Sunday 27 April 2014


Over Easter, we had some bright sunny days, so I thought I'd go up into the attic of one of our sheds to look for some more china bowls.  It's a rather dark Aladdin's cave up there - stuffed with stuff in boxes.  I didn't find any bowls but I was shocked to find 8 xerox boxes full of books. I say shocked because I thought I'd made a concerted effort to bring the books out of a damp cold environment into the comparative warmth of our house.  Clearly not, and I spent a few hours going through the boxes looking for books to discard.  Somewhere along the way I'd picked up a copy of The Darkening Green by Compton "Whisky Galore" MacKenzie. Inside the cover somebody had written "First Edition Fine copy" and somebody else had written 75p.  Always fantasizing that I had astutely acquired a rare and valuable book on the proceeds of whose sale I could retire, I checked for similar tomes on AbeBooks.

I was disappointed: the most expensive price was only $40 and that for "Signed by the author to the title page. There is an ownership plate to the front paste down in the name of Rupert Croft-Cooke: Mackenzie was a character witness at his trial. Green cloth covers marked and worn, one corner chipped, age-mottling to prelims, clean, tight and sound, good, no DJ."  TMI?  No no there is never too much information for The Blob. But it required me to go down an interweb rabbit hole because I'd never heard of R.C-C.  Which is a little weird because one of the reasons why it's so hard for me to discard books is that much of my library consists of authors who are deeply unfashionable nowadays. I'm quite happy to move a book on to someone who will read if not cherish it.  But I have no intention of letting go of a book, which has given me some innocent pleasure, if it is likely that it will be used as a firelighter or go for pulping to make more Aldi or Argos catalogues. R.C-C comes from an era which launched a lot of writers whom I rate rather highly but are not widely read now: Somerset Maugham and George Orwell still have book in print but probably not Pierre van Paassen; W.W.Jacobs; Peter Fleming; Taffrail; Bartimaeus. And it seems he wrote biographies and travel books and biographical travel books which are genres that I've enjoyed.

And of course I had to follow up the enigmatic reference to his trial.  It transpires that he was banged up in chokey for 6 months in 1952 for picking up a couple of cruising sailors and taking them down to his country cottage for sex. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was going to write something to celebrate the birthday of ethnologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers but got diverted from that worthy aim to the trials and tribulations of A.P-R's great grandson Michael Pitt-Rivers who, in 1953, was given 18 months for partying with a couple of young airforcemen - as was Peter Wildeblood, while Lord Montague of Beaulieu got only 12 months. The young servicemen, like the sailors, having grassed up their well-heeled bonk-partners were let off. I've also written about Alan Turing who was convicted of "gross indecency", injected with synthetic estrogen treatment (rather than than jailed) and committed suicide a couple of years later. The Home Secretary at the time was a diligent and successful lawyer called David Maxwell Fyfe who, apart from allowing a witch-hunt against homosexuals, was also also a key player in the winner's witch-hunt which we call the Nuremberg Trials.  Which is a little ironic because the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei were rather better at persecuting homosexuals than the British establishment but they both considered persecution to be A Good Thing.  Fyfe was also adamant that a simpleton called David Bentley should be hanged for being present when a policeman was shot.  The shooter, being under age, did ten years in jail.

These well-known gay men were not alone.  At the end of 1954, there were more than 1000 men in British jails for being homosexual. Rupert Croft-Cooke wrote a scathing account of the British criminal justice system called The Verdict of You All. While Peter Wildeblood wrote his equally uncomplimentary analysis in Against The Law. I've got a copy of the latter (1959 Penguin 2/6) "The noblest and wittiest and most appalling prison book of them all". These books were very influential and their authors were extremely well connected, and the publicity resulting from these society trials was not good for the government.  The most significant consequence was the setting up, by Home Secretary Fyfe, of a committee to investigate matters concerning illegal sex in contemporary Britain.
The Chairman of the committee was a headmaster called John Wolfenden (pictured looking uncannily like Philip Larkin, but maybe it's just the NHS glasses) and the other members were a disparate group whom The Man considered to be stake-holders: clerics, educationalists, lawyers, psychiatrists, politicians, a leader of Girl Guides. Apparently, the three women on the committee were considered too delicate to hear the words 'homosexual' or 'prostitute', so Wolfenden primly got everyone to agree to use the terms 'Huntley' and 'Palmer' instead (only in middle class Britain!). They called police and probation officers, psychiatrists and clerics to give their opinions. Getting evidence from actual homosexuals was more difficult as their lifestyle was still criminalised, but Peter Wildeblood was happy to give them an earful as were a couple of other chaps presumably known to one or another member of the committee. "That theatre chappie I knew at prep-school, I reckon he's a bit that way inclined, let's see what he has to say".

The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution aka The Wolfenden Report was published in 1957 and was wholly in favour of decriminalising sexual behaviour between, or indeed among, consenting adults in private.  I suspect that the committee surprised themselves in being considerably ahead of contemporary views of what should be allowable. "It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour." In the parliamentary debate about the report, there was a lot of standard prejudice uttered but no government of those days was about to lose seats advocating a change in the law.

It took another 10 years, Carnaby Street and Swinging London for the law to catch up with the Wolfenden Committee and publish the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which was largely through the efforts of Leo Abse (beautifully captured here by Eamonn McCabe), one of the great old-fashioned radical lefties. He was an extremely valuable member of British society for at least the 25 years he was MP for Torfaen on the Afon Lwyd in Wales.  He took positions on divorce, homosexuality, nuclear power, the Falklands, abortion, and Welsh nationalism which were sufficiently inconsistent to indicate that he had actually thought through the issues rather than adopted a doctrinaire or party political stance.  That encouraged the rest of us to think a little more carefully as well.

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