David Llewellyn reviews Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys by Jeffrey Weeks, an autobiography which not only tells a personal story, but also traces the trajectory of the social and cultural transformation seen in Britain from the 1960s to the present day.
The 20th Century marked a sea-change in British attitudes towards sexuality and gender. What began with the death of Oscar Wilde – exiled in Paris following jail time and hard labour for “gross indecency” – ended with sympathetic LGBT characters in soap operas, Queer as Folk on Channel 4, and annual Pride celebrations in towns and cities across the UK.
The journey was one of mixed fortunes. While many were willing to turn a blind eye during wartime, the policing of private lives intensified in the 1950s and early ’60s with an average of 1,000 men a year imprisoned for homosexual offences. Despite some progress, inequality and media hostility carried on well into the new millennium, with Clause 28 – prohibiting local authorities from promoting homosexuality – remaining on the statute books of England and Wales until 2003.
From the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 to the Marriage Act of 2013, the historian and sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has had a front row seat, both as activist and pioneering researcher, for some of the major developments in recent LGBT+ history. Born in the Rhondda in 1945 he grew up in a traditional working class household, his father a factory worker and his mother a homemaker who worked part time at a grocery. Though they had a history of radical politics and religious non-conformity, the mining valleys of south Wales were still a place where traditional notions of gender and sexuality held sway, and one in which the teenaged Weeks understood that his desires must be kept a “deadly secret”.
He left Wales in 1964 to study at University College London, where he found himself at home in left wing student politics, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that he engaged with the activism that would shape much of his personal and professional life. The partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 were the impetus for a growing gay rights movement in the UK, with the formation of groups such as the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and the more radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Weeks became actively involved in the latter, with protests that included daubing black crosses on the premises of psychiatrists who claimed to “cure” lesbians and gay men, and disrupting Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light rally in Trafalgar Square.
He would later embark on life-long careers in academia and writing, and from 1975 was one of the founding members of Gay Left; a collective that evolved out of the GLF and Gay Marxist Group, producing a biannual journal of the same name. He was also among the first generation of British writers and academics to begin recording and studying LGBT+ history, even as it was being made, publishing in 1977 his first book, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the 19th Century to the Present.
The preface to his memoir, Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys, ends with a paraphrase of Under Milk Wood: “But let me begin at the beginning”, segueing neatly into an evocative depiction of the post-war world in which he grew up. Elsewhere, he brings 1960s London vividly to life, with descriptions of St Paul’s and Buckingham Palace “still saturated in inches of soot”, while “the glistening new Post Office Tower… (promises) a new London, and indeed a ‘new Britain’.”
The passages in which he makes his tentative first steps into the city’s nascent gay community are especially poignant when read in an age when young LGBT+ people have social media and dating apps at their fingertips, but most affecting of all are the accounts of two trips to San Francisco; the first in 1981, the second in 1993. In 1981 the city was still reeling from the murder of the public servant and “Mayor of Castro Street” Harvey Milk, but remained a focal point for America’s queer community, made famous in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. There was talk of a mysterious illness affecting gay men, but some dismissed it as a conservative scare tactic.
Weeks’ later trip happened shortly after the funeral of a close friend and onetime lover, ceramicist Angus Suttie, who died of AIDS in October 1993. He finds the city quieter than it was – one of the bars he visits has Joni Mitchell’s melancholic debut album Blue playing in the background – and many of those he met during his previous visit have died or left the city.
Inevitably, HIV and AIDS loom large in the later parts of Between Worlds. The Thatcher government receives deservedly short shrift for its sluggish response to the pandemic (sound familiar?), and the moral panic surrounding it effectively stalled any progress made in changing attitudes. Even so, Weeks draws some comfort from reflecting on the ways in which the crisis mobilised the queer community into action, and how this had a lasting effect throughout the following decades.
Weeks twice namechecks the artist and director Derek Jarman, whose death followed Angus Suttie’s by only a few months, and if this memoir reminds me of anything it’s the journals published in the last years of Jarman’s life. Though their interests, experiences and outlooks vary wildly, both Jarman and Weeks are good company and great storytellers, and their accounts of those times are invaluable.
By the end of the book, its title has acquired multiple meanings. It’s the story of a life lived between the Rhondda Valley and London and how, for Weeks, the personal, political and the historical have always intertwined, and he writes about ideas and intellectual discoveries every bit as engagingly as he does friendships and love affairs. Elsewhere in the same chapter he quotes his fellow historian and contemporary Jonathan Ned Katz, a line that could easily have been used as the book’s epigraph.
“We experienced the present as history, ourselves as history makers…”
Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys by Jeffrey Weeks is available now from Parthian.
David Llewellyn is a novelist and dramatist. As well as his four novels for Seren he has written scripts for the BBC and several short stories.