Book Review: Queer City-Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City Front Cover

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter Ackroyd. Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day. London: Vintage, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback. 

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific writer of books about London, both fiction and non-fiction. I have read, and enjoyed, his books before (My review of London: The Biography (2001) can be found here), so when I saw Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, I was fairly sure it would be worth a read. It did not disappoint; like Ackroyd’s other non-fiction books, Queer City is well-written and engaging.

The book pretty much does what it says on the tin; it is a chronological history of queerness in London. It is difficult to research any section of society that has been traditionally overlooked, particularly one that was by necessity so secretive for large parts of history. A lot of the sources Queer City draws on were written about London’s queer population, rather than by them, and Ackroyd himself acknowledges that it can be impossible to tell whether these accounts are accurate, exaggerated, or even entirely fictional. Nevertheless, the book recounts an impressive number of examples, and just because researching an element history is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.

Ackroyd, 2017; p. 232.

Queer City is descriptive rather than reflective or analytical. Ackroyd briefly engages with the question of whether or not London is particularly conducive to queer culture, but I would have liked to see more of this kind of discussion. At times the book can get a bit list-y, with example after and example, and limited analysis. But that is the kind of feedback I would give when marking an undergraduate essay, so maybe I’m being unreasonable.

Most history books that cover significant periods of history tend to get more detailed the closer the narrative gets to the present. This is understandable, because of the relative availability of historical sources, but it can be frustrating. Queer City bucks this trend, with far-flung historical periods getting significantly more coverage than the recent past. This is a refreshing change, but I actually would have liked more detail about the last 50 or so years, when there has been so much dramatic change for LGBT+ people. Significant events like the Wolfenden Report, the legalisation of gay sex, Section 28, the Civil Partnership Act, and the Gender Recognition Act are all covered only briefly.

In-depth, critical historical research is important because it can challenge our perceptions of continuity and normality in society. By helping to publicise London’s queer history, Ackroyd is helping to deconstruct the argument that being queer is abnormal. As well as being a good book, Queer City is an important one.

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