history


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Nearly everyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the homosexual experience in America is familiar with Stonewall, not just as a NYC dive-bar, but also as the flashpoint in the struggle for Gay Rights. But the “riots”, as they’ve come to be called, didn’t so much spontaneously combust as explode after the participant’s suffering had reached the end of a long simmering fuse.

Post-World-War-2 America was gripped with fear. The reaction was in sharp contrast to that felt after the first world war. Then, waves of isolationism soothed the country’s lingering regrets about mixing in what many considered “European Affairs” (where that left Japan, China, Australia and the Middle East, one can only wonder, though the as yet lingering colonialist condescension toward Africa explains why not much is ever made of their involvement). WW2, on the other hand, saw America fostering her own imperial ambitions, not least in the schismed states that were the former Germany, but also, and at a greater ultimate price, in Southeast Asia.

The main boogey man was of course the Communist. This was partly a reaction to New Deal socialism, but also the Soviet Union had proved in the war a world power to be reckoned with. A secondary threat were homosexuals. The two were linked (almost inexorably so) not so much rationally, but as a result of their insidiousness and their perceived threat to the American way of life.

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Yet, concerning the so-called Commie and Pervert Purges, John Loughery writes in The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives & Gay Identities – A Twentieth-Century History:

“[T]wo facts do stand out that never seem to find their way into histories of the Cold War or books about America in the 1950s. …[T]he number of men and women dismissed for sexual reasons far exceeds—by any estimates—the number dismissed for real or alleged involvement with the Communist Party…[And] for the first time, the federal government had addressed itself to the place of the homosexual in American society and concurred with those who argued that gay men and lesbians were not like other people and should not be trusted.”

The focus on the homosexual over the Communist grew as firebrand senators such as Joe McCarthy lost relevance, and prevailed well into the late sixties.

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It was amidst this aura of repression and fear that various homophile groups joined together for the Annual Reminder. (While the modern usage of the word gay has arguably been around since the turn of the last century, in the fifties and sixties, to be “pro-gay-rights” was usually known as being “homophile”.) The brain child of activist Craig Rodwell, following smaller pickets outside New York’s Whitehall and the United Nations Plaza, the picket’s title referenced the fact the public needed to be reminded that not all US citizens enjoyed equal rights. Under the auspices of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), the event brought together gay rights champions from all across the spectrum. Frank Kameny, a former Army astronomer dismissed due to his homosexuality, is remembered today for legally challenging his dismissal, perhaps the first to do so. Clark Polak founded Drum magazine. Barbara Gittings, a founder of the NY chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (which official disavowed the picket), also edited DOB’s publication, The Ladder. Kay Tobin Lahusen is recognized as the first openly gay American woman photojournalist. And Rodwell himself went on to establish the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

 photo 220px-Barbara_Gittings_1965.jpg Barbara Gittings on the picket line in 1966.

The Annual Reminder focused on ending the legal exclusion of homosexuals in the workplace (especially in government jobs), but lasted only five years. In June of 1969 just a week before the final Annual Reminder, the police infamously raided that dive-bar I mentioned. Subsequent to those events, the pickets were considered almost quaint.

Modern hindsight also tends to underestimate the value of the pickets. They are often derided as arguments for assimilation over acceptance or identity. For example, the 1995 semi-musical film Stonewall all but dismisses the pickets as ineffectual. But even as someone who’s early manhood was steeped in the in-your-face civil disobedience of Act-Up, I can’t help but admire these brave men and women, who really risked far more than I ever did.

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In 2005, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission commemorated the Annual Reminders
with a state historical marker at 6th and Chestnut Streets. On July 4, 2015, to celebrate the picket’s 50th anniversary, a recreation of the first Annual Reminder was staged.

bloghoplogo.jpg Jon Wilson is the author of Cheap as Beasts, a current finalist for the Lambda Literary Award Best Gay Mystery of 2015. He’s also written a follow-up volume, Every Unworthy Thing, as well as two westerns. He lives and works in Northern California.

