climate changed.

I never wrote about Anderson, which is now a source of guilt. My work on modern British poetry starts in 1960, and I don't think he wrote any significant poems after 1960. I tended to leave Commonwealth poets alone and he had spent much of his life in Canada (although he lived in England up to his early twenties, usually taken to be the most influenceable part of your life). I am looking at successive versions of Jim Keery’s Apocalypse. An Anthology, not yet published but sure to be a thing that changes the landscape of memory, and I have noticed that Anderson was in the earlier, 500-page, version but not in the clipped, 300-page version. It was this poem:

My Bird-Wrung Youth’

My bird-wrung youth began with the quick naked
voice in the morning, the crooked calling,
and closed in the quiet wave of the falling
wing, dropping down like an eyelid –
O syringing liquid
song on the bough of flight and at night, light failing,
the nested
kiss of the breasted

ones floating out to sleep in a cup of colours:
wren’s flit and dimple, the shadowy wing of the curlew
spent between stone and fern in the hollow,
the barn-raftered swallow and far at sea the rider
gull on the billow
all night, all night kept sleep till steeply
the pillow
threw morning cockcrow

up in a column of straw and blood. In childhood
days opened like that, whistled and winked away,
but now with a harsher cry birds bury
my stolen heart deep in the wild orchard,
and whether they prettily
play with the plucked bud here or marry
a cloud, I
am lost, am emptied

between two sizes of success. For, clocking
past ceiling and dream sailing, they drop down
to pick apart in a nimble and needed rain
my limbs in love with longing, yet till I long
for my twin in the sun
they rise, they almost form, to be born
with a song
in a seventh heaven!

And I alone in the ambivalence
of April’s green and evil see them still
colonizing the intricately small
or flashing off into a wishing distance –
their nearer syllables
peck through the webs of every loosening sense
and in their tall
flight’s my betrayal.

This omission is a moment of alarm and I want to say something about Anderson now. (Surinx is primarily a musical pipe, so syringing means piping.) Surely he was one of the good New Romantics and his evolution in the early Fifties is significant as a way out of a position which had become tired and needed to metamorphose. Take this stanza:

I remember the day when the world rolled over
and the mist of the blizzard was the outfit of the wave:
the sun was soft as blubber that day,
through blindman's buff of fathoms he blew his haze
and rolled his bulk, and summer was never
stronger than that, was never in sea or hay
a lovelier weather.

(‘Soft Blizzard’)
The yokings of words are continually surprising (cf. past ceiling and dream sailing), and this is the New Romantic element, where we can’t really discount either surrealism or metaphysical poetry as a source. They are surprising rather than paradoxical and anti-rational.

There is a memoir by Robert Druce which contains the key information, largely private or secret during the poet’s lifetime (in The Rhetoric of Canadian Writing). At Oxford he was president of the Conservative Association; he went to America in 1938, became a pacifist, married an American communist, moved to Montreal, where he edited the retrospectively vital magazine Preview. In around 1950, he moved again, to a job in Singapore (for two years). He then spent twenty years or so in England, retiring in 1973 to concentrate on writing.

