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When fairy tales come disturbingly true

November 01, 2019

It could be something taken straight from a folk or fairy tale. A young child with a gift for seeing the truth, and the courage to tell it, sails across a great wide ocean to a land with a palace where the most powerful people on earth gather. Fearlessly, she berates them for the suffering their complacency is causing and the perils people face as a result. Then she tells them what to do: act on the science of the climate emergency.

The cover of Knock Three Times

Most powerful of all, and again like something conjured from a firelight story, her impact comes from a complete lack of guile. Her earnest delivery comes unfiltered, straight from the heart. The directness is part of what she calls her ‘gift’.

Because the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, has Asperger’s Syndrome. She describes herself how one consequence of this condition – the difficulty she finds in being with others – contributed to her decision to begin the lone protest which sparked a global movement. Another effect is that she holds herself to very high standards and expects others to do so too. She does not set out to please people or be liked, and is not interested in excuses. The tale continues.

Greta’s approach was coolly logical, she questioned why she should attend school and listen to teachers when politicians weren’t listening to the facts. She committed to strike each week until the politicians acted.

It’s ironic that the young woman, whose recent life carries the contours of a slightly unlikely story, rightly accuses the powerful of believing in ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’. Of course, she is right. ‘Fairy tale’ is a synonym for something that cannot exist in the real world. Much the same is true when something is described as being an ‘old folk tale’ – it is not to be believed. Both types of story, however, aren’t meant to be plausible in their worldly details; they are about revealing deeper truths.

There are plenty of myths, fables, folk and fairy tales that warn of the destructive power of greed and of disregarding natural limits. From the Midas touch to the flight of Icarus, King Canute’s inability to halt the incoming tide, and the abuse of the goose that laid the golden eggs, there is wisdom embedded in our cultural heritage that could better guide us.

Another function of folk tales, written about in the introductions to our previous story collections – There was a knock at the door and Knock Twice – is to help people come to terms with extremes of human experience. Tales often have their roots in times of struggle, during wars and the famines that result from them.

In the light of our current political and ecological upheavals, and the great displacements of people driven by climate extremes and blocked by intransigent borders, we need new tales more than ever for this reason.

But even greater, as the forms of an old culture of unbounded consumerism die, we need new stories to help us imagine and make the rapid transition to a different future. ‘Stories are one of the most ancient and most effective ways of making sense of the world,’ wrote the author Philip Pullman in a foreword to the first collection of stories in this series, adding: ‘When we try to live a good life in a world we seem to be simultaneously destroying, there is nothing more valuable or worth encouraging.’

In this regard, nothing has changed since our last collection. In other, very important ways, many things have. Partly because of the real life tale of a Swedish child with a very special gift, the world is dramatically more aware of the critical threats to the biosphere and our life support systems. Millions are taking to the streets and taking risks to push for change from below, because those on high have failed to act on the science.

There are too many rich tales in our new collection, Knock Three Times, to pick out any one, but we can guarantee you a rich and surprising variety. All, in different ways, seek to reveal a truth or light the way ahead. We invite you to knock three times on this book, turn the page, and begin a journey that may contain some peril, some surprises and doors that may open, hopefully, to new possibilities. Although to sometimes highly differing degrees, this is the prospect and predicament facing us all.

You can buy a copy of Knock Three Times as a paperback from here, on epub from the online bookshop Hive, on kindle – or all three books together at a reduced price of £5 off.

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Mowgli can still save us all, even now

February 06, 2019

Now that the film Mowgli: Lord  of the Jungle has finally been released on Netflix, we asked Swati Singh – author of The Secret History of the Jungle Book – to see it. This was her reaction…

It’s very good. Brilliant in many parts, though mediocre in some. Shere Khan is menacing and dominates the frame. Mowgli is small and vulnerable. Mowgli’s journey from a man cub to man explored wonderfully.

The scene where Mowgli hides terrified under water while Shere Khan stands above, to the point where he stands in the open challenging Khan, Mowgli’s journey comes full circle.

The movie is not exactly based on the book but rather very heavily and intelligently inspired by it. In fact very well scripted. Mowgli’s crisis of identity has been made the focus of the movie. The movie shows how Mowgli bridges the divide between man and nature owing to his unique in-between position. In fact, the movie has a nice message on man- nature conflict.

