Peter Ackroyd loves London. He has written novels, histories, poetry, and biographies of the people, places, and things that make (or have made) London, well, London. He approaches history with curiosity, wonder, and with an almost obsessive eye for detail. He criticizes when criticism is needed, and he allows facts and stories to breath and speak on their own without editorializing.
Queer City, his history of gay life in London from the original founders through the current citizens, reaches far back into the history of London and of the queer people who call and have called the city home. The amount of historical detail within this book is almost overwhelming. It’s easy to space out while listening to listed fact after fact and find yourself momentarily lost. Will Watt provides excellent narration throughout; especially while performing excerpts from contemporary plays, poems, and other published works. Watt is playful, engaging, and -at many times- cheeky. Unfortunately, Watt has to spend much of his skills reading lists of names, dates, and actions.
The potentially fascinating history of gay London is frequently presented like a book report. Do you remember being assigned a country to study in middle school? If you are near my age, then you read an encyclopedia entry and regurgitated it out in your “own words”. You’d list the primary exports and imports, the language, the size- the thing I remember most is the import/export section. Anyway, back on topic! Ackroyd clearly dug deep through the archives of London past…and then he presented the archives. Luckily, Watt was available to read the archives aloud with a wink and a smile.
So much of the information presented in this book comes, unfortunately, from court records. All of the details are lurid because they frequently come from the person attacking the (usually queer) defendant, and the judgement from the ruling party is usually harsh. Legal records are often the most detailed and the most available- look at Joan of Arc, for example; her trial was the first celebrity trial so there are TONS of notes and reports- but legal records don’t give us a true picture of the thoughts, feelings, and actual events of the moment. So many instances described in this book are documented as evil gay tropes preying on angelic young boys. This is not the fault of Ackroyd, an openly gay man, but the fault of the attitudes of the time. “Gay men abuse boys” is a hurtful and long-lasting label. It’s too bad that the label is often all that remains of history. There are some accounts of love, freedom, and mutual respect; these are gleaned from diaries and frequently involve gay women as opposed to men. Unsurprisingly, those relationships are colored to the ever pervasive false-thought that women like women because they have been treated poorly by men. These unfair and untrue characterizations have deep roots, and while it’s eye-opening to see the roots in action, it’s still depressing to see us fighting these same false notions hundreds of years later.
Ackroyd does mention people who identify beyond the basic binary of gay or straight, but again- the source material used does not mention much beyond people who dress outside of their assigned gender. I am sure there is more information out there, especially now, but Queer City is already becoming outdated despite being published in 2017.
I am a fan of Peter Ackroyd’s works involving Shakespeare, and this book has been on my TBR for quite some time. I fast-tracked it so I could prioritize the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge (Read an LGTBQ+ History Book) without having to go to the library. I am glad to have read it, but I wish that it had been more than a list. Recommendations for more LGTBQ+ history books are both wanted and encouraged! Thanks in advance!