The lady doth protest too much, methinks: “this blog is not connected with gay “cottaging” or other sexual connotation associated with public conveniences.”
This week we interviewed Dr Matt Cook, Senior Lecturer in History and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College. Matt is one of those people (surely) whom it is necessary to interview for a subject like cottaging so it’s a good job that he’s a fluent interviewee (makes my job much easier). He is also the first person we have interviewed who can shed some light onto the origins of cottaging, public sex and what it was like pre-20th Century to be a gay man.
One thing struck me that while there are many, many obvious differences between now and then - technology, decriminalisation, greater acceptance of homosexuality etc. - but there are also similarities. It was during this time that the West End and Soho grew as a commercial or entertainment areas with shops and businesses next to cottages, rent boys and prostitutes. Not so different to today really.
And there is another similarity: the press. I guess with the Leveson Inquiry it is tempting to think of press intrusion into people’s lives and readers’ interest in scandal as a new thing. Alas it was ever thus. Of course then most people would not have had any friends or known anyone who was openly gay and most of their knowledge with the subject would have been linked with reports of offences in the press so these reports in the press were one of the ways that gay men found out about cottaging and soon they learned that certain cottages were known for different sorts of ‘trade’, as it were.
A lot of our interview was concerned with changing public attitudes to public sex and homosexuality as well as the change of the terms of reference of the debate. The other point I am dwelling on at the moment which was implicit in Matt’s interview is that complexity is not vice. Very often we talk in general terms but usually things are a lot more complicated than generalisations can portray.
Matt related a story of a gay man from Yorkshire, a coal miner who was caught cottaging and convicted. Now so often such a conviction could lead to divorce, humiliation, loss of a job, rejection by friends but not in this case…
STORIES REQUIRED FOR DOCUMENTARY
Every gay man has a cottaging story, don’t they?
So we’re now looking to put together an oral history of people’s cottaging stories. So whatever age you are, wherever you grew up, whether you used to cottage regularly or went just once, if have a story you wish we would record and use either in our documentary or in some of the extra material, email me firstname.lastname@example.org
It doesn’t matter if your story is funny or sad but I think its important to get as many perspectives as possible on what cottaging was like - the risks, the thrills etc - what you remember about it (someone was telling me recently that he remembers the dried spunk on the walls!) why you enjoyed it…
We’ll use voice actors to record your stories if you like and, of course, respect your anonymity.
I’m writing mine now…
This week we went off to Central Station near King’s Cross Station not for the reasons most would but to interview Chris Ashord of Sunderland University about cottaging, the law and many other things. We have been in contact for a number of months he kindly made the trip down to London especially for the interview. Over a number of hours we talked to lots and lots of thing in what was an extremely wideranging and interesting interview. From glory holes in Melbourne sex clubs to the Sexual Offences Acts (2003). We also talk about the definitions of what constitutes a public space (your bedroom, a urinal in a cottage, a locked cubicle, a park, you get the idea) and the law punishing people for consensual acts (a recurring theme). There are a number of points he brought up that I think are worth dwelling on here. First, and perhaps significantly for our documentary, the distinction between sex and sexual identiy. One of the truisms of politics has been that the last Labour government had a postive impact on gay rights in this country with the abolition of Section 28, lowering the age of consent and the introduction of civil partnerships. All true and all fine. But on the reverse side of the coin they were not so “progressive” (Nota bene Sexual Offences Act). The second is the image driven, commercial nature of the gay community. I think to some extend we just shrug our shoulrders and say that it was ever thus. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is perhaps undeniable is that the internet (with the ubiquitous Gaydar and Grindr) has increased this. We haven’t yet had a chance to review and edit the footage but we’ll try to put some clips of it as we do so. Also it is worth saying that he is an extremely nice guy and enjoyable company! You can see his blog here.
Making a documentary about cottaging would be possible without at least a cursory reference to Joe Orton, the playwright. Yet it was witha little bit of trepidation that I emailed the Joe Orton Society and asked them to put me in touch with Leonie, his younger sister. Over the next few weeks and months, we email, with us telling her why we were making the documentary and who else we had lined up, and her telling us how she takes parts in events related to her brother.
Between you and me, it was rather delicate as obviously our main interest in Orton for the moment was his leisure pursuits rather than his plays but there was also another angle: over the last forty years since his murder, Orton had become a gay icon, even though it was not until his death that it was known publically that he was gay. As Leonie said, the family didn’t know he was gay and assumed that Halliwell (his lover and murderer) was just a close friend. A sign of the times.
Yet, of course by hislifestyle and writing Orton was a gay man and in a curious sense came out through his writing.
So one Saturday morning we journeyed from Liverpool Street to Cromer in Norfolk, managing trains and provincial taxis to at last (and late) get to our destination. The first thing I would like to say is that Leonie was wonderfully hospitable as were her two wonderful Irish terriers, Finn and Dora. She made us feel very much welcome.
