Tuesday, 1 April 2014

1958- a different age


Vivien from the Laundrette in Picton Streethanded me a bundle of old newspapers that were found when some building work was carried out. The newspapers dated from late November and early December 1958. Many newspapers were present including the Leek Post and Times and Sentinel, the Express, Mail, Mirror and publications like the Herald and News Chronicle that are defunct.

It is a very different age from 2014 with references to Mr K (that’s Khrushchev the Soviet leader rather that a breakfast cereal or a cartoon character), a rail crash in Manchester, concerns over the impact of television on the young and items on debutants. What interested me was a reference to a scandal involving a sexual encounter between a Tory MP Ian Harvey and a Guardsman on a wintry night in St James Park. (It might have been the occasion when Churchill told that the incident occurred in sub zero temperatures that the old man exclaimed “Make’s you proud to be British”). In 1958 homosexuality was illegal and we also had back street abortions, colour bars in operation and capital punishment.

Gays led a very secretive life and got on with life as best they could and for most of the time the subject was taboo. In the 50s the Wolfenden Committee was set up to examine the issue of decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults. Wolfenden referred to gays in the early draft of the report as “Huntley’s” to spare the feelings of his female secretaries came to the conclusion that prison was not the most suitable place for “dealing “with the homosexual offender. Gays throughout the period were subject to prosecution with the authorities resorting to raids on clubs, entrapment, surveillance and phone tapping. Occasionally reports of local gay men found guilty of indecent acts surface and were then faced with the shame of their sexuality being paraded in the local media. In 1954 two men, one a civil servant living in Leek were prosecuted. I presume they faced opprobrium locally after the case was reported.

In 2001 I asked George Melly the Jazz musician who was appearing at the “Swan” in the Leek Arts
Festival what form police harassment took. He cited the case of a friend of his a Belgian surrealist artist who was arrested after being entrapped by a police officer in a pub toilet in Soho. The man got off when the Magistrate found out that he was married and refused to believe that married men did that sort of thing.

On a lighter note that period also saw the opening of the Preston Bypass, the first stage of the M6 (the AA regretted that the speed and density of the traffic would make the traditional salute from their patrols impractical), the introduction of subscription trunk dialling and the appearance of a marmalade eating bear from West London. The first Paddington Bear book were published in December 1958, the print edition rapidly selling out.