London Letter

London Letter

A grim chapter in London’s war on vice

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 17 1959
London Letter

London Letter

A grim chapter in London’s war on vice

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 17 1959

London Letter

A grim chapter in London’s war on vice


In the long years that I have written in Maclean’s I have never disguised my love of Britain nor failed to realize the many advantages of living at the heart of things even though there be weeks and even months when the climate tries one’s loyalty to the uttermost.

Therefore I do not approach this London Letter with any zest, for it deals with a tragic and sordid aspect of British life which was recently debated in the House of Commons.

You will no doubt remember that the government set up a committee under Sir John Wolfenden to study the existing laws concerning prostitution and homosexual offenses. Many months have passed since Sir John produced and published his report but at last the government decided that the issue had to be brought before parliament for a full and frank debate. The date was duly fixed.

But unknown to any living creature there was to be a prelude to the debate, a prelude so cruel and so tragic that the Sardonic Satirist himself could hardly have conceived it. The central figure of the tragedy was the parliamentary undér-secretary of the Foreign Office who, incidentally, had gone to much trouble to facilitate my recent visit to the Orient. His name

has been published but let us refer to him merely as Mr. X.

The headlines screamed to high heaven and to hell the news that shortly after the House of Commons had adjourned on the previous night Mr. X was arrested in St. James’s Park and charged with criminal behavior with a young Coldstream Guardsman. To those of us who knew Mr. X it seemed so incredible that we felt it must have been a frame-up. Yet in our hearts we feared that he was guilty. But why? That is part of the tragedy. To be arrested on such a charge is to be branded guilty before the case is heard.

Next morning the guardsman and the under-secretary were charged at Bow Street Police Court and the case was deferred for twenty days.

I can hardly remember a day in the House of Commons when there was such an atmosphere of tragedy and heartbreak. No one had ever suspected Mr. X of being a homosexual and our hearts ached for his wife. What could we do? Like many others in the House I simply wrote him a short note of sympathy.

It is impossible to discuss the history of abnormal sex relationship without citing the case of Oscar Wilde The evil that men do lives after them, but so does the tragedy. Yet some of you may remember my description a few years ago of a number of us marching from Hyde Park to Chelsea where the mayor and aldermen of the local council placed a plaque of memory on the door of the house where Wilde had lived.

“There is big, easy money for the regiment of women who nightly line Park Lane like Guards"

As far as our small authority ran it was a verdict that Wilde’s gifts to literature and the drama had outlived his» crimes against society. But although Wilde is the classic example of genius cursed by sexual abnormality he sired two sons. One was killed in the 1914-18 war and the other, who has changed his name, is alive today.

Part of the tragedy of homosexuality is the indisputable fact that many of its victims are genuinely artistic and gifted. Therefore it was inevitable that as a fraternity they would play a big part in the theatre which by its very nature is exhibitionist. In fact it reached such proportions some years ago that, as the drama critic of the l.ondon Evening Standard, I openly discussed the matter in my column under the heading "Bachelors in the Theatre.”

The article was cruelly frank, but it had to be. Many of the Evening Standard readers were shocked and urged that I should be made to resign. There were also resentful letters from actors. Yet it may well be that my article played some small part in bringing about the ultimate

study by Sir John Wolfenden’s committee.

As a matter of fact the attitude of the courts and of public opinion has altered noticeably since the era when Wilde was sentenced to Reading Gaol. This change was seen five years ago when a famous knighted actor of the London theatre was arrested, charged with a homosexual offense and duly fined on the very eve of his opening in a new play in the provinces.

Professionally I had to go to the first night when the play came to London, although 1 would gladly have stayed away. But there was no demonstration of any kind from the audience. Instinctively we realized that he was playing a reallife tragedy which had nothing in common with the story of the play.

Rightly or wrongly the audience had compassion—I think rightly.

Now let us look in on the crowded House of Commons as R. A. Butler, in his capacity as home secretary, opens the fateful debate. The galleries are packed to the gills and every inch of the debating chamber is filled.

Rab Butler has a first-class mind but at heart he is a scholar who would be more happy in his library with his beloved books than being the minister responsible for law and order. But quietly and convincingly he tells us of the dilemma which confronts the police and the courts. If the prostitutes are driven from one neighborhood they will go to another. Then he discusses the causes of prostitution today as compared with the far-off days when his famous reformer kinswoman, Josephine Butler, tried to drive vice from the streets.

“Today it is quite different from what happened in those times,” he said, “when the girls Josephine Butler used to save were the poorest creatures of society, very often forced into prostitution to earn sufficient to keep themselves alive. That is an entirely different picture from that which we have today.”

Then what is to be done, and how is it to be done? The Wolfenden committee had recommended that the authorities should take every legitimate chance of dissuading girls from adopting a life of prostitution by advice and help rather than by involving them in the machinery of the law.

According to Mr. Butler the Scots have handled this problem with much more understanding and effectiveness than is the case in England. It seems that in Scotland there are institutions to care for girls who have gone wrong and bring them back to a Christian life.

Personally I felt that in that argument Mr. Butler was not being realistic. London, as the centre of the world, draws the great and the greedy to it. There is big and easy money for the monstrous regiment of women that line Park Lane each night like a brigade of Guards.

But for some reason no government will face the issue. The fine for soliciting is no more than the tip which the client adds to his payment. In fact it is little more than it was fifty years ago. Then there is also the argument that if we use harsh measures we will drive the vice racket underground. And in the name of sanity why not?

I have traveled much in my time in many lands but never in any great capital have I seen the monstrous regiment so openly on parade as in London. What of our overseas kith and kin who come to London as if it were another Mecca? No one doubts that the traffic in flesh earns good money in New York and Paris but it is not in evidence in the central streets as it is in London.

Perhaps someone reading these words will accuse me of intolerance and lack of human understanding. They will say that my Toronto smugness has persisted despite the transplantation to England. It might be so. None of us is without sin. But the community has a right to demand that decent people can walk the streets without the blatant accosting of the prostitutes and the noisy brawl late at night when the pimps arrive in their cars to

collect the day’s money from the girls.

There are millions of wholesome, decent people in the Island Kingdom who live and laugh and love and work until their story comes to its end. They too have their legal rights, including the right of walking through streets which are unpolluted by the traffic of harlotry.

I must put on record that the most impressive speech in that debate was not by a government nor opposition frontbencher, but by a Socialist MP who is a clergyman by the name of Williams. Dealing with the wretched creatures who corrupt the young he brandished a Bible, opened it and then said: “I sometimes wonder whether Jesus Christ was thinking of this type of shocking wickedness when He used this most biting condemnation: ‘Then said He unto the disciples, it is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe unto him. through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.’ ”

Then the reverend MP paused and looked at the government front bench. "There is not much of a gentle, meek and mild Jesus about that denunciation,” he said.

For a moment he paused again and then proclaimed: “We who legislate in this house should not be too timorous in supporting these recommendations because public opinion may be lagging behind. In a sense we are the creators of public opinion.”

On the whole the House of Commons was at its best on this occasion. There was no playing to the gallery nor was there argument for argument’s sake. We had ceased to be Tories, Liberals and Socialists and had become trustees of the people.

In announcing the government’s intention of introducing new legislation to “clean up the streets,” Butler said: “Although we live in an age of rapid material and social progress, of great advances in scientific knowledge, we have today been discussing one of the oldest problems known to civilized man. The House has shown a sincere understanding without, if I may say so. being either sentimental or sententious.”

The mists were hanging low upon the river and upon the parks as we made our way home after the House had adjourned. We walked by the place where our colleague had met tragedy, disgrace and ruin, but we did not speak of it.

There are moments of tragedy so deep that they can only be expressed in silence. ★