- Distance and Desire in the New British Queer History
In October 2005, BBC Radio 4's talk show Thinking Allowed brought together Matt Houlbrook and Jeffrey Weeks to discuss Houlbrook's recently published book, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957. The recipient of both the prestigious Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award and the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield Prize for the best first book in any area of British history, Queer London is one of four works under review here that collectively move in new directions in charting the history of same-sex desire between men in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Repudiating [End Page 139] those modern categories of identity such as "gay" and "homosexual" (as well as "straight" and "heterosexual")—because, he argues, they position male sexual practices and emotional desires "within a particular interpretive framework that cannot be imposed straightforwardly on the past"—Houlbrook insists on using "the rubric 'queer' to denote all erotic and affective interactions between men and all men who engaged in such interactions" in Britain prior to the 1960s (xiii).
In this respect Queer London is a very different kind of book from Weeks's equally pioneering and important study, now thirty years old, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. Born in 1975, exactly thirty years after Weeks, Houlbrook did not live through the tumultuous years of the early 1970s—the period that, for Weeks, marked "the turning-point in the evolution of a homosexual consciousness."1 He did not experience the Gay Liberation Front that so shaped Weeks's own politics and informed both his understanding of the recent past and the subsequent history he wrote; indeed, Houlbrook was only two years old when Coming Out hit the bookstores. As a consequence of writing at a very different historical and theoretical moment, and in the context of the more recent proliferation of historical studies of the queer past (by North Americans, at least), Houlbrook focuses on radically different concerns. Whereas Weeks looked to the past in order to discover the origins and trace the history of a modern "homosexual consciousness" in Britain (despite being keenly aware of differences across time), Houlbrook discovers in that past men with affective ties to each other that could not in any sense be subsumed under categories of consciousness and identity that we would easily recognize today; whereas Weeks charted successes and failures on the road to homosexual self-recognition, self-acceptance, and emancipation, Houlbrook sees his task in less teleological terms, desiring to piece together "the historical production of diverse modes of sexual difference" in London between the end of the First World War and the start of the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality in the wake of the publication of the Wolfenden Report at the end of the 1950s (8).
Differentiated by their approaches to the past, Weeks and Houlbrook also differ in their assessments of the past about which they write. Indeed, Houlbrook plays the role of the bad boy on the block, subverting received understandings of the very meaning of same-sex desire in early-twentieth-century Britain.2 He is, for example, clearly nostalgic for various modes of queer identification in London that have been marginalized by the consolidation of the modern gay subject. He concludes his study in elegiac terms and argues that in "exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the twentieth century, we should lament possibilities long lost as much as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired" (271). It is precisely [End Page 140] this nostalgia for lost possibilities that does not sit well with Weeks. Pressed on his attitude...