Some Men in London: Queer Life, 1945-1959 review – when being gay meant going underground

<span>Young men at La Caverne, a Soho bar and club, July 1955. </span><span>Photograph: Joseph McKeown/Getty Images</span>
Young men at La Caverne, a Soho bar and club, July 1955. Photograph: Joseph McKeown/Getty Images

In May 1945, the British photographer John S Barrington was celebrating the end of the second world war in his own way. He pushed through “the crush in Piccadilly Circus, kissing every soldier, sailor and airman I could meet”, before rounding things off by deciding to “pick up superb sailor, take him to office and fuck him ‘silly’”.

This is the striking start to the lively first volume of Some Men in London, an anthology of gay men’s experiences in the mid-20th century collated by Peter Parker, whose previous books include biographies of Christopher Isherwood and JR Ackerley. It’s a multi-format chronology of underground practice and public discussion, its title deriving from the News of the World’s declaration that, although homosexuality was present throughout England, “for the black rotten heart of the thing look to London’s golden centre”.

It comprises diary entries, letters, newspaper reports, extracts from novels and more, on a subject so alien at the time to polite society that many couldn’t even agree on what to call it. Conservative peer Earl Winterton said “homosexualism”, an internal Metropolitan police report applied the dainty tongs of a hyphen (“homo-sexuals”), while others opted for “pansies”. Winterton, a few years later, thought better of his linguistic liberalism: “I prefer the word ‘pervert’ to ‘homosexual’,” he said in the Lords in 1959, “because ‘homosexual’ is too friendly a word for these horrible people.”

But the public profile of gay men was increasing, partly through famous cases such as John Gielgud’s arrest in 1953 for “importuning men”. (“A bloody, bloody fool” – Noël Coward in his diary. “Human dregs” – John Gordon in the Sunday Express.) Elsewhere, the tone is moving. An anonymous letter to the New Statesman from one gay man said “to live in this world without affection is insupportable”, while novelist James Courage fretted about his relationship with a man 25 years his junior. “There’s no fool, as I say to myself (as my mother used to say) like an old fool.”

The lord chamberlain’s role as theatre censor still existed, and homosexuality could be featured in plays only ‘to ventilate [the] vice and its tragedies’

There are lighter moments too, like the wide-eyed report in the People newspaper in 1950 into “why Britain’s three most eligible bachelors, Ivor Novello, Terence Rattigan and Norman Hartnell, can’t find love”. “I’d rather free-lance, as they say,” was Novello’s explanation. And occasionally sincerity reads like satire, such as the same paper’s report five years later declaring that “a campaign against homosexuality in British music is to be launched”.

Two qualities make an anthology stand out. The first is the quality of the extracts. There is exceptionally good writing here from, among others, Denton Welch, James Lees-Milne and JR Ackerley, lover of rough trade and the only writer who could create beauty from a diary account of his jailbird lover masturbating his beloved alsatian, Queenie.

The other key quality is the editing. Some Men in London is skilfully sequenced, juxtaposing Henry “Chips” Channon’s casual ledger-card accounting of his conquests with sobering reports on arrests of working-class gay men, or following an extract from William Douglas Home’s 1947 play Now Barabbas… with the Evening Standard’s hostile review (“the normal section of the audience giggled with embarrassment”). In those days the lord chamberlain’s role as theatre censor still existed, and homosexuality could be featured in plays only “to ventilate [the] vice and its tragedies”.

Parker has an irresistible style of his own in the notes that punctuate the extracts. “Sending homosexual offenders to prison,” he observes, “provided them with opportunities to continue the very pursuits that had landed them in court in the first place.” After a letter from MP Nigel Nicolson turning down involvement in the Wolfenden committee to consider changes to the law on homosexuality (“the position in my constituency is an extremely delicate one”), Parker adds that given “Nicolson had both homosexual parents and a homosexual brother, and had himself been in love with another man as an undergraduate, it was not only his position in his constituency that was a delicate one”. He also provides enlightening and entertaining biographies of the major contributors to the anthology. (The absence of an index, though, is bizarre.)

The Wolfenden committee reported in 1957 and its study, recommending decriminalisation of consensual homosexual acts, became a bestseller. That its recommendations would not be enacted for another decade is not surprising – a few years earlier the home secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, had declared: “I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal” – but the tide was beginning to turn. The change in the law will be covered in Some Men in London’s second volume, which takes us up to 1967 and will be published in September. I’ll be counting the days – this is one of the best anthologies I have ever read.

Some Men in London: Queer Life, 1945-1957, edited by Peter Parker, is published by Penguin Classics (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply