Ackroyd, Peter. “Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day’, Chatto & Windus. 2017.
A New Look at London
Peter Ackroyd is an eminent chronicler of London. In “Queer City”, he gives us a look at London through the history and experiences of its gay population. In London under the Romans, for example, the penis was worshipped and homosexuality was considered admirable. The city had many “lupanaria” (‘wolf dens’ or public pleasure houses), “fornices” (brothels) and “thermiae” (hot baths). Under the Emperor Constantine’s rule cane the first laws against queer practices, probably because of the influence of bishops and clergy, monks and missionaries. His rule was accompanied by the first laws. Following that were periods that alternated permissiveness and censure (from the notorious Normans, whose military might depended on masculine loyalty, and the fashionable female transvestism of the 1620s) and as London moved toward the 19th century there were executions for sodomy in the early 1800s and then what was known as the ‘’”gay plague” in the 1980s.
Ackroyd takes us through the London of history and does so by celebrating its diversity and thrills on one hand and reminding us of its very real terrors, dangers and risks on the other. He maintains that it is perhaps this endless sexual fluidity and resilience that epitomize London.
Some have referred to this as a” nimble, uproarious pocket history of sex in his beloved metropolis”. It is Ackroyd’s encyclopedic knowledge of London, and his poet’s instinct for its strange drives and urges that makes this such a fascinating read.
The chapter headings are evocative or salacious and totally encapsulate what was London and the queer experience. We know that there have always been gay people but we really do not know much about gay life in earlier periods. Ackroyd changes that about London with this book. He gives us some wonderful and fascinating revelations about London’s secret gay past dating all the way back to the Roman age. Here are just a few:
After Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC during the Gallic Wars, Roman men raped defeated British soldiers with vegetables. to Ackroyd says that “The defeated were sometimes penetrated by radishes; that may not sound too painful but in fact the long white icicle radish has always been grown in southern England to a length of just under six inches.”
Restoration “boy player” actor Edward Kynaston was rumored to have an “arse [that] knows its own buggerer,” meanwhile the poet Earl of Rochester once bragged about an argument he had with his mistress about “whether the boy f*cked you, or I the boy.”
Male rape was common throughout London’s history. Ackroyd writes about the case of Captain Edward Rigby, who was prosecuted in 1698 after asking a naive 19-year-old man named William Minton, “Should I f*ck you?” When Minton replied, “How can that be?” Rigby proceeded to demonstrate and was quickly arrested.
In 1822, the Bishop of Clogher went after and solicited a soldier, John Moverley for sex. He was arrested, posted bail, and then fled to France and ended up living incognito in Edinburgh until he died 21 years later.
Ackroyd shares that in the 16th century, gay men were referred to as “the loathsome Ganymede,” lesbians were called “rubsters,” and people had some pretty bizarre ideas about how these people behaved. He tells us that in 1709, a man named Ned Ward wrote about “sodomitical wretches” (gay men) who referred to one another as “sisters” and “husbands,” and who “speak, walk, tattle, curtsy, cry and scold…[like] lewd women.”
Of course, in reading about London we want to know about the royals. Ackroyd’s writes about all the allegedly gay monarchs, including William Rufus, Edward II, Richard II, James I, and William III and how and what they called their “favorites” (a.k.a. male tricks).
If you want to be enlightened about gay London, here it is and it is great fun.