Some Men in London: Queer Life, 1945–1959 by Peter Parker (ed); The Diaries of Mr Lucas: Notes from a Lost Gay Life by Hugo Greenhalgh - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

Walks on the Wild Side

Some Men in London: Queer Life, 1945–1959

By

Penguin Classics 464pp £30

The Diaries of Mr Lucas: Notes from a Lost Gay Life

By

Atlantic Books 320pp £18.99
 

Two cognate books depict London’s gay scene in the years before the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. Peter Parker paints a wide historical canvas while Hugo Greenhalgh is a miniaturist. Both books have a provocative and mordant humour. Yet even when they celebrate irrepressible spirits, they dismay and dishearten. They depict an England led by weak men pretending to be strong, punitive authorities afraid of phantom hate figures, and corrupt, brutish, inept policemen. The squalor and insecurity of covert living are foregrounded. Saddest of all, a persecuted minority of Londoners, often romanticised for its fortitude and staunch community loyalty, is shown in inglorious states of pusillanimity, malice, alcoholism, betrayal and funk.

Parker has compiled Some Men in London, the first of two anthological volumes, after a long trawl through local newspapers, medical journals, magazines such as the Physique Pictorial and the Occult Gazette, and the gutter press. He quotes from records in government archives showing the thinking of officials, politicians, theatre censors and the judiciary. Extracts from well-known published diaries, such as those of Chips Channon and James Lees-Milne, jostle with unpublished material from lesser-known diarists. Inordinate demands from copyright owners have prevented Parker from quoting several poets, although he does reproduce verse from Patrick Anderson’s poetry collection The Colour as Naked and gives renewed attention to such forgotten novels as Ethel Mannin’s The Blue-Eyed Boy. 

Shrinks emerge badly from Parker’s anthology. A consultant psychiatrist, who was an expert member of the official Wolfenden Committee investigating homosexuality and prostitution, noted in 1954 the inclination of ‘perverts’ to fellatio: ‘When I was in the States some years ago the mouth was very popular, I believe still is much more popular in the States than here.’ A police constable from the Vice Squad agreed that oral sex ‘is an American thing’. US soldiers had a propensity, he reported, for being blown in the doorways of Coventry Street.

Similarly, in 1959, during the trial of a young man charged with the attempted rape of one woman and the sexual assault of another, a psychologist testified, as an expert witness, that these attacks were ‘evidence of a step in the right direction’. The youth had previously displayed the grievous trait of homosexual tendencies. Undoubtedly, ‘the offences showed an improvement in the boy’s attitude’. The psychologist, incidentally, was interested in the advance ‘diagnosis’ of the illness of homosexuality by use of the Rorschach test. 

Parker provides skittish biographical endnotes. In them, he writes of the treacly journalist Godfrey Winn – surely the oddest man to judge Miss World beauty contests – as having ‘a particularly nasty mauve hybrid tea rose named after him’. There is a sprightly paragraph on John S Barrington, who began his career as a pimp for James Agate, the Sunday Times theatre critic, and left money to his favourite rent boys in his will. Barrington wrote a history of corporal punishment in the armed forces entitled Under the Lash, launched Britain’s first physique magazine, Male Model Monthly, married the girlfriend of a man with whom he had been infatuated and fathered two daughters.

One of the diarists quoted by Parker is George Lucas (1926–2014). Lucas recorded in relentless detail half a century of cruising for male pick-ups in parks, lavatories and Soho, from 1948 until 2009, and bequeathed his diaries to his much younger friend Hugo Greenhalgh. In their totality, they must be very repetitive, and somewhat dismal and banal, but Greenhalgh has published only choice extracts, which are enlivened by his own sparky commentary. The result is a human document of real interest.

Lucas was born in Romford in 1926 to lower-middle-class parents, and was educated at West Ham Grammar School. At the age of fourteen he had his first man in a park lavatory in Chadwell Heath. It was an ‘idyllic twenty minutes’, he recalled. Thereafter, he cruised bomb sites, parks and alleys for men. He was conscripted into the army and in 1949 enlisted for further military service. Eventually, he was discharged, after being denounced by a young German whom he had found masturbating in a Düsseldorf lavatory. His commanding officers seem to have been notably considerate in their handling of his case.

For thirty years, Lucas toiled by day as a conscientious and conventional official in the Board of Trade. He was flattered when someone told him that his accent resembled Edward Heath’s. Although intolerant, class-conscious and starchy in most of his views, he was a waspish regular in Soho bars and an intrepid sexual brigand by night. Eventually, he retired to a grubby maisonette in Clapham. 

Until his hair receded in his late thirties, Lucas was adept at pick-ups of young working-class men whose sexuality would nowadays be described as fluid. In bald middle age, he spent increasing chunks of his salary on rent boys. Many of these seem to have been innately queer rather than ‘gay for pay’. Sean, a nineteen-year-old from Enniskillen who had enlisted in the Irish Guards on a three-year engagement, had a ‘pleasant disposition, sexual vigour and tolerably good looks’, Lucas recorded in 1958, and ‘would like to be on the stage’.

The purported love of Lucas’s life was a young Irish sex worker and petty criminal who died young of cancer. The photograph of the supposedly cute youth shows a portly fellow with the clothes and bearing of a middle-aged grocer. A later sexual partner proved to be a sociopath who enlisted with the Kray gang and was later crucified in an east London slum. Lucas was himself beaten and humiliated in a terrifying burglary by three violent criminals. He lived, too, in constant fear of blackmailers and queer-bashers. His journals record many gruesome or sad reckonings.

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