The controversial King Louis character has been totally removed, though the monkey people stay. A good watch. Not possible to capture the complexity of the text in an hour long movie but a very commendable job.

You can get hold of Swati Singh’s book The Secret History of the Jungle Book: How Mowgli Can save the World here, on kindle here and also as an ebook download in ePub or pdf.

 

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Getting the Munich Crisis wrong…

January 07, 2019

David Boyle writes…

Those fascinated by the events of Munich eighty years ago will be aware that there are two books out which assume rather different interpretations. On is by the novelist Robert Harris, who has made no secret of his pro-Chamberlain views. The other one is by me, and Munich 1938 puts rather greater weight on the testimony of the pro-Czech writer Shiela Grant Duff than he does.

Now, it so happens that I have been sent a copy of the letter sent by Shiela to The Observer three decades ago, complaining about Robert Harris’s opinions back then (thank you, Penelope). I reproduce it here without further comment:

“20 September 1988

In his monstrously misleading article as your guest political diarist, Robert Harris follows the now embedded myth that what was at stake at Munich was whether we should fight for the Czechs. In fact, Chamberlain’s concern was, above all, to prevent the Czechs from fighting for themselves, and the French from honouring their solemn treaty obligation to go to their aid should Germany attack.

Munich was only the final scenario of a policy which the British government had been following more or less consciously since it came to power in 1935. The ‘wets’ in the Foreign Office were not those who opposed appeasement, as Robert Harris seems to think, but those who concealed – or perhaps honestly did not recognise – the true war aims of German policy and the iniquity of the Nazi regime.

The Czechoslovak government realised this from the start and, with greater foresight than ourselves, immediately began to fortify its frontier, build up its army and air force, augment its massive armaments industry and tried to develop the only international security system which would have prevented the German general staff from allowing Hitler to fight a war on two fronts – the Franco-Czech-Russian alliance.

Throughout the pre-war period, we not only refused to have anything to do with this allowed Hitler to “enter his backyard” in the Rhineland, thus depriving France of this demilitarised safety zone on a frontier, and positively encouraged him to look for German expansion in central Europe. Neither Austria nor the Sudetenland had ever formed part of Germany before.

What appalled Chamberlain was not the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength, in the dreadful fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, we and the French would be drawn in. The Berchtesgaden-Godesberg meetings were concerned, not with preventing Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, but making sure that the Czechs would neither defend their fortifications, nor use their army or air force.

At 2 o’clock in the morning of 22 September 1938, the British and French ministers aroused President Benes from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but on the contrary, would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed. Benes surrendered. The German armies marched in, took possession of the tanks, planes, the guns, the armament factories, and turned them against us and the French on the Western front, defeating the French and expelling us from Europe just two years later.

“A triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”?

Shiela Grant Duff

Observer correspondent, Prague, 1936-8″

You can buy copies of Munich 1938 on kindle and as a paperback.

 

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“You’ll end up in Saint Nick’s” and other reasons I wrote A Critical A-Z of Electroshock

November 08, 2018

Craig Newnes writes about his book A Critical A-Z of Electroshock

I loved my grandad – still do, I suppose. Trouble was, too many others did as well. He had a double gift – of the gab and generosity. The latter wasn’t much in evidence when he swanned off with Maud in around 1962, leaving my grandma (who everybody loved) to fend for herself.

He had eighteen brothers and sisters. The story was that three of his brothers went down on HMS Hood and his mum received three separate telegrams of condolence. One brother died in a strait-jacket in Thorpe Asylum – my first introduction to psychiatry though, like the three naval brothers, was his death was during World War Two. I didn’t come along until later.

By the time he left to live – and eventually die – in a caravan in Fakenham, I had another reason to fear psychiatry; the usual alarmist warning to anyone who misbehaved in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties was, “You’ll end up in Saint Nick’s,” the bin on Great Yarmouth sea front. And an imposing place that was. My beloved grandma spent two nights there – but more of that later.

Electroshock – called, for marketing purposes, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, was big at Saint Nick’s. Unsurprising really – electricity is a form of magic and psychiatry and psychology have a love affair with magic.

