As part of LGBT+ History Month at Southlands College, we’re beginning a series of book reviews, beginning with a review of Against the Law by Peter Wildeblood, reviewed by Christopher Stephens.
For students of LGBT+ history the name Peter Wildeblood should be well known. A well-known journalist living in London, Wildeblood was one of three men arrested in the notorious Montagu case of 1954. Along with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers, Wildeblood was arrested and sent to prison for the crime, as it was then, of “Buggery”. The 1950s was a time of great danger for homosexual men. The police were often relentless in their pursuit of what many in British society saw as a disease of the corrupt and the dangerous.
Against the Law was written by Wildeblood after serving his 12-month sentence in prison. His time there was difficult and painful, the conditions squalid at best. The book tells a story of how Wildeblood survived in this hostile environment – his coping mechanisms but also those rare but significant moments of personal relationship with other prisoners that sustained his humanity and his faith in others. The book is vivid and engaging. Ever the journalist, Wildeblood brings a sense of immediacy and urgency to the stories he tells of life inside a dilapidated English prison in the 1950s. As a result, it is a quick and easy read, despite the subject matter.
Beyond the basic purpose of telling the story of his time in prison, Wildeblood’s goal for the book was to provide his version of the events which took place which led to his arrest, and to provide an account of his own view about homosexuality. Wildeblood describes in detail the nature of his own homosexuality, which he believed to be normal and natural, and his views about the moral neutrality of same-sex relationships. He makes the case for legal reform eloquently. In so doing, he was one of the very first men publicly to confess his homosexuality in writing, long before the law would be changed in 1967. He did so because, having been convicted for it, there was no longer the threat of harassment and arrest. Everyone already knew who he was. Against the Law was an important book in the progress towards reform. It allowed Wildeblood to force his way into being one of only three homosexual witnesses called to the Wolfenden Committee, whose report of 1957 made recommendations to the government for the legalisation of sexual relationships between men. Helped by the work of countless campaigners over the following decade, that report would be the basis for the change in law which freed homosexuals from what had been, until then, the continual threat of prosecution.
Reviewed by Christopher Stephens, Head of Southlands College.