Saturday, 28 December 2019

Peter Wildeblood- and gay history in the 1950s

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. 

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