I read a book (can’t now remember which one, it was probably The Montreal Forties: Modernist Poetry in Transition, by Brian Trehearne) which indicated that Anderson had been a significant part of a breakthrough generation in 1940s Canada, but had been written out of the historical record because he was gay and the chronicler or chroniclers felt that a poet had to be macho and dealt with the rugged adversities of untamed Nature. The report also suggested that he was torn between gay life and marriage, that he had written excellent poetry while struggling with marriage, but when he became consistently gay he became happy and lost the vital chemicals, of struggle, ambiguity, and so on, and ceased writing interesting poetry. The problem may also have been that the history was written by poets from a magazine which was a bitter rival of Preview and they felt themselves to have been overshadowed and out-gunned by Anderson and P.K. Page. No-one is going to record that fairly in their myth-making retrospect. He impressed me by writing a book which was a history or anthology of intense male friendship, evidently a gallery of wonderful gay relationships, and a predecessor of Higgins’ Queer Reader. This was Eros. An anthology of male friendship, 1961. This was about as openly gay as you could get in 1961. There was a copy in the local second hand bookshop (in Mansfield Road) but I failed to buy it, the contents looked a bit familiar to me. But, what do I know. I was impressed that someone in Nottingham at the end of the 1950s had been well-informed enough to buy such a book – aimed at a fairly specialised, although large, market. (It is possible that the 1961 edition was just “friendship” and a 1963 edition expanded this to “male friendship”.) There is a 1991 article (for ECW) by Robert K. Martin, “Sex and Politics in Wartime Canada: The Attack on Patrick Anderson”, which describes a 1943 anti-gay attack on Anderson in a rival magazine. A review comments Critic and poet John Sutherland initiated the long tradition of attacks on Anderson's poetry as lacking honesty or manliness. Anderson's poetry was critiqued as being (femininely) un-Canadian, which turns the poet into "other" or foreigner.” The review was of Queer is Here, a 1999 book about problems with Canadian tradition by Peter Dickinson. Apparently real men drink beer and beat the crap out of the wilderness. 

The book I actually own is The Colour as Naked, 1953. I would like to own The White Centre (1946) but it is a rare book and people ask high prices. Naked is really good. A description could involve saying that the poems are based on concrete scenes closely observed, but that they also want to vault over that into pure subjectivity, or freedom, and that the poet possibly regards that as winning. This double impulse allows him to renew his energies with each poem. Some asymmetrical couplings of words link him to the New Romantics, without that becoming his main thrust. Negatives are easier to define – the communist phase seems to have evaporated, he is neither using the devices of Left poetry nor expressing repentance and views on why “history isn’t as simple as that”. No more is he writing about the end of his first marriage or the start of his long-term relationship with another man. The pictures of ordinary people and crowds may be a continuation of Left themes, asserting the relationship between the poet and everybody else. There are two sestinas. This form played a symbolic role, during the 1950s, in asserting a living link between the academics teaching Eng Lit, and writing poems, and the literature they taught. It was visibly difficult and showed ease. It was even meritocratic. These poems show Anderson moving organically into a new era where political commitment was seen as simplification, and formalism as a way into the mysteries of language. (Discussion on this form in Edward Brunner’s Cold War Poetry.) He was good at everything, and it is almost unbelievable that he stopped soon after The Colour as Naked. I like this passage from a poem about the ‘Hand’:

Flag from a cradle, with a thumb to suck
whose wit transcends the ape, this pares and feels,
selects and holds
and is the wonder of habitual trick
to thrust and break the being out
for act and handshake, levers of a world.

This is so close to physical reality and yet so rich in ideas.
Comments have been made, by Trehearne for one, about the poet’s self dissolving and losing shape. This is happening in ‘Bird-Wrung Youth’, a poem initially about birds, where the poet (rather traditionally) becomes a bird and the bird is flying around, defying gravity. The poems are perhaps trying to reach this condition. But the poems in Naked are full of concrete details and mostly start with concrete scenes. The poet is perhaps like a camera moving across a scene full of people – this is apparently a Leftist programme although it is like the mobility of the bird. The poems are at least part-way documentaries. Perhaps the thing dissolving is the sound of the bird – sound has to dissolve and never was solid. And poems are made of sounds.
In 'Bird-wrung Youth', lying in bed listening to birdsong has something to do with the idea of sexual freedom. The speaker's body image flutters, kicks, takes off into the skies. In the column of straw and blood, the straw is in the pillow and the column is an early morning erection, coinciding with cock-crow.
An email has arrived to clarify that: >>"syrinx" is also the vocal organ of birds, functionally similar to our vocal cords but quite different in operation. << So this word probably also contains "ringing" and "siren" and is an occluded echo of 'liquid'. If we imagine the present tense as “syrings” then the past tense is 'sywrung' and this is possibly audible in the title.
 So a syrinx is a thing that squirts twitters? 
O syringing liquid
song on the bough of flight and at night. Also, in the book it is immediately followed by a poem called 'The Strange Bird' which is almost certainly part of the same meaning-complex. This second poem is mystifying, full of dream imagery, and the most Barker-like of the poems in the book. It is the closest to utter freedom and also the most laden with fixated images from childhood and the past. 