Our interview - thanks to her putting aside far more time than I had asked for - became rather wide-ranging not just looking at Jode Orton the man, but also looking at her perspective on his work. She was still quite young when Entertaining Mr Sloan was first performed and didn’t understand it but found it funny. Over the years seeing many performances she has got to know his works better and is a brilliant proselytiser for his work. Also what interviewing her brought out was how much a public mask can deceive: she really emphasised how kind and generous a brother (and also person) Joe was. I think it was the first word that she used to describe him. It is not a negative reflection on his plays or diaries or the man to say that this would not be the first word that many people would come up with.
I hope that the interview will add a different take on Orton, will give some insight in what he was like beyond the icon and some of the social conventions he opposed both in life and in writing.
It is perhaps inevitable that within the vagaries of English slang a word so redolent of the English village, Miss Marple and vicars cycling to give evening sermons, should come to be associated with acts so unspeakable and perverted that they are morally repugnant to your average citizen. Yet on the fiftieth year since Lord Wolfenden, a man so repulsed by the deviancy of the homosexual act that his report found it necessary to recommended its legalisation, the fortieth since the death at his lover’s hands of the eminence grise of the cottage, Joe Kingsley Orton, it is perhaps appropriate to consider what has happened to this most Anglo-Saxon of leisure pursuits.
It is an activity once favoured by playwrights, pop stars, politicians and Republican Senators from Idaho, allegedly with codes of its very own. Yet it is also in sad decline.
Here, I must declare an interest as a homosexual, whose formative years were spent throughout the land in, or within spitting distance, of such places of deviancy, perversion and undeniable pleasure. For cottaging has through its long and honourable history (since 1729) remained a purely gay pursuit; partly because of the puritanical attitude towards sex than has always existed in the English social body, but mainly because the idea of unisex public lavatories never caught on. There was a cottage in my village, which from an early age my parents told me to avoid, although no reason was then given. Such was the seriousness of their warning that I frequently underwent humiliating journeys home to visit the toilet until one day, aged fourteen, I ventured into the grimly painted forbidden zone with the purest of motives, but left with intentions to revisit for quite a different purpose. This early encounter, such as it was, was the beginning of almost ten years of intense, almost obsessive devotion, I may even say love, of the English cottage. From such origins came many encounters, some of them quick, some more fruitful, but none of them dull, and all of them enacted with a sense of risk that is now lacking from my life: being fucked in a cubicle by a student from Leeds University as my train left for home is a memory that sticks in my mind with a certain fondness. For cottaging is addictive, like heroin, except less expensive and easier to get hold of. I even met one of my best friends in a cottage, in a small university town. The building has since been knocked down and turned into a shopping centre. But we remain friends. He is now an illustrious academic at a respected institution over the Herring pond, but on his rare visits to perfidious Albion, we remember – over a bottle or four of Veurve Clicquot - times idled away in various provincial towns of England and London, looking for cock.
The intervening decade has been kinder to him than I. He still claims to be roughly the same age, I have aged eight years, taken up new hobbies – bridge, fine wines, crack cocaine – and almost verge upon the respectable. That is not to say that even when cruising on Hampstead Heath or Clapham Common, I do not hanker for the old days of sideways glances at urinals and the cautious half opening of a cubicle door. But the sad fact is that although successful, I was never any good at cottaging: I was by my friend’s feckless standards too nervous and unobservant of slight signals. Of course, he now has two convictions for gross indecency, whereas I do not.
And there perhaps you have at least part of the reason for this tragic decline but not all. In London alone the cottages of Bethnal Green (always highly recommended) and Pettycoat Lane to those of Hyde Park, Carnaby Street and Oxford Circus have either closed or been sanitised to prevent extra curricula activities for the homosexual. It is now with fond nostalgia that one recalls the cottage in the old British Library, where upon the cubicle wall was affectionally ascribed: ‘I had David Starkey here’.The cottage has been across cities and towns been replaced by units that act as lavatories and act against the cottager’s inherent interests. Of course, such places do still exist: I am told that in the toilets University College London remain a rare paradise in barren desert and I am sure that some remain in the more remote parts of these Sceptred Isles. But it is rather like living in the last days of the British Raj: some of the magnificence is still there, but the glory days are far behind. If you’ll forgive the puns.
Of course, like many an English tradition, modern technology and social advances has played a role in its demise. Yet logging onto one’s Gaydar, Gay.com and GayRomeo, lacks an equal frisson to shoving one’s knob through a glory hole in a cottage in Peterborough, Kettering or some such God-awful place. If you ask me, the advance of the internet as a tool for the homosexual is welcome, yet its role in the death of cottaging is evidence of not only the laziness of the average sex-addict, but also of the creeping bourgeoisation of homosexuality. The current liberal, tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, greatly welcome though it is, has correspondingly led to the de-sexualisation of the homosexual in the public mind: he must be well-dressed, coiffed to perfection, witty and preferably totally, publically neutered. Of course, promiscuity itself amongst gay men is far from on the declining: my accidental entrance to the FIST tent some years ago at Gay Pride proves that. Yet, like the decline of the Liberal Party after 1909, in its finest hour, the gay community has cunningly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and submissively accepted the demise of the most public actualisation of its inner self.