Oberon founder James Hogan writes about his experiences as a gay man in 1960s London, and why he wrote his new play High Ridin’.
My queer life in London was dangerous from the start. In the early 60s I worked in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Downing Street. I joined when I was 19, several years before the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults. Yet homosexual scandals were always in the news. There had been several high-profile spy trials involving queer men accused of being traitors. Single young males like me were constantly under suspicion. Secret agents were everywhere. I knew I was being watched; not the sophisticated surveillance that exists today, but by some not so intelligent Intelligence Officers trailing me across London. One of them sat opposite me on the bus every day for a week reading his newspaper. So, one day as I got off at my stop I pulled his paper down and said “See you tomorrow”. He grinned sheepishly and I never saw him again.
Perhaps my carefree lifestyle made things easy for them. Despite the legal restrictions, I did not hide my sexuality. Still under the then legal age, I lived openly with a man ten years my senior in Chelsea. What’s more, he was the manager of a popular gay bar, the Gigolo on the King’s Road. The bar was regularly raided by the police. But it was all worth the risk. My boyfriend (now no longer with us) was one of the best looking guys in the neighbourhood with lots of charisma and a big smile.
The crunch came at work when I received a grim notification that I was to be positively vetted by the security services. This means interrogated. Woah! The setting was awesome and intentionally intimidating. A grand room in the old India Office in Whitehall. There sat the Head of Whitehall security, flanked by two MI5 spooks in shabby suits. I was told to sit down, but before my butt touched the seat a terrifying voice boomed out “ARE YOU HOMOSEXUAL?” So loud he could have been in opera. I simply answered “Yes” quietly, not knowing what the consequences might be. Much to my relief, there weren’t any serious consequences. I carried on with my career. My boyfriend wasn’t arrested for sleeping with a “minor”. Some may judge that this experience was mild compared to the horrors suffered by queer folk today, but at the time it brought home to me the uncomfortable fact that I was different, and always would be. Carefree no more.
Today, despite changes in the law, the dangers of Queerdom are worse than ever. As we know, in Chechnya queer men are slaughtered in concentration camps. In many countries they constantly live in the shadow of death and savage punishment. Leaders of the religious Right in America, that once liberal country, are calling for the mass extermination of queer folk. So why have I written a queer play which doesn’t discuss any of these issues? Instead, the play focuses on those anonymous queer men who leave home to face a hostile world on their own. Some of them stray into the drugs scene and may be swallowed up by it.
Dying while you’re having fun, all under the still disapproving gaze of religious and civil authority. As Stan tells us in the play, a policeman who was choking him yelled “In other countries people like you are lined up against a wall and shot!” This very abuse was hurled at me in London by a uniformed policeman in broad daylight, so it was inevitable this ugly incident would one day find its way into a play. The way I see it, queer folk must always find their happiness while living in Hell.
High Ridin’ is funny. The situation is a source of laughs and pitfalls. If you picked up a boy on the motorway who was out of his head on drugs, what would you do? Dump him on the hard shoulder or take him home? Stan takes him home. And then…?
It is my sixth production going back to 1978 when Peacefully in his Sleep was produced at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. In fact, that was the first original play produced at the Gate, a decade before I founded Oberon Books, specialising in new plays. There were many obstacles over 32 years investing in and consolidating the company. This is not the time to record them, but the workload has certainly got in the way of my compulsion to write. Now, with a bright young team leading the company I have more time and maybe a few more plays in me, if I’m spared. But I wonder how different things might have been if I had not been hauled up before a Kangaroo Court in Whitehall. There was no evidence that I was spying for Russia. I was just queer.
James Hogan’s High Ridin’ is on at the Kings Head Theatre until September 22nd, directed by Peter Darney. Cast: Tom Michael Blyth, Linda Beckett and Chi-Cho Tche. Get £5 off tickets with the code HIGHRIDIN5 here.