There is far too much to say about writing on electroshock – the whys are as complex as the hows. A couple of whys. One: It’s hidden, surfacing only when someone famous gets blasted or, as in the recent debate hosted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, when a couple of Psy folk go head to head in the media (see: https://www.madintheuk.com/2018/10/the-57th-maudsley-debate-interview-with-professor-john-read-and-doctor-sue-cunliffe/)

Two: Psy professionals target older women with it – and, as I said, I loved my grandma; everyone did. She had distant cousins who had died in various camps. Her father had the good sense to leave Germany at the end of the nineteenth century and eventually settled as an undertaker. He was still alive when the synagogue in Great Yarmouth was burned down in the 1920s – one reason that Jews became a serious minority on the East Anglian coast.

But all of that has little to do with electroshock and psychiatry – unless you count the way in which Jews were eventually classified as a sub-human species and, thus, deserving of no mercy. My grandmother eventually became – in her words – a bit “doo-lally” and was found wandering around the garden by her neighbour who happened to be a social worker.

She was admitted to Saint Nick’s on the Friday which was the day the hairdresser visited. Grandma’s unkempt hair was unacceptable – so it was all shaved off. By Saturday she looked like any one of millions of face-less folk. But, for her, the transformation was like stepping back into a distant history of pograms and worse.

All of that left me with no great love of psychiatry but I was already training as a clinical psychologist and – as it happens – married to a psychiatric social worker. Electroshock was rife, tranquillizing drugs (marketed as “anti-psychotics”) everywhere and the only people who in-patients trusted were domestic staff. So, I watched and learned, understood that words meant little in case conferences and it was better to inscribe older people as dementing rather than depressed as it would save them from electrocution.

Many, many years later, I wrote a paper called ‘ECT, the DCP and ME’, published in Clinical Psychology Forum, in which I suggested that my profession was doing nothing to speak out about electroshock. The outcome? The DCP committee suggested they might fire me as editor for potentially upsetting a few psychiatrists and fellow clinical psychologists.

They didn’t. But that was a kind of turning point. The work of Peter Breggin, Steve Baldwin and Peter Lehmann became (unsettling) bed-time reading. The experience of survivor activist friends needed publishing. So I edited and published their work. Maybe, these are the reasons why I write on Electroshock. The “how” is a different story.

I just sit, write and then structure whatever comes to mind and once in a while publishers like PCCS Books or the Real Press come along and I can offer some additional academic substance to the various Facebook groups speaking out about the excesses of Psy. Perhaps, it’s all for my grandma – perhaps it’s so that in a thousand years the British Library copy of A Critical A-Z of Electroshock will stop some fool expert electrocuting a stranger on the grounds it will “help”.

You can hear Craig Newnes speak about the book at the 2018 Olive Bucknall Memorial Lecture on Friday 23 November 2.30-4pm, at The Gateway, Chester Road, Shrewsbury SY1 1NB. Olive Bucknall was a much-loved mental health activist who died in October, aged 97. She was a fierce critic of electro-convulsive therapy, having received it herself after a breakdown caused by witnessing the damaging effect ECT had on her son Terry. An obituary of her appeared in this month’s Guardian newspaper. Craig was a close friend of Olive’s and is a leading critic of the Psy industry. He was Director of the Department of Psychological Therapies in Shropshire’s NHS Trust for almost 20 years. There will be opportunities after the lecture for questions and comments from the audience as well as to buy signed copies of A Critical A-Z of Electroshock. Paperback available here, ebook available here.

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Police, camera, action: a year on from Fourth to First

October 31, 2018
Steffan Aquarone, co-author of Fourth to First, writes:

There’s a saying that, if no one’s complaining, you’re doing something wrong.  In spite of this, the feedback on my how-to-do-it book Fourth to First has been fantastic!

I couldn’t be happier to learn that so many people have found the book to be somewhere between mildly amusing and practically useful.  If good people stand for political office, we all stand a better chance of getting the politicians we deserve.

One reader, however, was not so enamoured.  In fact, they reported me to the police!

I’ve never been the subject of a police investigation before, and actually I wouldn’t mind doing it again. I even got to go to Wymondham where all the serious stuff like counter-terrorism and serious organised crime get dealt with.

