Welcome to yet another book review on this here blog, a blog dedicated to all things, medical, scientific, and historical. This week, we’re going to be looking at a book that, in many ways, made the greatest impact upon my studies last semester and continues to stick with me into the current day. I speak, of course, of Queer London by Matt Houlbrook, perhaps one of the most important scholarly works I have read these last few years, so let us waste no more time in beginning this review!
Queer London first came to my attention whilst studying a History of Sexuality unit at university. I had never studied anything relating specifically to the history of sexuality throughout the course of my studies, so naturally I was excited to engage with the readings as much as possible. I had discovered an interest in issues relating to sexuality in my history of medicine units previously, but had yet to engage with it closely. In this particular tutorial, we were examining the history of homosexuality in Modern Britain, a topic I had never covered before in my studies, and the first chapter of Queer London was the prescribed reading. And so, I sat myself down one evening, wrapped up beneath my duvet and a mug of tea on the side of my bed, and read my way through the introduction.
As I lay there reading through the introduction, I began to discover a new dimension to the history of the London I thought I knew – the often-obscured stories of queer men coming out of the pages and challenging the conception of inter-war London I thought I knew. Suddenly, stories of love, fear, and loss came bounding through the paragraphs and highlighting a vibrant subculture that has otherwise been obscured in popular memory. As an undergraduate history student, I had always assumed that homosexuality was highly repressed in pre-1950s London, that the gay or queer man was forced to live his life in a state of constant repression, and that issues relating to homosexual desire were often whitewashed or ignored. Instead, Houlbrook explores the spacial, temporal, and cultural dimensions of a sexuality that was, for many men in inter-war London, openly and publicly expressed, leading vibrant, loving, and open lives. So, naturally, some weeks later, I went into the university library and checked the book out in its entirety.
Throughout the book, Houlbrook explores the experience of queer men in early twentieth-century London through exploration of a number of sociological and political spheres: class differences, geographical variation, political beliefs, attitudes of law enforcement, all are delicately and expertly explored throughout the course of Queer London. From the examination of the tactics employed by plain-clothes policemen, to the constantly shifting expectations of masculinity in the twentieth century, to the grandiose and extravagant nature of Queer Balls, Houlbrook’s Queer London attempts, very successfully, to paint a picture of the lives, customs, and fears of queer men as they traversed London’s complex sociological, political and cultural landscape.
Perhaps the only criticism I can level at the book is one that Houlbrook himself concedes to: that there is little to no mention of lesbianism throughout Queer London. In his introduction, Houlbrook explains that there is a history of lesbianism out there, that there was a vibrant and established homosexual culture in inter-war London, but that it was not his place to write it. His book covers masculine desire and masculine expression, and he explains carefully and concisely that his book deals with primarily this, not with homosexual desire in general. In the future, perhaps I will read an analysis of other gender and sexually diverse people’s experience of early twentieth-century London, and will be able to compare and contrast the experiences with those examined within Houlbrook’s Queer London. And so, perhaps, a criticism becomes something of a strength, as Houlbrook outlines what is covered within the book and does not stray from this, keeping his analysis concise, clear, and focussed on male same-sex desire throughout.
All in all, Houlbrook’s Queer London is perhaps one of my favourite academic books I have ever read. The people and places that Houlbrook explored, through examination of court records, personal testimony, and even the complex sociological construction of masculinity, suddenly exploded into life as I read about the often overlooked vibrancy of queer life in this period. Cyril L.’s story leapt and bound from the pages, and the exploration of varying degrees of space, time, and social expectation provided a constantly shifting analysis of the lives and experiences of queer men across half a century. It challenged nearly everything I thought I knew about sexuality in the twentieth century, and every new section brought with it a number of questions about the lives and experiences of queer men in London. The book even inspired me to write a novel during NaNoWriMo2015 in November about a queer man in 1930s London and his experiences meeting an enigmatic artist. Houlbrook’s Queer London has allowed me to uncover a history that is often not told, the history of the British queer man. If you are looking for an analysis of homosexuality in Modern Britain, you can look no further than Queer London.
Fig. 1 – Cover of Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, (Chicago, 2005), [ cover taken from Queer London’s Goodreads page which can be viewed by clicking here ]
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