 

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Recently, while researching for a planned novel set during WW2, I was reading the memoir ‘Troubled Waters’ by Margaret Cornish, about her wartime experience on the inland waterways. I’d been reading quite a few books like this as initial prep for this story, and one thing which had stuck out thus far was that, if the somewhat isolated community of boaters were at all aware of the existence of LGBTQ+ people, it was certainly not something they would discuss or record as part of their history. In Troubled Waters, however, I almost jumped for joy when I came across the following, which occurs shortly after Jo joins the author and skipper Daphne aboard the training boats:

When I returned to the boats, I could hear Jo in the cabin of Cleopatra and I almost turned back into the pub. But money was short and it was cold and I was tired. I entered noisily. Jo was lying along the side-bed with her head on Daphne’s lap. I felt embarrassed; Daphne looked embarrassed, but Jo remained imperturbable and stayed where she was. […] Was Jo a lesbian? Were they both lesbians? I wondered as I drifted into sleep.

The reason I jumped for joy was not only finding reference (at last!) to the existence of LGBTQ+ people in this time period, but also that it suggests I should be ok using the word “lesbian” in my own story. As my editor could tell you, I have terrible trouble with weeding out anachronisms…

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Looking down into a narrowboat cabin: the side-bed is the bench you can see on the right

A few pages later, however, I wasn’t feeling quite so joyful. In the midst of a series of increasingly disturbing events where Jo’s moods swing wildly from one extreme to another, and her behaviour becomes more erratic, the author (Margaret) sustains an injury to her leg while manoeuvring the boats through a lock. The injury effectively confines her to the cabin where she cannot escape Jo, and on one occasion during a pause while they wait for their cargo to be offloaded, Margaret remains on the boats to write letters while the others go off into town for a few hours. Jo returns earlier than expected.

‘Never get to see you on your own,’ she said closing the cabin doors behind her.

I panicked as she joined me on the side-bed and embraced me fiercely, trying to kiss me. She told me that, in fact, she was a man and that she loved me – had loved me since she had lifted me up on the lockside [..] I was horrified and not a little frightened. My arms were pinioned and my leg hurt.

This particular passage struck me and I put the book down at this point on my first read-through. I understood the fright felt by Margaret – she was injured, and therefore in a very vulnerable position, even more so when you’ve read more than just these small extracts and know that even before her injury, Margaret was not as physically imposing or strong as Jo; and Jo, as has been made clear several times by this point in the text, has a very forceful personality. The consequences when she doesn’t get her own way have been shown to be disproportionately dire.

But “horrified”? That one threw me out of my modern understanding and viewpoint. I had to think back, remind myself how little was known about trans issues even 10 years ago, when the Gender Recognition Act had been in place in the UK for a year, or 20 years ago, when I was a teenager struggling to understand sexuality and gender. On reflection, I shouldn’t be surprised at someone in a vulnerable situation being “horrified” by their understanding of gender possibly being turned upside down.

Of course, Jo may not have been trans at all. Even had she known the term, she may not have chosen it for herself. That is me, again, with my modern outlook, trying to understand this account of the past.

You’ll be glad to know, I’m sure, that whatever issues Jo is struggling with, Margaret manages to persuade her to brew up some tea and have a chat about things rather than get up close and personal, and in the text the author reflects

In those days, when the residue of Victorian prudery enveloped most of us, such revelations seemed incredible and my efforts to talk with Jo about her dilemma would now [1987] seem very inhibited and pretentious.

Often, in my daily life, I find myself in conversation with people who are either completely unaware of, or seem entirely resistant to understanding, issues which we in our community know all too well. It can seem such a long hard slog to get people to understand and accept the truths we tell them, and equality sometimes seems such a long way off.

But then, on looking back, it is possible to see how far we’ve come.

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As ever, there are some wonderful posts in the Hop for Visibility, Awareness and Equality. Do make sure you visit other people on the list here, as well as reading the posts we Macaronis have gathered here.