I do feel sad about his leaving Canada, and also that he went for 23 years without producing a volume of poems. But even poets have the right to a biography. He seems to have been very happy with his life partner, Orlando Gearing. There were some more poems in the mid-50s, after Colour as Naked. Anderson produced two different selections of his poems in 1976 and 1977 – A Visiting Distance and Return to Canada. Because of the literary climate, neither is reliable for his 1940s work, which to be honest is what really interests me. There does not seem to be a Collected. He never published a volume of poetry in Britain – most of his books seem to have come out from McClelland and Stewart, in Toronto.

There is a very good essay on Anderson by Patricia Whitney, available on the Internet. Whitney has drawn on Anderson’s Journal and on some letters from him and his wife to Pat Page (P.K. Page, as a poet), in a Canadian archive. The record shows that Anderson spent much of his time in Canada hanging out with the Labour Progressive Party, who were Moscow-line communists. The Canadian Communist Party were banned in 1940 under the War Measures Act, hence the new party. His so-called autobiography does refer to this but does not describe political enthusiasm, only the eccentricities of his fellow comrades. (One of his close friends is arrested in the flap after the defection of Igor Gouzenko, an event exploited to close down Canadian communist activities far beyond any espionage involvement.) A certain amount of subterfuge was involved in several aspects of Anderson’s position.

A seller’s blurb for First Steps in Greece reads An endearing travelogue of Greece and it's islands in the late 1950's before the advent of mass tourism. Made colourful by the characters he met and his wonderful style of writing, a wonderful read.” So you think it was all more ‘colourful’ before the advent of mass tourism, but you are reading the book because you are one of the Unknown Tourist Masses. During the 1950s, it became possible for working-class people to have holidays in the Mediterranean area. What had been a luxury for a luxury-living class became much more normal. During the rise of the package holiday, Anderson published three travel books. He abandoned literary poetry for rather informal and entertaining prose. This was part of class differences eroding. The wave of popularisation may actually connect to cultural Communism and to the simplicity demanded from communist writers. The travel genre is quite important for the cultural evolution of the 1950s; at one level it is made up of guide-books and deals with high culture, such as painting, architecture, the lives of great writers; at another level it connects to holidays and is consciously serene and cheerful.

I acquired his 1957 autobiography, Search Me. I wasn’t expecting much, but on examination this is a major work and a significant moment in the thin history of Fifties writing in Britain. The jacket describes also a radio play, A Case of Identity; it was broadcast on the Third Programme, which was only listened to by a few thousand intellectuals. Outside that enclave, the 1950s were not a good time for serious writing, while broadcasting and prose resembling broadcasting chatter were making all the running. Let us remember the films of the Rank Organisation, something which Younger Readers may not have heard of. They typified a certain phase of cheerful, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, ordinary but middle class, humour in the face of pretty ordinary adversity, which reliably satisfied a recurring wish for undemanding entertainment. Anderson published nine prose books in fifteen years. They must have done pretty well for the publishers to keep coming back. Certainly, they fit in at the higher end of the holiday reading market. Search Me could be a film with Donald Sinden as the hero. It makes me think of An Alligator Named Daisy or No Kidding (1960). I am musing on the Great Rampage section of Search Me as a light-hearted comedy starring Leslie Phillips and Geraldine McEwan. Britain became a different place when Rank stopped producing films. Search Me does tend to feature comic mishaps and larger than life eccentrics. It is genuinely unpredictable; thus, when you are thinking that he is having an easy ride on anecdotes, he says “But anecdotes have their suspect side; you framed and laughed at what you really wanted to be compelled by and enjoy.” The section on a ‘model village’ with provision for Maladjusted Children and a new hope for England, at Great Rampage, is comic but is also a forerunner of what ten years later would be called the counter-culture.

