Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd – review

Ackroyd’s history of gay culture in the capital is entertaining but sexes up the facts

The idea of a book that excavates London’s queer history all the way from BC to yesterday in order to speculate on the secret patterns that lie buried in the city’s past is a deeply appealing one – and who better to undertake the digging than Peter Ackroyd, an author who already has several bestselling meditations on the hidden lives of the metropolis stacked in his back catalogue. Moreover, this is undoubtedly the year for such a volume. We’re in the midst of a plethora of exhibitions, events and broadcasts marking the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in this country, and many of them are using this landmark anniversary not just to survey our queer past but actively to explore it.

Sadly, what Ackroyd has come up with by way of his personal contribution to these anniversary commemorations turns out to be less an excavation than a hasty piece of cultural speed dating. The book starts with a scene-setting cacophony of all the names London has ever called us, and then sets out to work its way, more or less chronologically, from Roman London to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

This proves tricky. The survey does its best to spin some suggestiveness out of the early records, but the first 15 centuries come across as distinctly underpopulated. A few possibly cross-dressed bones, a few second-hand calumnies from the expected classical and ecclesiastical authorities, some oddly lubricious authorial speculations on the sex appeal of oily-haired Celts, predatory Vikings and notorious Normans, a few fellow-travelling pilgrims and kings – and that’s pretty much your lot.

Then things proceed to get not so much too thin as exhaustingly dense. The beauties of Shakespeare’s Bankside and of James I’s court prance by, followed by a tangled parade of subsequent mollies, cross-dressers and fops. The terrifying persecutions of the early 18th century bring the writing momentarily into sharp focus, as does the first wave of the British Aids epidemic in the 1980s – but in between Ackroyd’s accounts of the queer 19th and 20th centuries too often feel clotted rather than fuelled by his research, and the brief concluding survey of contemporary queer London, which ought to be the book’s climax, feels offhand. True, he rather disarmingly admits that his information here comes from one of his research assistants rather than from first-hand experience, but still it is curious that his final comments about how the distinctively colourful lifestyles of the past are now being replaced by a retreat (his word) into more ordinary (again, his word) concerns like marriage and child-rearing are so oddly dismissive.

Throughout, as if the real stories of queer history weren’t already extraordinary enough, Ackroyd seems to feel the constant need to supplement  fact with overegged assertion. Quentin Crisp was certainly a remarkable man, but was he really “the first modern queer who took great pride in his status”? Oscar Wilde’s conviction was undoubtedly dodgy, but did he really go into his first trial knowing that the Marquess of Queensberry had a letter revealing that the then prime minister had slept with Queensberry’s oldest son?

Did “willing” boys really once loiter round the Norman parts of the Tower of London? Were male brothels really so visible in 18th-century London that even the city’s children knew where to find them – and, by the way, why does one of the book’s illustrations sensationally claim to show the interior of an 18th-century molly house (a meeting place for gay men) when the image dates to 1874? And so on. True, there is a 12-page bibliography that lists all the other books with whose assistance this one was compiled, but even with that small-print reassurance it’s hard not to feel that the book could have been valuably toughened up by a sceptical editor.

Of course, the desire to make the reader feel that our queer presence in the capital has been as dramatic as it has been various and indomitable is a commendable one – but the final effect of the book is paradoxically deadening. In particular, it deadens its subject when, in its hurry to get through the centuries, it removes all agency from the people it seeks to celebrate. Too often, Ackroyd’s view of queer history seems to boil down to just one damn thing after another. At one point, commenting on yet another pendulum-swing from repression to licence, he even goes so far as to state that “social change, prompted by the unknown laws of life, is inevitable”.

As a thinking gay man who has witnessed every step of the contested queer struggles that followed the law reform of 1967, struggles that have more or less completely transformed the formerly hideously homophobic legal and cultural status quo in this country, can Ackroyd possibly think that this particular assertion of his is true? Doesn’t social change – whether for liberation or repression – happen because people make it happen? As with so much of this book, the statement is entertaining but doesn’t bear too close an examination.

Neil Bartlett’s first novel, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, is being republished by Profile as a Serpent’s Tail Classic on 1 July.

• Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

by Peter Ackroyd ,The Observer
Source – The Guardian