Love and Death in London 1932
My latest novel A Death in Bloomsbury is set in the shadowy world of gay life in 1930s London. I wanted to write a book that explore what it was like if you were gay when homosexuality was illegal. The story is a thriller set at Christmas time with gay characters as the main protagonists.
If you were a man in love with another man back in 1932 it was tough. Really tough. In the UK, the anti-gay laws had become strengthened with a new law in 1885. So much so that the new regulations were called a blackmailer’s charter.
Ten years later Oscar Wilde was to fall foul of them.
He was sentenced to two years hard labour, something from which he never fully recovered and died a few years later at the age of just forty-one.
The law was so strict you could be charged if your letters to your lover were discovered. Or if your neighbour reported you for a having a gentleman friend stay over.
And then there was entrapment.
Police would sometimes use their “pretty officers” to hang around known gathering places for gay men. If they were propositioned, the propositioner was promptly arrested.
The penalties for being found guilty of “gross indecency” as it was known were harsh. Two years hard labour meant two years walking on a vertical treadmill for up to six hours a day, climbing the equivalent of fourteen thousand feet. If you were a gentleman like Wilde, unused to physical work, your body was all but destroyed.
So how did gay men avoid prosecution?
In my research I discovered that they were remarkably resourceful. The word gay in those days meant happy and bright. The word homosexual was hardly used. Men who loved other men referred to themselves as being other. Incidentally, the authorities considered it impossible for a woman to love another woman. Lesbians didn’t exist. Women who loved women referred to themselves as Sapphic-leaning.
There were many other euphemisms used in 1930s London. In fact, gay men used an entirely invented language called Polari.
Polari had been used in London’s fish markets, fairgrounds and the theatre. It borrowed words from Romany, London slang and Yiddish. For example legs became lallies and look became vada.
It also created code words by reversing certain words. Hence face became ecaf, shortened to eek. Many gay men worked in the theatre and so adopted the language to be able to talk openly to each other without fear of other people understanding. Two gay men in a pub could admire a handsome new arrival by saying to each other: “Vada the bona lallies on that uomi” meaning “Look at the attractive legs on that man” without anyone knowing.
Gay men also had allies. Through the centuries, straight allies have often helped gay men when they faced oppression. Straight allies are still crucially important today. In 1930s London they would provide safe meeting places for gay men. In A Death in Bloomsbury much of the action centres on a pub called The Fitzroy Tavern. This is an actual pub in the 1930s run by a straight couple. It was known to welcome gay men, as well as “artists, Bohemians and other creative types”. In my book I refer to the pub owner using persuasive techniques to ensure the local police didn’t raid them, and this did actually happen with another similar pub in London.
There was also the famous Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand. This popular restaurant had a whole floor where gay men could meet discreetly, and it became known as The Lily Pond. Of course Soho was the best place to go to meet other men, have a drink and maybe a dance. But you were always at risk of the police raiding the venue. Knowing your escape route in an emergency was crucial.
Straight allies remain vital for gay men up to this day. There are still many parts of the world where being gay is illegal with punishments ranging from a straightforward fine to stoning or death. Our struggle for the right to be who we are, to love who we love will sadly never be over. And it is with the love and support of our straight allies that we can continue that struggle. Thank you to all who have worked to support us.