“You’ll only get an occasional whiff of the moral atmosphere...
“Which is?” I probed at once.
‘Oh well, love, or fraternity, the lost revolutionary virtue. And Merrie England. And bits of Martin Buber. And the wise darkness of the world, which I suppose would be close to Jung.’
On the strength of this I bought him another tomato juice. ‘With lemon’, he cautioned me. ‘Of course everyone has his own philosophy’ he went on. ‘It’s Schweitzer and Kathleen Ferrier when the teachers come, and FS Smythe and Sir John Hunt for the Scouts, and the weavers and potters are all for functionalism and the nature of the material, and the dancers relate themselves spontaneously to space. They did an Age of Anxiety ballet recently. Hefty village girls, carrying on a muscular flirtation with the Atom Bomb… Much criticised afterwards as insufficiently positive – it lacked organic context.’

(Smythe was a mountaineer and author of The Kangchenjunga Adventure, and Hunt was the leader of the successful Everest expedition of 1953.) The last third of the book is completely different, dealing with bisexuality in the shape of a Canadian painter who comes to live in Spain with his wife. It reads like a novel. One has to guess that the painter is really an avatar of Anderson (but maybe there were two people in Montreal whose marriages suffered from bisexual temptations). Key to Search Me is this lack of guilt, for example about the failure of a marriage, and the lack of assertion of a rigid identity, so that the speaker is always changing in changing situations. If the central theme of 20th C poetry was the assertion and recording of a character, Anderson was suspicious about Character and was moving towards the idea of personality as a process. Whereas both communism's view of History and romantic fiction's view of marriage see a final transition to a static and exalted state, Anderson sees both marriage and social life as a continuous series of adjustments; like someone seeing an object a thousand times and gradually grasping its real dimensions and shape. In the end, I felt that the theme of the book is that, once one has abolished guilt and obligation, a new version of 20th C life opens up, where the inability of social roles to fit the urgings of pleasure is abiding – not moving towards a resolution, but swept along on a shimmering tide of incidents. That is, it is reminiscent of Nigel Dennis’ Cards of Identity. Both books centre on the need for adjustment, but find that process mysterious and comic. They are at least amenable to the idea that both advertisements and magazines, and even films, may serve to adjust the consumer to society (and commodities to the consumer), and even that this is a long-term function of culture. Could this be the end of alienation?
I feel obliged to quote a poem from the book, as it is possibly otherwise unrecorded. This is “a description of my return to England in 1947”:

I
At evening the rocks, the fissures,
the slanted knife-shape like a gull tilting
and the cave becoming an arch and the arch crumbling
hold blue-white light over gravel,
startle like falling of plaster but do not fall:
westward the headlands veil and swell,
the mountain humps over the cooling beaches,
the cars start up, the picnic is dismantled,
a trifling litter swings and fills
with the flooding tide, the spine of the conger.

The dogfish egg floats in the darkness.

The dried-out tissue of the sea-pink trembles.

2
Excitement
blesses the objects. Form can give
security. One hides in the attractive
sense of an island. But tonight
by the oil lamp in the parlour
or changing my shoes on the cold linoleum
by the light of a candle, running out the sand,
or turning into the sea-dark at the doorway,
vague, warm, the moth in the wind
damp on the privet and fuchsia,
the honeysuckle swing with a tendril
and the ivy clipped to the rock and the heather
wired to its peaty soil,
I shall be ashamed of alliteration
and the obvious delight. I shall be ashamed
of rootless sensuality that pumps
the blood-red flower and impacts the stone,
for the poem behind the poem is inconsolable.
I shall want to cry with my own voice:
‘I have come back. It is after ten years.
How does one learn to live?’ and the question,
hidden behind the question, once again,
will rise in its unconscionable boyhood
to be the gunman of another twilight.