The professionalism and courtesy of Norfolk Constabulary was remarkable.  They apologised for the time it took to carry out the investigation, and explained that they’d been dealing with an unprecedented level of violent crime in the city centre.

You’d have to be bold to suggest this isn’t a result of austerity and cuts to public services – which makes it even more of a shame that the reader who thought they’d ‘shopped’ me was a Tory!

Happily, the investigation concluded that there had been no wrongdoing.  In spite of investing all that money in campaigning, car stickers, and cash handouts (sorry: actually showing up and talking to people), we’d kept meticulous records of our expenditure.  But everyone has a right to report something they believe is a crime.

The most important thing that’s happened since Freya and I wrote Fourth to First is actually that I’ve had over a year in the job, and it’s been fascinating.  You couldn’t make up the sorts of things I’ve come across, from low-level nuclear waste in a barn, to a case where I had to call on the county council’s own lawyers to make sure a constituent got the personal care they were entitled to.

It’s been, variously:

  • Incredibly satisfying, when more things like the Save our Lollipop Lady campaign happen – like saving our mobile libraries, which has been a huge victory this year
  • Deeply frustrating, when you see the way even good Conservatives fall into line to serve their own interests
  • One of those things that expands to fill however much time it’s given
  • A good thing to do, that I’m very glad I did

What has really struck me though, is realising how broken our politics is. In particular I’ve felt first-hand how big the gap in conversation is between politics and people. I’m not surprised – I’ve long thought that politics in general has a recruitment crisis. But something needs to be done beyond just having values, campaigning, and trying to win elections.

That thing is very much what I hope will come next.  We need to do something to counter the effects of extreme movements that are dominating the political discussion, and just changing what we say won’t fix that.  We’ve got to change who it is speaking, and bring masses of people into the conversation again.

This is exactly what we’ll be trying to do as Liberal Democrats in North Norfolk, alongside our ramping up of the district council campaigns heading into 2019.

Get in touch with me here on if you’re interested in finding out more!  Or if you want to show your support, you can donate here.

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Why is using the railways now so degrading?

August 05, 2018

David Boyle writes (a version of this blog first appeared on the New Weather blog:

Yes, it is hot. The heat has also added a layer of what I can only describe as degradation to our public services.

But before I describe it, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as someone who believes that all services should be managed by ministers, as they were before – say – the start of privatisation in 1984. I am not an advocate of re-nationalisation, because I don’t believe it is a solution to the fundamental problems – which are that they are organised into units that are inhumanly and unfeasibly big and that they are far too close to Treasury control. A bit like handing services over to 37-year-old paint-by-numbers specialists (in my experience, everyone at the Treasury is 37).

The problem with privatisation was that it has failed spectacularly to inject the kind of flexibility and responsiveness into the management of our services, as it promised to. Nor – as it also promised, though less explicitly – has it been able to provide either staff or users with any kind of ownership stake.

Which brings me to my journey to Salisbury a couple of weeks ago. As regular readers will know (if there are any), I am a critic of Southern Rail, and their part of the journey to Southampton was bad enough – broken air conditioning, unexplained delays, you know the kind of thing.

But really, I have to say, that the GWR part of the journey was far worse. Again late, again no air conditioning and no adequate ventilation, but the few carriages were so packed – I think they had cancelled a previous train – that I saw five fellow passengers managed to find some space to stand rigidly upright in the toilet. they finally deposited us half an hour late, without any explanation or apology.

One poor foreign tourist asked me if this was normal. It obviously is. You can read more about what that is the case on Southern in my short book Cancelled!

It might be possible to dismiss this as the slow collapse of the railways, which is well-documented. Were it not for somebody sending me the following description of the court system by a barrister last week (thanks, Nick):

I was fascinated to read this and begin to understand from these experiences what a degrading experience it can be now to deal with some public services, because of the absolute contempt with which the establishment regards service users of any kind. Not perhaps because they are snobbish or useless – though some of them may be both – but because they are technocrats blinded by target data.

They peer myopically at the figures that show the basic numbers and feel reassured. The passengers arrived, didn’t they? The case was settled, wasn’t it? What is all the fuss about, they may think to themselves.

