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.

Boisterous Brighton

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Brighton is a well-known seaside resort (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent the Christmas holidays with my family in Brighton, my childhood home. Officially called Brighton and Hove, it is a city on the south coast of Britain with a population of just over a quarter of a million residents. About an hour on the train from London, it has been a popular seaside retreat for several hundred years. George IV built the Royal Pavilion as a luxurious retreat for himself between 1787 and 1823. In recent decades, it has become home to a thriving LGBT community, with Brighton Pride being one of the biggest Pride festivals in the UK. With a reputation for being cosmopolitan and easy-going, the city was a fantastic place to grow up, and it is very special to me.

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The city’s radical tendencies are obvious (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

With its open and accepting nature, it is not surprising that Brighton is a focus for protest. As Pollyanna Ruiz (2014; 119) describes it, “Brighton and Hove is a city that enjoys pushing social boundaries, and I would suggest that these qualities also characterise its political life.” Brighton Pride, arguably perceived by many as primarily a reason to have a good time, contains a strong campaigning element, raising the profile of issues faced by the LGBT community. Despite the progress made in recent years, homophobia is still a very real concern, as events in Brighton in October 2014 show. The Student’s Union of the University of Sussex organised a mass ‘kiss-in’ in a Sainsbury’s store in the city in protest about the treatment of two gay women by a security guard. The women were asked to leave after another customer complained to the security guard about them kissing. About 200 people attended the protest, designed to celebrate equality.

March for England 2014

The 2014 March for England in Brighton (Photo: James, 2014).

However, LGBT issues are not the only contested ones in Brighton. Since 2008, the group March for England have been holding annual marches in the city during the April bank holiday weekend. Since 2010, there has been a concerted campaign to oppose them, with counterdemonstrations attempting to disrupt the marches. In 2014, 150 marchers were opposed by at least 1,000 anti-fascists (Argus, 2014). The general perception is that Brighton was chosen as the location of these marches because of its liberal reputation. Personally, I think that the March for England continues to return to Brighton because they know they will be opposed, which results in a lot more publicity than they would otherwise get.

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Smash EDO uses a local company to voice their opposition to war and violence (Photo: Smash EDO, n.d.).

Another long running local campaign has been organised by the group Smash EDO. EDO MBM Technology Ltd. is a Brighton-based company that manufactures parts for military aircraft, including bomb release mechanisms. Smash EDO has been organising events and campaigning against the company for the last decade. They have also begun campaigning against Barclays Bank, whom Smash EDO argues profits from the weapons that EDO help to produce. Their activities have been varied, but perhaps the most dramatic took place in January 2009, when 6 activists broke into the EDO building and sabotaged computers and machinery. All 6 ‘decommissioners’ were cleared of conspiracy to commit criminal damage in July 2009. This campaign is a fantastic example of how global issues can be connected to local areas in a very tangible way.

I grew up in Brighton and Hove, and I think that the city is at least partly responsible for my own liberal beliefs. I would like to be able to say that in Brighton you will be accepted, whoever you are. However I know that in reality that is not always the case, but it is heartening to know that there are people in Brighton willing to struggle to bring us closer to that ideal.

Sources

James, Ben. ‘Violent Clashes as March for England Returns to Brighton.’ The Argus http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/11175736.Violent_clashes_as_March_for_England_returns_to_Brighton/?ref=var_0 (Published 28/04/14, accessed 12/01/15).

Ruiz, Pollyanna. Articulating Dissent: Protest and the Public Sphere. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

Smash EDO http://smashedo.org.uk/ (Date of publishing not provided, accessed 12/01/15).