Tag Archives: Victorian

Fanny & Stella: “I had wanted to write a book which was completely gay”

Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.

But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.

The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.

There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Fanny and Stella bookLast night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.

The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.

Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”

But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:

“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.

“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”

Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month – a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.

“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.

“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.

“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.

“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.

“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.

“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.

“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.

“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?

“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”

But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?

“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.

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Filed under Books, Gay, History, Police, Publishing, Sex, Victorian

The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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Filed under History, Politics, Wales