Perhaps it is all of these mixed up together among the current monopolists and nomenklatura who manage and regulate our services – a sort of disdain which has grown up around Whitehall and the City for decades now, and a sad belief that the numbers that pour out of our services refer to something real.

All I can say by way of conclusion is that this situation is getting worse and it certainly isn’t sustainable.

Please sign up for our regular newsletter and we will send you a pdf or epub version of David Boyle’s medieval Brexit thriller The Remains of the Way.

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Do people really still hate Govia Thameslink?

May 24, 2018

David Boyle writes:

I remember some years ago a TV documentary called ‘why do people hate Ryanair?’ I found it so influential that I never flew with them again.

What particularly struck me was the way they hid the free or cheap options on their website. It was as if this had confirmed what was otherwise an uneasy sense that the company regarded their customers with some contempt.

So I have been wondering why people hate Govia, operators of Southern Rail. On the face of it, the last two years of insane disruption has not been their fault. CEO Charles Horton is a mere cipher, pushed this way and that between the demands of owners Go-ahead and the Department of Transport. The mess has been an inevitable result of a dysfunctional contract.

It is true he has not played a difficult hand that well, but even so. The mess – and the new train I tried to catch today (the 10.43 from Shoreham-by-Sea) has disappeared from the timetable after only four days – has been a result primarily of their failure to recruit enough drivers. But even that mistake derived from a contract that divides their interests from those of their passengers.

But then take a little look at their irritating ticket machines. They will no longer sell period returns, which is infuriating enough. But the main page only offers you tickets to London Terminals, which is £5 more expensive where I live than a ticket to London Victoria. But there is no option for that.

You can get the proper fare but only by searching for Victoria – a process that takes 15 keystrokes with dysfunctional machines and an impatient queue behind you.

I asked a technician about this earlier in the week and he said they would recommend a change to Govia. We will see what they say.

That may not be a good enough reason to hate a prisoner of Chris Grayling, but it doesn’t exactly imply customer care. You can read some of the history of all this in my book Cancelled!

Sadly the same abuses happen in most privatised services, just as they did before they were privatised. It isn’t a question of public or private, in fact. It is a matter of big versus small – and aligning the interests of operators with customers. Otherwise the gods clash in battles above our heads, us ordinary train travellers. And it isn’t fun.

Get a free copy of my medieval Brexit thriller on pdf when you sign up for the newsletter of The Real Press. 

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The right to break out of classifications (special offer this week)

April 06, 2017

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment – at least for me.

Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life – I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week – including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did – they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant’s portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions – and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don’t live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”
In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then – and stands now – for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can – you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher’s website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here.

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Why Scandal has been so controversial

March 02, 2016

David Boyle writes: In these days of identity politics, it can seem problematic to have an ancestor who was gay. I mean, was he or wasn’t he? If he was, what was he doing having descendents? If not, what was he behaving like that for?

One of the problems with the way we see identity these days is that it accepts no grey scale. Either you are something or you’re not something: it bothers people when you slide in and out of their favourite definitions.

So when I published an account of the peculiar events leading up to the criminalisation of homosexuality, so suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of a summer night in 1885 – and my own ancestor’s involvement in the scandal that led up to it – not everyone has been pleased.

One critic has posted no less than seven negative posts on Facebook, which implies to me that something else may be going on. Another one said simply: “All gay people have always known the story”.

Actually, I don’t think they have. Popular misconceptions suggest that the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which first criminalised all homosexual behaviour, had something to do with the prosecution of Oscar Wilde – it did, but ten years later.

Popular misconceptions suggest the law was changed by crusty old reactionaries like the Marquess of Queensberry, who brought down Wilde.  Actually, it was a a lone Liberal MP, responding to a campaign by the Irish Nationalists.

Popular misconceptions suggest that was a law brought in primarily to assuage rising homophobia.  In fact, it was a law primarily designed to raise the age of consent for girls.

But there are lessons to be learn from the emergence of a disastrously intolerant amendment, because its origins lay in the aftermath of a terrorist act, the Phoenix Park murders in 1882.

The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French. The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.

Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab – but by then my ancestor had fled arrest from Dublin.

The scandals barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick radical Henry Labouchère, was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to prove.

