book finds

Nov. 8th, 2012 10:51 pm
kindkit: Man sitting on top of a huge tower of books, reading. (Fandomless--book tower)
[personal profile] kindkit
I'm half-convinced that certain bookstores are magic: you find in them amazing books that you didn't know you wanted. I've had very good luck with this at Page One Books in Albuquerque (should any of you ever be passing through Albuquerque for some reason). Some months ago I found St. Nazaire Commando, by Stuart Chant-Sempill, an account of his participation in the famous raid and his subsequent time as a POW. (Possibly the best thing, though, is that when googling to find about more about its author, I discovered the story of his brother-in-law Sir Ewan Forbes, 11th Baronet of Craigievar. Female assigned as birth and christened Elizabeth, Sir Ewan became a doctor, began living as a man in 1945, re-registered his birth certificate as male in 1952 [!!!], married a woman the same year, and in 1968 successfully inherited the baronetcy, which legally was restricted to male heirs, despite a legal challenge claiming he was a woman. What I've been able to find out suggests that he may have had an intersex condition that made his legal case a bit easier to argue; nevertheless, I boggle at both his courage and his success.)

Anyway, on yesterday's trip to said bookstore I found a 1959 American edition of Peter Wildeblood's Against the Law. Wildeblood, along with Michael Pitt-Rivers and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, was in a famous 1954 case convicted of homosexual offenses (committed in private with his lover); he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Unlike the other two men, Wildeblood, while denying the specific charges against him, admitted his homosexuality from the witness box and reitered it in Against the Law, which he wrote soon after getting out of prison. Wildeblood later testified before the Wolfenden Committee, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain.

Against the Law is, as you can imagine, a very moving book and an impressive piece of activism, even now. Later activists have accused Wildeblood of being too conservative and conciliatory, and I can see their point to some extent. Wildeblood describes homosexuality as a disability or illness and says that he would be "normal" if he could; he frets that single-sex schools may create homosexuality; he is disdainful of men he sees as "effeminate" or "promiscuous." But his historical context should be remembered; he's writing for a heterosexual audience who needed to be told, as Wildeblood does repeatedly, that gay men have sex with other men out of real attraction and emotion, not out of a jaded desire for sexual novelty; that gay men are not the same thing as pedophiles; that gay men can feel love and have moral standards. Also, Wildeblood tends to follow up his more conservative comments with quietly radical statements. Early in the book he writes:
I am no more proud of my condition than I would be of having a glass eye or a hare-lip. On the other hand, I am no more ashamed of it than I would be of being colour-blind or of writing with my left hand.
Ableism aside, there's a really interesting rhetorical move here, as he shifts his metaphor from disabilities seen as disfiguring and sad to, first, a minor and unstigmatized disability and then to a nondisabling (apart from culturally constructed difficulties because the world caters to the right-handed) form of human variation. Similarly, he points out that effeminate men aren't doing anyone any harm either, and has this to say on the subject of promiscuity and "importuning":
Discretion and fidelity are . . . made almost impossible by the present state of the law. The promiscuous homosexual, who seeks his lover in the street, paradoxically runs less risk than the man who lives with another in affection and trust. In such a case, there will always be 'corroborative evidence' of some sort; letters, photographs, the sharing of a home, can always be relied upon to convince a jury when one of the men concerned has been persuaded, by spite, jealousy, or fear, to turn Queen's Evidence against the other. I know that this is true, because it is what happened to me. If my interest in McNally [Eddie McNally, Wildeblood's lover, an RAF corporal who was bullied by military authorities and the police into giving evidence against Wildeblood in return for immunity] had been merely physical, I should never have gone to prison. It was the letters which I had written to him, expressing a deep emotional attachment, which turned the scales against me.
As the above passage shows, I think Wildeblood's persuasive purpose is perhaps best accomplished when he writes about his own experiences and feelings. The section of the book covering his time in prison is very powerful (Against the Law drew attention to prison reform causes as well as gay rights), especially his restrained but obviously deeply felt account of the love affair he had in prison and his fellow prisoners' accepting attitudes. It must have taken a fairly hard-hearted bigot, I think, to be unmoved by Wildeblood's account of his relationship (non-physical due to lack of opportunity, he says, although whether that's true or just sensible self-protection, I don't know) with Dan Starling, with whom he manages to achieve a little joy on the margins of an enforcedly joyless prison existence. There's a lovely scene where Starling covertly gives Wildeblood a sprig of lavender he's acquired somewhere: "its scent filled the air like a song. I sat down at the table, holding the lavender in my hand, and thinking how strange it was that these small grey leaves, grimy with the dust of prison, should smell so clean and sweet."

