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The Diaries of Mr Lucas by Hugo Greenhalgh review – a kaleidoscope of postwar gay life

The Diaries of Mr Lucas by Hugo Greenhalgh review – a kaleidoscope of postwar gay life

In 1994, Hugo Greenhalgh was a researcher on a television documentary about the history of male sex workers and their clients. Dispatched to interview George Leo John Lucas, a 68-year-old retired civil servant, and a loyalty-card-worthy frequenter of London’s bygone “meatracks”, Greenhalgh arrives at a dishevelled Clapham flat that makes Miss Havisham’s Satis House resemble a Barratt show home. The reeking Lucas emerges from the detritus in a torn suit, looking “as if he’d risen from the grave”. What catches the young man’s eye even as he holds his nose is an entire wall of diaries: a volume a year since 1948.

These turn out to comprise an unparalleled document of an ordinary gay man (rather than a Kenneth Williams or a Joe Orton) eking out his life. The Britain he inhabits staggers its way from an easy-come, easy-go tolerance of queerness during the war years, to an ice age of bigotry scarcely tempered by the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales in 1967. Through it all, Lucas calmly goes about his business: working at the Board of Trade by day, out on the gay scene at night, picking up labourers, guardsmen and gangsters – some paid for, others won fair – nursing assorted crushes and grudges, then cataloguing it all once his bed has gone cold.

Greenhalgh maintained a friendship with Mr Lucas (“never George”) for the next 20 years, pledging to make sure that the diaries were published – posthumously, as per their author’s wishes. Now, 10 years after Lucas’s death at the age of 88, Greenhalgh has made more than good on that promise. The resulting book is no conventional collection of edited journals, rather an overview of almost 60 years of diary-keeping (ill health forced Lucas to abandon the habit in 2009, while a few volumes were mislaid along the way), shaped by Greenhalgh and interspersed with his running commentary. It is a kaleidoscopic portrait of postwar queer life – up to and including the author’s own reflections on the LGBT+ landscape of the 2020s.

Born in Chadwell Heath, Essex, Lucas was raised by savagely homophobic parents who seized every opportunity to berate and belittle him. Fleeting sexual experiences in the suburbs are remembered wistfully once he is in the cut and thrust of Soho’s bitchy, bristling gay pubs. Before that, though, there are brushes with the law, including arrest and brief imprisonment for cruising in a Düsseldorf park.

The fear of prosecution and persecution is ubiquitous, as when Lucas gets wind of his colleagues’ suspicions about him. (All the fault of some over-generous Christmas gift-giving, it seems.) That only makes his lack of shame and his devotion to pleasure feel all the braver. Violence is never far away, though he knows better than to report it: “Bald middle‑aged homosexuals do not excite much judicial (or police) sympathy,” he sighs. Rushed to hospital after being attacked, he is upbraided by the nurse, who asks: “Did you do something bad to him?”

These aren’t star-studded journals, though there are stomp-on parts for the Kray twins. Throughout the 1960s, Lucas is besotted with, and eventually tormented by, a ne’er-do-well known as Irish Peter, who starts out selling stolen knick-knacks before falling in with the Krays and ending up as the protagonist of red-top splashes such as: “Soho Gang Torturer Sought”. This brings Lucas to his wits’ end, and close to murder, lending the book a narrative focus amid the arbitrary parade of events typical of any diary. It should also form the spine of the (surely inevitable) film version: I see Bill Nighy or Mark Gatiss as Lucas, Leo Woodall as Irish Peter.

In the opening pages, Greenhalgh reflects on whether the diaries present the real Lucas or “a creation of his own”. The author admits that he, too, is in the persona-building business. “I consciously made [Mr Lucas] into a character,” he says. Though Greenhalgh weaves himself into the text, confessing his own familiarity with sex work from both sides, he never muscles in on the subject; this is patently not The Lady in the Van, even if Lucas’s eccentricity, bloody-mindedness and plummeting hygiene recall Alan Bennett’s Miss Shepherd. Rather, Greenhalgh’s manner is almost teacherly: “Do we believe Mr Lucas?” he asks us, as though addressing the classroom.

If he errs at all, it is when packaging Lucas’s behaviour for modern sensibilities – pointing out where he is being predatory or exploitative, say, or reminding us of attitudes that wouldn’t wash today. That can feel like a thumb on the scale. What’s remarkable, though, is the book’s success in presenting Lucas in all his contradictions: extraordinary yet parochial, compassionate but snobbish (“What else are the lower classes for?” the diarist wonders of his predilection for “one’s social inferiors”), bemoaning homophobia while lamenting the disinhibition of 1980s gay magazines. Still, it helps that both Greenhalgh and Lucas can write. “The legalisation of homosexual intercourse in 1967 has been a relief to me personally, but has come at a time when the opportunities of such intercourse are lessening,” he says at the end of 1969. “What, in the fifties, would have been the ‘Open Sesame’ to a treasure house, has unlocked the door of Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.” How poignant that the literary larder he leaves behind is so abundantly stocked.

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Source: theguardian.com