So when the opportunity arose the following summer, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance. His amendment was debated in a few minutes and only one MP queried whether it was relevant to the debate. But for the next eight decades, it put men – it only applied to men – in a perilous position if they loved their own gender.

The law wasn’t repealed until 1967, and among those prosecuted were John Gielgud and Alan Turing. Turing committed suicide; so did hundreds and possibly thousands of others.

The Dublin Scandal is all but forgotten, and I also wanted to write the story of my great-great-grandfather, and his disastrous involvement, and his transformation from respectable banker and pillar of the Unionist community to a stained glass artist living on the edge of the law in London’s Denmark Hill. It is this that critics of my book Scandal seem to have objected to.

The story demonstrates to me the political dangers of scapegoating. For short-term advantage, Parnell and the Nationalists led a bitter homophobic campaign – the first of its kind in modern politics. The 1885 act remains on the statute book in India and many other parts of the former British empire.

It also implies that people don’t have to fit into neat categories, though we might find it convenient to do so. Until we learn those lessons, we won’t have entirely escaped the shadow of 1885.

David Boyle is the author of Scandal: How homosexuality became a crime.

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An unprecedented moment of fear in the UK

February 10, 2016

TRP_PRODUCT_SCANDALIt was Saturday 6 April 1895. The weather was windy and drizzly as the passengers packed onto the
quayside at Dover to catch the steam packet to Calais due on the evening tide.

Perhaps it was packed that night because of Easter the following week. Perhaps it wasn’t as packed as some of the witnesses claimed later, or the downright gossips who weren’t actually there. But it was still full. Those waiting on the quay wrapped up warm against the chilly Channel breeze and eyed each other nervously, afraid to meet anyone they knew, desperately wanting to remain anonymous.

Among those heading for France that night was an American, Henry Harland, the editor and co-founder of the notorious quarterly known as The Yellow Book, the journal of avant garde art and writing which had taken England by the scruff of the neck in the 1890s.

Harland had a good idea why the ferries were full, though he was still surprised. He was also aware of at least some of the implications for himself. Oscar Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ that evening, having lost his libel action the day before. The rumour (wrong as it turned out) was that Wilde had been arrested reading a copy of The Yellow Book.

The news of the warrant for his arrest was in the evening papers, and Harland could only guess the motivations of those who were now suddenly crowding across the English Channel, but it looked remarkably like fear.

There was an unnerving atmosphere of menace that evening. One item in the evening papers implied that the nation was perched on the edge of a scandal that would make the establishment teeter: “If the rumours which are abroad tonight are proved to be correct we shall have such an exposure as has been unheard of in this country for many years past.”

Did it mean the exposure would reach those who run the nation, or did it mean something even more terrifying – that the exposure would spread downwards through society?

As the passengers knew only too well, the combination of events which they had feared for a decade had now come to pass. It had been a few months short of ten years since the so-called ‘Labouchère amendment’ had been rushed through the House of Commons, criminalising homosexual activity of any kind between men (sodomy had always been illegal, back to the reign of Henry VIII, but that was all).

They did not want to be accused, as Oscar Wilde was accused, by a violent aristocrat of doubtful sanity, and would then have to respond in the courts or the press. They could not face the fatal knock on the front door from a smiling acquaintance who would turn out to be a dangerous blackmailer.

But now the unthinkable had happened. Wilde had been stupid enough to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, and had lost.

The public had driven each other into a crescendo of rage and it seemed only sensible to lie low in Paris for a while. Or Nice or Dieppe, or the place where the British tended to go in flight from the law – Madrid. Anywhere they could be beyond the reach of the British legal system.

And one of those who fled, as I discovered during the research that led to this book, was my own great-great-grandfather – escaping for the second time in a just over a decade, in a story that my own family had suppressed for three generations.

We know now that, in the event, the threatened conflagration did not take place, but in the remaining 72 years while Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Labouchère Amendment, stayed on the statute books, 75,000 were prosecuted under its terms, among them John Gielgud, Lord Montagu and Alan Turing.

Many thousands of lives were ruined – Turing committed suicide not long afterwards, having been forced to undergo hormone treatment that made him grow breasts.