AceRaindropResearch into the history of asexuality is only just beginning to gain any traction. Which is fitting, because it’s only in the last decade, really, that there has been an awareness that asexuality exists at all – and that awareness is very far from being widespread outside the LGBTQ part of the internet. We are still very much an invisible orientation, and as such not much is known about our history.

Having said that, we do know that the Kinsey Reports – the hugely influential studies of human sexuality published in 1948 has a sliding scale of 0-6 to measure how heterosexual or homosexual someone was, and a seperate category X for those who are not attracted to anyone. That’s us. So clearly we’ve been around since the first serious investigation was going on.

In fact, according to this discussion in AVEN’s forums as early as 1896, budding sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, in his book Sappho und Sokrates says There are individuals who are without any sexual desire (“Anästhesia sexualis”)

He also says It is also not possible to artificially evoke the kind of drive, that is not existent or almost not noticeable. In case of a complete atrophy there is no way that it would spontaneously develop.

And that’s what I would like to talk about today. One of the places where we are almost certain to find reflections of ourselves is in medicine, as a problem to be cured. Acing History has a good summary of the pathologisation of asexuality under the terms of ‘frigidity’, ‘sexual anaesthesia’, and more recently ‘Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder’ (HSDD). This gives us a great place to start when it comes to trying to uncover our history, but it also segues into something of direct relevance today.

This year’s theme for the IDAHOT organisation is Mental Health and Well-Being. Normally I would talk in more vague terms about all of us under the (Queer, MOGAI, LGBTQI+) umbrella. All of us, after all, suffer ill effects to our mental and physical well being by being members of a minority in general, and particularly by being members of a minority that is opressed.

However, today I sat down to write my post immediately after having signed this petition:

Tell the FDA: Disinterest in Sex Shouldn’t Be Treated With A Pill

and I thought ‘well this is spot on theme for a blog hop concerned with the mental health and physical wellbeing of queer people, and it has the advantage of being something I can talk about from experience.’

I really encourage you to go to the petition and at least read the article that accompanies it. The long and the short of it is that – clearly not having the wisdom of Magnus Hirschfeld – they’re bringing in a pill that they claim can do something for disinterest in sex in women. So that they can claim that it’s not going to be used to try to ‘cure’ asexuals of their orientation, the FDA have specifically said that the pill should not be prescribed to people who are not distressed about their disinterest because they identify as asexual.

This is nice, of course. But let’s ask ourselves, how many of those women who are distressed at their lack of interest in sex are distressed because they’ve never heard of asexuality? How many of them even know that asexuality is an option?

While we continue to be an invisible orientation, it’s completely disingenuous to say ‘of course we won’t press this on the asexuals.’ Seriously. Ten years ago I’d have taken it myself because I didn’t know what I was. I didn’t know there was absolutely nothing wrong with being disinterested in sex.

I am livid to think that in my desperation to be ‘normal’ I might have grasped at the chance to take a drug that I had to take every day for the rest of my life, a drug with significant side effects and little apparent effectiveness. And I might have done that, not knowing there was nothing wrong with me at all except that I wasn’t straight.

I am livid to think that while there are people out there who don’t know asexuality exists, of course they’re going to be distressed about themselves. Of course they’re not going to protest that there’s something wrong about them being forced to have sex they don’t want, because people somehow think it’s a disease not to want it. And it won’t ‘cure’ them, because they don’t need to be cured, but it will be a direct threat to their physical and mental well being.

So please, sign the petition. This is a chance to make history instead of simply observing it. Please also let people know that asexuality is a real thing that has been around as long as research on sexuality has existed, and if you don’t want sex it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.

 

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In honour of the hop, I will be donating to Gendered Intelligence, a great charity for young trans people in the UK. And I will be giving away a book of their choice from my back-catalogue to one commenter chosen at random. Thanks for reading!

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Click here to be taken to the list of participants in the blog hop or use the links below.

Blog Hop for Visibility, Awareness and Equality.

