A first-hand account of what it means to be a homosexual, and to be tried in a controversial case and imprisoned.
Category: Non-Fiction/Biography/LGBT Politics – Paperback: 188 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1955
This month is LGBT month here in the UK and I remembered I had this book on my TBR shelf…
On 15th March 1954 a landmark trial began.
Homosexuality was a crime in UK law at that time and three men, Peter Wildeblood, Lord Edward Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers, stood accused of homosexual acts and incitement to corrupt other men into committing them.
Against The Law is the book that Wildeblood wrote in 1955 about his own experiences, the events that led to the trial, the trial itself and the prison sentence he served after being found guilty.
‘The noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all.’
(C. H. Rolph’s review in the New Statesman)
Wildeblood was an unlikely hero for gay rights. A scholarship boy who went to Oxford, he spent World War II working as a meteorologist in Africa for the Royal Air Force and acquired a pet monkey in the process. When he finally finished his interrupted education he became a journalist because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He spent time living in Leeds as a regional reporter for the Daily Mail before going on to work for them in London in a variety of roles, eventually working his way up to Diplomatic Correspondent.
Though he hated the deceit he hid his lifelong preference for men from those he worked with in Fleet Street, knowing that scandal was okay but only if it was ‘normal’ and involved a married woman or multiple dalliances. In pub chat he bragged about conquests that he’d made up and he dated several women but broke things off whenever it seemed like they might be getting serious.
A man used to hobnobbing with the rich and famous one moment for work and then chasing deadlines and grubbing about alongside the rest of the press the next, Wildeblood would have remained fearful of discovery but off-the-radar to the police but for loving someone untrustworthy.
In the early 1950s a new head of Scotland Yard reversed the policy of only pursuing men who approached boys or committed acts in public. Instead, they began targeting any man suspected of being gay and one of those who came into their sights as an ‘easy target’ was Edward, Lord Montagu. Rich, well educated and rather charming, Montagu was also visible and would prove a media coup if he could be caught. Falsely accused in 1953 of assaulting a boy scout, Montagu’s trial had ended with the judge himself pointing out that the police had deliberately altered Montagu’s passport to improve their case against him.
Though Montagu’s first trial collapsed after the revelation of doctored evidence, the police were not satisfied and a witch-hunt began.
Wildeblood’s on/off love interest McNally was an RAF man and during a search of his locker Wildeblood’s incriminating letters were found and one of them mentioned the name of Montagu’s country house. Though there were a score of other men’s letters in the locker and McNally had only ever been to Montagu’s beach hut once for a rather boring party, the police pounced.
‘I did not believe that such things could happen in England, until they happened to me.’
Reading what happened next is like something out of Orwell’s 1984. Montagu, Pitt-Rivers and Wildeblood were all arrested early on a Sunday morning. They were denied access to legal counsel for hours while being questioned and bullied to give statements, their solicitors who were also trying to get access to the men were lied to and held back, their homes were all illegally searched and the press were tipped off before they were even charged.
‘I felt it did not matter what the verdict might be; it was a trial by smear, not a trial by jury, which I was about to undergo. But I was determined to fight the case to the last ditch.’
When it came to trial it seemed the men were likely to be acquitted – little evidence was produced, McNally and another RAF man only gave testimony because they had been promised legal immunity and the public was on the side of the gay men. However the police were not prepared to let it go. They bugged the men’s phone lines and staged break-ins at the homes of Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers so that the press could take lots of suggestive photos of the police coming in and out of their properties. The judge overseeing the case was also vehemently against their acquittal and used the closing statement to the jury to repeat the prosecution’s claims. The three men were found guilty and jailed, Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers for 18 months and Montagu (who protested his innocence) for 12 months.
‘Perhaps the strangest feature of the case – and, indeed, of the law as it stands today – was the way in which it placed everyone connected with it in a position which was, to some extent, a false one. The Home Security, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, was obliged to pretend that the ‘crime’ involved was of such a serious nature that any methods were justifiable, provided that the ‘criminals’ were brought to book. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, in order to obtain convictions against Edward, Michael and me, had to act as though the offences admitted by McNally and Reynolds were, in comparison, trivial. Mr Roberts, QC, was forced to express a horror of homosexuality which contrasted strangely with his conduct of the Croft-Cooke case. Lord Winterton, who had previously called for revision of the laws, was impelled – for reasons known only to himself – to adopt an attitude of hysterical condemnation. The prison officials had to keep up the fiction that I and my friends were criminals; the psychiatrists had to pretend that I was being rightly punished for something that they regarded as an illness.’
What is most astonishing in Wildeblood’s account of all of this is the calm, fair way he recounts it. Through it all he maintained his sense of humour and his journalistic desire to uncover the facts. Once he was arrested and knew he would have to deal with the fall out of the trial he became determined to be one of the first Englishmen to openly declare himself gay and show that the law needed to be changed.
His account of his time in jail is oddly endearing as are his descriptions of how much support there was for him – from the crowds who protested outside the court on the day of sentencing to the prisoners and warders who didn’t believe he should be in prison to the wonderful response of neighbours and family friends when he came out of prison. I particularly loved his descriptions of neighbours offering to help tidy up his flat or bringing him jam, it’s a very English way to show solidarity. :)
Wildeblood went on to testify at the Wolfenden Committee along with doctors, lawyers and other gay men who had first-hand experience of homosexuality laws and their impact. In 1957 the Committee’s report was published recommending that homosexuality be decriminalised and in 1965 the law was finally changed.
Wildeblood’s book would be worth reading as social history regardless of quality but it is exceptionally well-written, honest, unbiased and even funny. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you, whether you are LGBT or not, as a near perfect example of eloquent protest writing and classy biography. It really should be reprinted but secondhand and Kindle copies seem easy enough to get hold of for now.
As a happily filthy bisexual who appreciates the freedom to give roses to whoever she damn well pleases on 14FEB, Wildeblood has now become a bit of a hero to me. :)
Rating: 9/10 (Book Review Scale)