Creativity and naughtiness as Write Queer London sparks into life across museums

Guest Article by Kate Smith | 22 November 2010
A photo of a flyer for Write Queer London
Free gay history writing workshops are happening across London this winter - covering everything from thinly-disguised Victorian porn to a Babylonian goddess. Kate Smith describes some of the LGBT objects hidden in London museums, and explains why they are the ideal starting points for creative writing…
 
By the 1850s the pornographer and publisher William Dugdale was the main producer of risque books and magazines in England.
 
Among Dugdale's naughty publications are Captain Stroke-All's Pocket Book, The Nun in the Cloister, The Curious and Diverting History and Adventures of a Bedstead - the contents of which are all pretty easy to guess.  But it's the more cautiously titled Yokel's Preceptor which has drawn interest from historians of gay life.
 
For most of English history, the only time that homosexuality is mentioned is in the proceedings of the law courts. This means both that lesbianism (which was never illegal) is often absent from the historical record, and that gay men only appear when facing terrifying sentences - often long imprisonment, serious injury on the pillory, or death.
 
But from the 19th century onwards, some sexy and affirming books did find their way into publication, either written by homosexuals or produced by those like Dugdale, who chose a life way beyond the Victorian pale.
 
The Yokel's Preceptor is a guide to cruising gay London, not very carefully disguised as a warning to innocent countryfolk. "Don't, whatever you do, hang around outside the bookshops near Holborn - someone might try to pick you up!"  is the tenor of the message.

It then goes on to describe the signals of homosexuality that you will want to ignore, the come-ons that you will want to turn down, and the things that you wouldn't be doing after you had not gone home with one of the local London "marjories".
 
After the passing of the Obscene Publications Act in 1857, Dugdale spent several periods in jail, where he eventually died in 1868. Only two copies of the Yokel's Preceptor remain - one of which is held by the British Library in London.

On January 24 2011 the Library's Bart Smith will be taking a look at the book and talking about its contents, before Chroma Journal founder Shaun Levin leads a creative writing workshop based on it. It's just one of a series of free workshops being run this winter as part of the Write Queer London competition.

The Journal and untoldLondon, who are organising the sessions, hope they will encourage new writers to tackle subjects in gay history and find inspiration in London museums.
 
The British Museum was itself a place of gay desire in the 19th century, with one diarist describing how he secretly kissed the naked Greek statues -  although it goes unmentioned in Dugdale's otherwise comprehensive survey.
 
Its collections today tell the story of queer sexuality in many civilisations - from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, who had the power "to turn a man into a woman", to Native American culture which recognised seven separate sexes.

A 19th century tapestry from the Dakota Sioux tribe recorded the death by suicide of a "man who wants to be a woman" who was desolate after being abandoned by her lover.
 
The British Museum's collections also encompass the "floating world" of 18th century Japan, banished gay British Museum collectors and of course the many gay figures of the Greek and Roman world - including the Emperor Hadrian, whose huge bronze head was found in the Thames near London Bridge nearly two millennia after his visit. It now lives in the Museum alongside many images of his lover, Antinous.
 
Bridging these huge gulfs of time and culture takes both technical knowledge and poetic imagination. The Poetry Society is therefore uniting Egyptology curator Dr Richard Parkinson with poet Cherry Smyth - who will be leading a writing workshop - to explore different ways of connecting with these histories.
 
There is a thriving gay literature which touches on the past, from Sarah Waters' Tipping The Velvet to Marguerite Youcenar's 'Memoirs of Hadrian'. But among some new writers tackling gay subjects it seems safer to stick to the present - the past becomes more complex, the tone more uncertain and the ground more shifting when seen through the prism of gay love and desire.  
 
The enormous changes in gay rights in the past few decades means that even the quite recent past can seem remote. Novelist and poet Maureen Duffy, who is giving another of the workshops in the series, was "out" in London when sex between men was still illegal.

Islington Library service's relationship to writer Joe Orton has also taken immensely ironic turns - the man who they once helped jail is now the subject of a major exhibition at Islington Museum next year.
 
All of this means that writing creatively about the gay past can be both naturally melodramatic and inspiring - and also more difficult.  Write Queer London hopes that the first person voices from Dugdale to Duffy - and some unusual museum objects - will encourage more people to take the plunge.
 
Full details of Write Queer London are at www.untoldLondon.org.uk/lgbt. The competition has a first prize of £500, and will be judged by novelist Stella Duffy, Sara Wajid and Shaun Levin.

A prizegiving party will take place at the Museum of London as part of their Valentine's Night celebrations - look out for games, a set from DJ Paul Burston and performances from Duffy and others.
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