1. B. A. Brock (BI TR GAY LES) 23. Amelia Bishop (MULTI) 45. Remmy Duchene (MM)
2. Jamie Fessenden 24. Moonbeams over Atlanta – Eloreen Moon (MM, REV, MULTI) 46. Sharita Lira writing as BLMorticia M/M
3. Rory Ni Coileain 25. Helena Stone (M/M ) 47. Barbara Winkes (LES)
4. Erica Pike (M/M) 26. AM Leibowitz (M/M, F/F, BI, TR, NB, REV) 48. Bronwyn Heeley (m/m)
5. Andrew Jericho (GAY) 27. L.D. Blakeley (M/M, BI) 49. L. J. LaBarthe
6. Tempeste O\’Riley (M/M (Bi) (NB) 28. Lila Leigh Hunter [M/M, BI] 50. VJ Summers (m/m, m/m/f)
7. The Macaronis [various] 29. Sharon Bidwell 51. Nikka Michaels (M/M)
8. Elin Gregory [mm] 30. Nicole Dennis (M/M, ACE, M/M/F) 52. Caraway Carter (LGBT)
9. Alexa MIlne 31. Lexi Ander 53. L M Somerton (M/M)
10. Nic Starr (M/M) 32. Barbara G.Tarn (M/M, ACE) 54. Taylor Law (GAY)
11. Evelise Archer (MM) 33. Kaje Harper M/M, TR, BI 55. Anastasia Vitsky (F/F, TR, BI)
12. Sue Brown 34. JMS Books LLC 56. Draven St. James (M/M)
13. Elizabeth Varlet (M/M, BI, NB) 35. JM Snyder 57. A.V. Sanders (GAY, ACE, NB)
14. Raven J. Spencer 36. Dean Pace-Frech 58. Lynley Wayne
15. Sharing Links and Wisdom (REV) 37. Kimber Vale 59. DP Denman (GAY)
16. Lisa Horan (REV/Multi) 38. Jacintha Topaz (BI, F/F, M/M, TR) 60. M.A. Church M/M
17. Archer Kay Leah (M/M, F/F, TR, NB, BI, ACE) 39. Prism Book Alliance® (MULTI) 61. Andrew J. Peters GAY
18. Alexis Duran (M/M) 40. Eva Lefoy (M/M, F/F, F/M/F, BI, MULTI) 62. Dianne Hartsock MM
19. Jules Dixon 41. Lou Sylvre (M/M) 63. M. LeAnne Phoenix M/M F/F
20. R.M. Olivia 42. Anne Barwell 64. Cherie Noel (M/M)
21. Heloise West (M/M) 43. Viki Lyn (M/M) 65. Chris McHart (M/M, Trans*)
22. Angel Martinez (M/M GAY BI TR) 44. Sean Michael

It’s my turn to blog as part of the Hop For Visibility, Awareness and Equality and I’m sharing a sad but strange story.HAPHOBIAUMBRELLA2016.png

The honourable Gerald William Clegg Hill was born on 26th August 1932, the second son of Gerald Rowland Clegg-Hill, 7th Viscount Hill of Hawkestone and of Hardwicke and his wife, Elizabeth Flora Garthwaite, nee Smyth-Osbourne. Their first child, the Hon Anthony Rowland Clegg-Hill, succeeded to the title. Gerald William (known as Billy) was christened at St Mary’s, Edstaston, Shropshire, with four godparents including a member of the Welsh Guards. He was educated at Kelly College, Tavistock, and at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He served in the Royal Tank regiment, being made Captain on 6th February 1959.

So far, so good. Distinguished family, even if it was one which had fallen from its absolute heights, prospects of a great army career, but things took a horrible turn for the worse.

Billy was arrested in 1962, possibly in a police swoop on gay men in Southampton. He is said to have been tried at Somerset assizes, in Wells, found guilty of homosexual practices and sentenced to compulsory aversion therapy at Netley Military Hospital. He may have been offered the alternative of going to prison. (You can find many references to Captain Clegg-Hill online although many of them are just not very accurate reproductions of earlier articles, so the exact events and where they happened are not clear. One of the best sources is Peter Tatchell’s site.)