Reading Against the Law had got me thinking, as I sometimes do, about the fact that while progress towards equality for queer people can seem frustratingly slow and full equality still has yet to be achieved even in the most queer-friendly societies, there has in fact been a huge amount of improvement in a very short time, historically speaking. Wildeblood died in 1999 in what was virtually a different world for queer people. His friend and fellow-convict Lord Montagu, who is still alive and who came out as bisexual in 2006, has in one not extraordinarily long lifetime seen a shift from legal persecution to the official recognition of same-sex civil unions. Sometimes, plus ça change, plus ça change.

One last historical note, not unfortunately a happy one. At one point Wildeblood mentions that he knew
many men who, in spite of the legal and social handicaps of their condition, managed to lead lives which were at least as moral as those of most heterosexuals whom I knew. They remained faithful to the partner they had chosen, and although they did not go out of their way to flout convention, they were ready to defy it for the sake of someone whom they loved. [Wildblood then cites two particular examples.] One was a young pianist with a brilliant talent, who killed himsef for grief after the death of the man he loved. the other was a surgeon, respected and discreet, who threw away his good name in order to remain, night and day, at the bedside of his friend who was dying in the hospital. A love which can evoke courage and sacrifice like this cannot, I think, be wholly evil.
I don't know who the second example is (anyone have a guess?) but the first has got to be Noel Mewton-Wood, whose story is told in the surprisingly sympathetic press clipping linked to above. Mewton-Wood's suicide happened less than a month before Wildeblood was arrested; it's both strange and in a way wonderful that Wildeblood could draw some comfort from Mewton-Wood's faithfulness at a time when he was being publicly humiliated by the man he had once loved.

(ETA: On re-reading the press clipping about the Mewton-Wood inquest, I see that his doctor was one "Dr. Trevor Roper of Harley Street." This has got to be Patrick Trevor-Roper, one of the other two gay men who testified before the Wolfenden Committee along with Wildeblood. Presumably Trevor Roper, Mewton-Wood, and Wildeblood all knew each other. History: sometimes it's a lot like gossip.)

on 2012-11-09 08:10 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
Posted by [personal profile] lilacsigil
My dad was born in Alford in 1946 and my grandmother got one of the earliest civilian doses of penicillin to save her life (there was some available because of the large number of troops stationed there). I wonder if Sir Ewan was their doctor?

on 2012-11-09 10:21 am (UTC)
oursin: Photograph of James Miranda Barry, c. 1850 (James Miranda Barry)
Posted by [personal profile] oursin
There was at least one high-profile earlier case of f to m 'sex change' in the UK, an athlete who transitioned during the 1930s to a good deal of press coverage - heard a paper about this at a conference in the spring, and it appears that intersexuality issues may have been involved. Occurs to me that the person who gave the paper may also know about Sir Ewan... we are more or less in touch so I could ask them if you're interested.

Against the Law by Peter Wildeblood

on 2013-01-22 07:12 pm (UTC)
Posted by (Anonymous)
I read this book at least twice and while the above review is very good, I didn't see anyplace where Peter Wildeblood "fretted that Public School created homosexuality".

on 2017-07-16 08:54 am (UTC)
happydork: A graph-theoretic tree in the shape of a dog, with the caption "Tree (with bark)" (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] happydork
My copy of Against the Law has an intro by Matthew Parris written in 1999 where he argues that Wildeblood's descriptions of homosexuality as an illness and wish for a cure are "a respectful nod in the direction of self-loathing which he knew his readership (and publisher) expected" but not something he actually felt -- which makes a lot more sense in the context of criticism from later activists than it does just reading the book itself. I think it's an interesting sign of the world in which I live, as a queer British person in my thirties, that I feel like Parris's claim actually detracts from the book -- I'm not at all looking for validation, support or recognition from Wildeblood when I'm reading this, so I don't feel attacked by his view that he'd be 'normal' if he could; and, indeed, I feel like Wildeblood's candour about trying and failing to be 'normal' add as much to the heart of the book as everything else.

Which is all to say that it was Wildeblood's courage that helped to build us a world where his wish not to be like me doesn't hurt me, and I find that makes me love him in all his messy and complicated honesty all the more.

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