(possibly running out on the sand?)
The realisation that one cannot compete with Anderson as a commentator on his own poems is modified by the fact that in Search Me he is describing poems later than The Colour as Naked, or ones he has not written yet. He is so creative that the ideas of a few years before hardly crop up in this prose book.
I also feel that the sheer flow of ideas could not have been contained in poems, and this is why he moved into the less constrained, or organised, medium of prose. I think the scene is less Anderson as someone in internal exile, hiding behind entertainment, than someone gregarious and amusing who was genuinely like the people who wrote and staged Rank films, who knew all the reasons for not being abstract and demanding. So I don’t see Anderson's career as tragic.

PS. genuinely obscure Anderson fact. In 1948, a poem of his was published in Poetry Quarterly but attributed to GS Fraser, because Wrey Gardiner had mixed the sheets up.
PPS An interested scholar (JEK) has advised that the poem was attributed to WS Graham - Wrey Gardiner's correction note itself contained an error. ‘he dies daily writing his doom’s diary/ while body’s queer career is his carrier/ in time across a plain of life and paper’  a touch of Graham there, I guess.
There are three vital essays on Anderson in ECW (originally Essays in Canadian Writing but after expansion Extremely Canadian Writing or possibly Endlessly Canadian Writing), volumes for 1991 and 1997, which really get with the homophobia and the psychological blocks of the time.
JEK has also pointed out how similar Anderson's poetry is to P.K.Page. A poem like the "return" one sounds as if he had been talking to painters a lot, probably his wife and Canadian painters she hung out with. That might link to writing poems about the body, which is part of the link to Page. cf.:


... and if you became lost, say, on the lawn,
unable to distinguish left from right
and that strange longitude that divides the body
sharply in half – that line that separates
so that one hand could never be the other –
dissolved and both your hands were one,
then in the garden though birds went on with their singing
and on the ground
flowers wrote their signatures in coloured ink –
would you call help like a woman assaulted,

cry to be found?

- which is Page but sounds like a series of Anderson passages, in prose or verse (see the poem about the Hand, quoted above).

Saturday, 28 December 2019


Peter Wildeblood

There is a copy of Wildeblood’s Against the Law (1955) in the Nottingham Central Library, so I read it. It is about three men imprisoned for homosexual acts, in 1954. The interest is really its bearing on Patrick Higgins’ Heterosexual Dictatorship (1996), undoubtedly a major work. In this history of “post-war” homosexuality, Higgins describes the idea, which originates with Wildeblood, that there was a crack-down on gay activity, responding to the 1951 flight of spies Burgess and Maclean, and that Wildeblood and his two friends were victims of it. Wildeblood does not expound the story that there was a special campaign at length in his book, & no other busts are cited as proof that it was really happening. The printed source he cites is from a newspaper in Sydney – not very strong as evidence that something was happening in England. The Sydney story, by Donald Horne, centres on Scotland Yard, but the bust which sent Lord Montagu, Pitt-Rivers, and Wildeblood down took place in Hampshire and originated in an RAF interrogation of two gay RAF men. The link to Burgess and Maclean is striking but purely theoretical. Politicians did not make capital out of a crackdown so the follow-up does not show that it was happening. None of the three men in Hampshire worked for the government.


Key for the “witch hunt” is the idea that the police left gay men alone (with exceptions linked to ‘public order’) between say 1940 and 1953. This is not actually asserted and certainly there is no evidence offered from magistrates’ courts and so on that this was true. So the idea of a state of tolerance being ended falls down – there was no tolerance. There is a converse side to this – the triple prosecution (Montagu, Pitt Rivers, Wildeblood) raised public attention, and certain anomalies in the behaviour of the police also raised questions about the desirability of having the police involved in people’s private lives in quite that way. So there probably was a direct link between the triple case (2 other defendants got off by informing on the others, basically) and the Wolfenden Inquiry, which was a sound reforming project, although its recommendations were shelved for ten years and presumably were shelved forever – until a later Home Secretary seized on it as a reason for changing the law without further delays and investigation.