Billy’s therapy might have been carried out in P wing of Netley Hospital, the building near D block. Wherever it happened, it went disastrously wrong and he was taken seriously ill. He died from coma and convulsions resulting from injections of apomorphine, a potent vomit-inducing drug he’d been administered as part of his aversion treatment. At the time, the coroner listed the death as being due to ‘natural causes’ perhaps an allergic reaction to the drugs; this was only revealed as untrue thirty years later. A BBC documentary was aired in 1996 detailing his story and alleging medical negligence; Billy didn’t receive prompt enough treatment when he was taken ill and may have suffered a stroke brought on by dehydration.

He died on 12th July 1962, aged 29, at Southampton General Hospital; the national probate register gives his address as Rushgrove House, Woolwich and he left his estate of £10778 6s 4d to his mother. His funeral was held at St John’s church on Thursday July 19th 1962 and I’ve been told that Billy’s parents used to sit in the churchyard while they were waiting to visit their son.

There’s a strange twist to the tale. A few years back, an appeal went out for people to adopt one of the four war graves in Rownhams churchyard. I resisted, being too busy. The appeal went out again and I succumbed. I asked for the WWI grave but that was already taken, so I was given Billy’s. I had no idea at that point of any of the background to this young soldier.

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I found it quite extraordinary that, of all the graves I could have ended up looking after, I have this one; some may call it coincidence, I call it the hand of God. Whatever it is, I regard it as a privilege.

 

HHAPHOBIAUMBRELLA2016.pngi, I’m JL Merrow, and today, 17th May, is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia

I’m delighted to be blogging here at the Macaronis today as part of the Hop For Visibility, Awareness and Equality.

 

Among the many fascinating exhibits in the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition is the story of lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman from Boston, Massachusetts, who has been described as the first native-born star upon the American stage.

In 1846 she crossed the Atlantic to appear on the London stage in Romeo and Juliet—but not in a female role.

folger-lithograph-of-the-029506.jpgLondon theatre audiences of the time were notoriously conservative—after all, it was only 40 years since Sarah Siddons, playing Lady Macbeth, had caused a sensation by putting down a candlestick when tradition dictated it should be held throughout a scene. Playwright Richard Sheridan was apparently so horrified by the prospect he actually visited her in her dressing room to try to get her to abandon such a dangerously avant-garde idea, although he changed his mind when he saw the performance.

So how might an accomplished actress, tired of—and in some ways ill-suited to—playing the limited female roles available at the time circumvent all tradition and convention to take on a male role?

How, in particular, might she persuade an audience to accept cross-dressed casting of one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters, the eponymous lover, Romeo?

In an inspired move, Miss Cushman—known for her strong features and deep (for a woman) voice, not to mention her independence of spirit—gave out the story that she took on the role of Romeo to protect her Juliet from the unwanted attentions of male actors. The role of Juliet was taken by Charlotte’s younger sister Susan, who had been abandoned by her husband and lately involved in a romantic scandal. How could anyone object to the preservation of female virtue?

p03gmwg3And in fact the casting brought a whole new dimension to the role. Charlotte Cushman’s masculine femininity was well suited to playing a young man whose masculinity was perceived as having something effeminate about it. Romeo’s immaturity, and in particular his emotional immaturity, led the role to be seen as one not easily portrayed by a mature male actor of the era—or at least, not without embarrassment. Women, however, were popularly supposed to be naturally over-emotional and impetuous, and so a woman’s portrayal of the young lover was, in some ways, actually more credible to nineteenth-century audiences.

Precedent established, Charlotte Cushman went on to play Romeo to at least two other Juliets—with both of whom she was romantically linked. And she didn’t just stick with the “effeminate” heroes: in her career she played over 30 male roles, including that of Hamlet, often seen as the loftiest endeavour of an actor’s career.

