Peter Ackroyd's 'Queer City' is a powerful reminder of the importance of pleasure.
This post appeared originally on THUMP UK.
While not as prevalent as American novels about middle aged college professors having existential crises while they fuck a student in their own marital bed, there really are books about dance music, and a few of them are pretty great. To name just three, Dave Haslam's Life After Dark, is a wonderful alternative history of the British people, Life and Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 by Tim Lawrence is a vitally important look at an important moment in time in one of the world's most important cities, and The Record Players by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton is a vital work of oral history as beguiling as anything produced by Studs Terkel or Svetlana Alexievich. Let's add another masterpiece to that pile: Peter Ackroyd's Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day.
Published late last month by Chatto & Windus, the book—which is Ackroyd's sixtieth— takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through the history of a city that's always been sexually active. From the earliest Roman riverside settlements through to the sad and shabby sight of what's left of modern Soho, London is undoubtedly a place that comes to life under the cloak of darkness. When London's lights begin to dim, our enjoyment of the licentious becomes powerful, potent, and pungent.
And it is that story that Ackroyd tells with his usual panache for place, character, and situation. If you've never read anything by Peter Ackroyd, imagine settling down in a pub, a proper pub, a pub that sells warm beer out of wooden kegs, a pub without music, a pub where you could probably smoke inside if the bloke behind the bar was in a good mood, a pub where the food options stretch to cheese and onion or prawn cocktail, the kind of pub that traps you in its glorious web for hours, days on end, the sort of pub that'll have you regretting every penny spent and every pint supped in every other pub you've ever frequented. There you are, ensconced in that pub, a few empties on the table, your mouth alive with the tang and fizz of good, premium strength lager, your chest slightly wheezy from laughing too much, and you're stuck by the realization that your companion is so knowledgeable, so erudite, so simply brilliant that you don't care you've not got a word in edgeways since the first few foamy quaffs a couple of hours back. That's what reading Peter Ackroyd is like.
Despite being a ridiculously thorough scholar—he used to read everything ever written about his chosen topic, from Ezra Pound to Alfred Hitchcock—Ackroyd possesses a lightness of touch which means the reader never feels overwhelmed by the accumulation of facts, figures, and salacious anecdotes they're presented with. Sure, in six months time you'll probably have forgotten exactly who George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham was and exactly how and why Mary Hamilton's leather dildo caused such a legal and social stir back in 1746, but you'll still be left with the important realization that this city has, does, and always will, thrive culturally, socially, artistically, as long as it allows queer nightlife to do its thing.
Hopefully you don't need to be reminded that clubbing as we know it today is the result of the tireless work carried out by members of the African American, Latino, and gay communities in the mid-to-late 1970s. However, the decision to create spaces within which members of those communities had some sense of socio-cultural autonomy wasn't a new invention. This is not to disparage the immense work carried out during that period of time in America, but rather to situate it in a historical lineage which Ackroyd details in the endlessly fascinating pages of Queer City.
He tracks the paths of pleasure taken by the city's citizens, through coffee houses and inns, theaters and public toilets, nightclubs and merchants' yards—paths that were rarely un-impeded by the unimpressed, the puritanical, and the frightened and fearful. The lives he chronicles, lives that are marked by and inseparable from sexuality, are lives largely lived at night.
Cities at night can offer us unalloyed pleasures; they offer up dark labyrinths within which we are able to conceal ourselves, to change who we're seen as, to cast off whatever it is about daily life we dislike. We tell ourselves that it is at night, in pubs and clubs, in bars and on heaths, that life comes alive. There's a truth in that, a persuasive and seductive sense of appeal to the idea that one can slip into the silent night and be born again, away from prying eyes, under the lights of street lamps and mirror balls.
Whether it is lesbians of the 1960s "sheltering behind an anonymous green door" on the King's Road, or a 1726 raid on Mother Clap's molly house—the name given to locations in which effeminate gay men would meet—in Holborn, the history Ackroyd paints is one of concealment and segregation: the dark side of the escapist ideals. Tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality changes on a century by century basis: occasionally it's a prominent part of the upper societal echelons, yet more often it's a reviled source of shame. However it has been perceived, though, it has not vanished, and it will always be a pivotal part of any story of London and its people, and how its citizens enjoy the city. This book teaches us the importance that queer life in London has, and always will have, to all of us.
I'll leave the final words to Ackroyd himself:
"This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation, and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London."
Peter Ackroyd's Queer City is out now.