Yet that moment of fear in Britain in 1895, unprecedented in modern times, has been largely forgotten. It is remembered as a sniggering remnant of gossip, about the number of English aristocrats or others in public life, living incognito in Dieppe, or glimpsed in the bars in Paris, and the awareness as a result that they had something to hide.

That morning, Queensberry had received a telegram from an anonymous supporter, which read: “Every man in the City is with you. Kill the bugger.”

Why did it happen? Partly because of growing public concern following the Labouchère amendment, sneaked though Parliament in 1885, but even that was more than the individual brainchild of a lone radical.

Why this shift from tolerance of the changing role of women and emerging new ideas to this threatening public rage? How did homosexuality emerge as a key issue in English public life?

The answer lies in the events that took place in Dublin a decade before, starting with the political aftermath of the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire and the newly-appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland.

The murders shocked the public on both sides of the Irish Sea, and to claw back the moral high ground, Irish Nationalist MPs launched a campaign to identify homosexuals in the Irish government, or part of the establishment in Dublin in some way – starting with the senior detective in charge of the Phoenix Park case, James Ellis French.

The campaign led to huge torchlight processions and mass demonstrations, with bands, in many towns and cities of Ireland.

Most of the defendants were acquitted – the main issue at stake was whether it was physically possible to commit sodomy in a hansom cab.

The scandals barely ruffled feathers in London, except among campaigners linked to the Irish nationalist cause, or political friends of their parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. Among these, the maverick radical Henry Labouchère, was particularly frustrated that sodomy had been so difficult to prove.

So when the opportunity arose the following summer, as the Criminal Law Amendment Act – designed to raise the age of consent for women from 12 – crawled through Parliament, Labouchère seized his chance and proposed his amendment. It was passed practically on the nod, though its relevance to the bill was questionable.

It is a lesson of the huge dangers of politically inspired sex accusations, and Lord Bramall’s case reminded us of that.

But, as I said, I had a more personal reason for finding out the answers to some of these questions. My family lived in Dublin in the 1880s. The reason that they don’t any more, and that I was born in England not Ireland, was because of those same events there in that decade.

Until the last few years, when I began researching my book Scandal, I was unaware of those events.

All I knew was that my great-great-grandfather, the banker Richard Boyle, had left Dublin suddenly and under a cloud around 1884. His photograph has been torn out of the family photo album, with only his forehead remaining.

I had always been interested in what might have happened, but had assumed that the memories were now beyond recovery, just as the fate of my great-great-grandfather was lost in the mists of unfathomable time.

As it turned out, I was wrong. I was working on another incident in Irish history in the British Library, and discovered as I did so that a whole raft of Victorian Irish newspapers had been digitised and were now searchable online.

On an impulse, I put in the name ‘Richard Boyle’ and searched through the references in the Dublin papers. Then, suddenly, my heart began beating a little faster, because there it was – the first clue I found to a personal tragedy, and a national tragedy too: this was the spark that lit the fuse which led to the criminalisation of gay behaviour and the great moment of fear that followed the arrest of Oscar Wilde.

That first clue led to others, which led to others. I will never know the whole story. But what I did discover took me on a historical rollercoaster, and an emotional one, which catapulted me back to the strangely familiar world of the end of the nineteenth century – and a glimpse of that sudden fear in April 1895 that drove many of those affected so suddenly abroad.

I tracked him to a new career as a stained glass artist, among the glass industry in Camberwell, and – among other revelations – living with a man who was with him when he died, during the terrible London smog of Christmas week 1900.

Pinning down why he fled, twice in 11 years, and why Labouchère drafted and passed his notorious amendment, it is pretty clear that the whole moral panic began with a political witch-hunt which got out of hand.

The story suggests that there are serious dangers when political campaigns wrap themselves in populist intolerance in order to drag down an elite.

That is what happened in Dublin in 1883/4 and within four decades, the nationalist cause had been won; perhaps not because of the sexual accusations and cruelties. But those had unpredicted and unpredictable effects, not just in Ireland but across the British Isles.

Politicians have made sexual accusations against their political opponents since politics was invented. But these campaigns often leave a legacy of hate and fear which don’t dissipate easily.

You can read a ebook version of Scandal here or a print version here.

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