That she was able to do so is a tribute not only to her ability as an actor, but also to her tenacity, business savvy and, not least, her skill and pragmatism at working a system that was stacked against women.

See also: the British Library’s excellent Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition: http://www.bl.uk/events/shakespeare-in-ten-acts (on until 6th September 2016).

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PRIZE: I’m offering an ebook of the winner’s choice from my historical backlist to a randomly chosen commenter on this post, and I’ll make the draw after the hop ends on May 24th. There will be lots of other prizes up for grabs on the hop, so make sure you check out the other participating blogs

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Waterhouse_a_mermaid hires.jpgJL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.

Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com, on Twitter as @jlmerrow, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jl.merrow

I came across a book in a second hand shop and picked it up simply because I rather liked the title and the plain cover. It proved to be a collection of chapters from the longer work “A Student in Arms” – combining observations on a soldier’s life during WWI with reflections upon faith and religion.  Hankey’s an interesting person, whose words are very much of his time. And some of his musings are distinctly slashy.

The first chapter describes an officer, Ronald Hardy, in glowing terms that verge on hero worship. The bit about Hardy’s smile, “It was something worth living for and worth working for”, reminds me of The Charioteer, where Laurie remembers Ralph Lanyon at school, and how boys competed fiercely and tacitly to earn one of his smiles.

Then there’s the chapter “Some who were lost and found”, which is full of stuff reflecting a wonderfully open heart towards some of the soldiers he met. “If they did fly in the face of the conventions, well, we sometimes felt that the conventions deserved it.” One line intrigues me. He’s talking about the men and their relationships with women. “They had their code, and though God forbid that it should ever be ours, it did somehow seem to be a natural set off to the somewhat sordidly prudent morality of the marriage market.”

I really can’t work out what Hankey means by that little dig at marriage, apart from the obvious implication that he didn’t himself want to be married. For whatever reason. You see, it’s really hard at times to understand the words of the past when the only filter we have is our modern ears and eyes.

I read a lot of literature written either side of 1900, and while people haven’t changed, society and conventions have. In the days of “Three Men in a Boat”, men staying in a hotel would have shared a bed if need be with no implications other than necessity. And lines like, “I never saw two men do more with one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did.” could be written in complete innocence of any double entendre. (They accidentally smeared it all over the stuff they were packing, in case you’re wondering.)

Writers would use the word “love” in a wider context, too. Ronnie Poulton Palmer was a stunning pre-WWI rugby player, the sort of three-quarter who could slice through defences like a knife through butter. His last words are said to be, “I shall never play at Twickenham again” although that’s likely to be apocryphal as it seems he was shot and died instantaneously. I can, however, imagine a player saying just that sort of thing ironically.

Poulton seems to have inspired a great deal of affection from his friends and extracts from letters such as this from Keith Rae to Poulton are very evocative: “I believe very firmly that there will be a Bright beyond after this war…My Love to you and God bless you, always your affectionate friend, Keith Rae.” Army Chaplain Dick Dugdale wrote home after Poulton’s death to say “You know I loved him {Poulton} more than anyone else,” and “Each passing year means one year less to wait for Ronald”. *

Deep friendships? The sort of love that dare not speak its name? The sort of love which couldn’t speak its name because it didn’t understand that it was more than friendship?

Wilfred Owen, in one of the few surviving bits of correspondence between himself and Siegfried Sassoon certainly seems to have gone beyond friendship.

“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What’s that mathematically? In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.” **

Poor Wilfred, so much in awe of Sassoon and unlikely ever to have that love requited in the way he seemed to want. At least with some of Owen’s extant poetry the homo-erotic elements are obvious. No slash goggles needed when reading “Page Eglantine”, “Who is the God of Canongate”, the unfinished “Lines to a Beauty seen in Limehouse” or “I am the Ghost of Shadwell stair”. (The last one apparently is a play on words between ghost and infantryman, with a suggestion that Owen himself is the ghost who visits a male prostitute.)