His book does not suggest that Wildeblood was narcissistic or self-dramatising at any level. His description of himself in prison is, maybe not selfless, but very detailed and unemotional. The witch hunt thesis is not there because he thought the world revolved around him. But he doesn’t offer any further high-profile victims of the police. Most likely the prisons in 1953 had a sizeable number of gay men from all walks of life, which indeed is what Wildeblood describes for Wormwood Scrubs. He remarks that “convicted homosexuals include seven times as many factory workers, and twice as many farm labourers, as men of independent means”. Good figures, but evidently they show that the police were nicking people all the time, anywhere, whenever it was convenient to do so.
Alan Sinfield’s book Out on Stage cites figures for convictions relating to gay activity and these show a huge rise between 1938 and 1952. This demolishes any idea that there had been a “phase of tolerance” interrupted in 1953.
It can’t be that Lord Montagu was the only gay member of the aristocracy – so if there were going to be highly-publicised arrests, to blazon it across the newspapers that the law was going to be enforced every night, it is inexplicable that no further arrests were made. But the context does not suggest that the police tracked and beset Lord Montagu, as is implied in the thesis of a crack-down, a flourish of reactionary vengeance. An individual who was in the RAF got caught doing something and confessed to having relations with about 20 men, of whom one was Montagu. The RAF gave the case to the police, so the possibility of hushing it up and making it disappear vanished – too much of a paper trail. Obviously the RAF couldn’t arrest a civilian. The ‘triple’ bust was in Hampshire, whereas surely a political campaign would have taken place in London, raiding night-clubs, and run by Scotland Yard under the eye of the Home Secretary.
Wildeblood’s book is later than Croft-Cooke’s, which is equally frank, but Wildeblood had actually said in court that he was an invert, and this was the courageous and even historic moment. In 1954. But the two books do show that things were changing, the 1950s were also a time of change and not just reversion to ‘family values’. It is hard to locate books from earlier decades which are so honest about being gay. So it had become much easier by 1960, less of a shock.

I have personal regrets that my history of modern British poetry is so thin on gay poetry. Gay poets did not at that time circulate information about their private lives as part of jacket texts or other forms of publicity. The information was either private or secret, and I didn't have access to the most significant information –and I still don’t. The poets have their right to privacy, but the outcome is a series of works (not just mine) which someone could search and fail to find any account of gay poetry over, say, fifty years of the 20th century. (The question of what the poems say is not so straightforward.)

Higgins has a focus on the papers from the Wolfenden Inquiry, which he has studied in great detail. What struck me was how little the ‘experts’ consulted by the Inquiry knew and how unlikely it was that they could answer any of the questions. They did not have knowledge based on research, either sociological or psychological. So you have the headmaster of a public school on the stand because he had spent many years punishing his pupils for any gay activity, in conditions which meant that any pupil would cover up anything they knew in secrecy and lies. In fact there was no reason to think he knew anything at all. In fact, the problem with reforming the law was that the law itself had no basis. It was a legacy from parts of the Bible which also instructed that in case of adultery both the adulterer and the wife should be put to death. My reaction was to wonder what basis there was for the narration of writers, including playwrights and poets. They had the same feelings of authority as the magistrates who sent gay people to jail, but were probably wrong in the same way about psychology and first-person experience. This is the story of the past sixty years, I mean people disbelieving literature because of its claims to knowledge and insight.
Wolfenden actually got gay people to serve as witnesses for the Inquiry – an amazing decision for a time when expertise was supposed to belong only to clergymen, landowners, and civil servants.

Higgins has done a great deal of work on newspaper files, and suggests that there was a loss of inhibitions, so that the News of the World went from a phase of pious evasion to covering a hundred stories of gay persecution, straight from the law courts, in 1953. Because this frankness also drew people's attention to odd police activity (such as provocateurs enticing men into sexual activity prior to arresting them), and to the lack of a basis for imprisoning thousands of people, it also led to the Wolfenden Inquiry – and so to the liberalisation of the law in 1967. Thus Higgins. It also makes me wonder how far the "permissive society" existed outside the media's illusory world, in which transgression was used to make conventional people buy newspapers or watch TV exposés.