Of course, you could probably get away with more in the veiled language of poetry or the private language of letters than you could in plain prose.

* The Greater Game – Sporting icons who fell in the Great War

**Wilfred Owen a new biography

war graves

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here comfortably sitting on our well padded seats in 2016 – probably looking at stuff online on a slim piece of glass and plastic, or maybe a hinged something that purrs a little and is warm to the touch – we are all so used to the ‘new’ the ‘exciting’ the ‘dynamic’ that we accept it without quibble, merely making a mental note of its shortcomings to add to our review later. The new is no longer a novelty, in fact we expect and demand it.

In some ways this is sad. I think we miss out on a lot of excitement by being so blasé about innovation. I remember my grandmother – born 1890 – and her delighted wonder at the first men in space. Just in her lifetime the world had gone from the fastest form of transport being a train, to men orbiting the earth. “It’s just like Jules Verne!” she said.

But technology isn’t the only thing that changes. There are works of beauty that are so much a part of our list of artistic icons that they are immediately recognisable. In fact it can be hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. If you want to reference them in a story it’s always a good idea to check on their dates, just in case. Your modern day protagonist may admire his love interest’s smile, likening its mysterious quality to that of the 16th century Mona Lisa but in the 17th or 18th century he is unlikely to have been able to see the original, or a copy or engraving or parody, to make the comparison.

Mona Ogg by Paul Kidby

However he might have read Vasari’s description of the painting which is approving to say the least:

Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art could imitate nature could readily perceive this from the head; since therein are counterfeited all those minutenesses that with subtlety are able to be painted: seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution. The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender, appeared to be alive. The mouth with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colours but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse: and indeed it may be said that it was painted in such a manner as to make every brave artificer, be he who he may, tremble and lose courage. 

 

Bigging it up a bit there, and no mention of the very real possibility that the famous close lipped smile may have been to conceal bad teeth.

Critics weren’t always favourable when it came to innovation. The School of Impressionism  bombed on its first major showing:

This school does away with two things: line, without which it is impossible to reproduce any form, animate or inanimate, and colour, which gives the form the appearance of reality.

Dirty three-quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, dot it with red and blue blobs at random, and you will have an impression of spring before which the initiates will swoon in ecstasy.

Smear a panel with grey, plonk some black and yellow lines across it, and the enlightened few, the visionaries, exclaim: Isn’t that a perfect impression of the bois de Meudon?

Dance Class by Dega was one of the despised paintings

When the human figure is involved, it is another matter entirely: the aim is not to render its form, its relief, its expression – it is enough to give an impression with no definite line, no colour, light or shadow; in the implementation of so extravagant a theory, artists fall into hopeless, grotesque confusion, happily without precedent in art, for it is quite simply the negation of the most elementary rules of drawing and painting. The scribblings of a child have a naivety, a sincerity which make one smile, but the excesses of this school sicken or disgust.

EMILE CARDON
LA PRESSE
“The exhibition of the Revoltes”
April 29, 1874

So a late Victorian gent with an eye for art might have seen some of this work but there’s no guarantee that he’d approve of it.

In music too, standard works that are ubiquitous, in fact officially sanctioned, were considered shocking. Here’s Guiseppe Verdi’s comment on the first performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony:

“marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever surpass the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement.”

Another critic was even less enthusiastic:

Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.

And now it’s the official theme tune of the EU, whose policies do indeed sometimes smack of those strange and eldritch things, beyond the wot of mankind.

Times change, and so do attitudes, but on the whole critics don’t. Even though we are used to new and wonderful things there are still always people happy and delighted to point out their shortcomings. In a hundred years I’m sure there will be things we adore now that have fallen into obscurity, unpopular things that are considered the pinnacle of our current civilisation and novelists writing stories set in 2016 whose heroes whole heartedly approve of them.

Just for a change of pace, here’s the Ode to Joy given a very modern al fresco treatment.

 

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