Monthly Archives: May 2013

VICTORIAN AMBIVALENCE – Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna

                        jacqueline george tag small                                                                             

 My friend Jacqueline brought this newly published book to my attention. In Victorian Britain appearances deceive and double standards are the order of the day.


 Hidden in the pages of a very serious magazine called History Today, I found a review of a book called Fanny and Stella. The story looked irresistible, so I persuaded the author Neil McKenna to come along for a chat about it. First let me tease you with one of the opening paragraphs :
Miss Stella Boulton was seemingly the younger of the pair and was resplendent in a brilliant scarlet silk evening dress trimmed with white lace and a white muslin shawl. Miss Stella Boulton was more than just pretty. In the glittering, flattering, faceted lights of the Strand’s Saloon bar she was quite beautiful. She was tall and slender, with a narrow waist and a magnificent bosom, her finely shaped head topped by raven hair fashionably dressed in the Grecian style with coils of plaited hair held in place by a crosshatch of black velvet. Her pale face was captivating with large liquid violet-blue eyes, just a becoming blush to her cheeks, perfect full ruby lips and pearly white teeth. She seemed to scintillate and shine like a star and the men could hardly take their eyes off her. If she was indeed a whore, she was an exceptional whore. A veritable queen among whores.

J. Mmh – I’m getting interested, and the subtitle is even more intriguing. What was going on?

Neil.  Fanny and Stella are, in fact, young men dressed as women and they are just about to be arrested by Inspector Thompson of the Metropolitan Police. Their arrest and trial became a Victorian sensation and eventually they were the defendants in a State Trial in Westminster Hall. My book is the remarkable and true story of Fanny and Stella. Some people have said that my book reads like fiction, but it just goes to show that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

J. I couldn’t believe the story was true. I mean, I’d always thought of the Victorians as very proper. The idea of two well brought up young men cross-dressing in public, that doesn’t seem to fit. And the way you tell it, they did not stop at clothes but were what we would call gay today. What was the gay scene like in Victoria’s England?


Neil. Fanny and Stella loved having sex with men – Stella lived with Lord Arthur Clinton, MP as man and wife, and Fanny contracted anal syphilis from one of her many amours. Before – and even during – her ‘marriage’ to Lord Arthur, Stella was twice arrested for prostitution in London’s Haymarket. Sex between men was rife in Victorian England. Scratch the surface and there it was for all to see. If you read the newspapers of the time, they are filled with reports of ‘unnatural offences’ and ‘uncleanness’ between men. It was all hugely illegal, of course. The death penalty for sodomy was only abolished in 1862.

J.   I guess today’s gays have it easy in comparison. No one is going to get executed for having a boy-friend today. At least, not officially. There seems to have been an acceptance of very close friendships between educated men, but friendships with no sexual component. Actually, even the sex was probably acceptable as long as no-one knew about it. Would you say that Fanny and Stella’s main offence was to have flaunted their sexuality so publicly?

Neil. Some gays do have it easy, but lots of today’s gays still have a terrible time. I wouldn’t want to be gay in Uganda, for example. Yes, Fanny and Stella’s crime was to flaunt themselves, a heinous sin in British society. But there was something else going on. Fanny and Stella were not just men who had sex with other men. They had an identity. They identified themselves as sodomites, as drag queens, they spoke a special language and had a friendship network with others like themselves. I think this nascent gay, camp identity was their worst crime. That and their effeminacy, which terrified those who wanted a muscular, masculine nation of young men who would go out and build an empire. Their State Trial in Westminster Hall was not so much a trial of Fanny and Stella as individuals but a trial of what they stood for, of their lifestyle and of their collective sexual identity.

J. Well, thank you, Neil. You’ve got my congratulations on a really absorbing book. I had never thought of homosexuality in a Victorian context, and you have painted a rich portrait of the gay life in those times.

We have not even mentioned the details of the arrest, ‘investigation’ and trial with all the might and pageantry of British justice arrayed against two young men who liked to party. That story would make a wonderful film!

The trial failed, so let me add a quotation from Winston Churchill who was himself a product of Victorian England :

“It is impossible to obtain a conviction for sodomy from an English jury. Half of them don’t believe that it can physically be done, and the other half are doing it.”

Thank goodness times have changed, and the hypocrisy and ignorance are disappearing. At least today a young man can wear whatever he likes on the streets of London without risking arrest and persecution.

Dickens must be revolving in his grave. Not to mention Victoria!  I’d like to thank Jacqueline and Neil McKenna for this interview. Cheers to both of you from the management!   dch



Filed under Fiction and Other Truths, Gender Questions, Great Britain, Politics


Workshop in Wiesbaden, 26 April 2013

Yesterday marked the 80th anniversary of the Nazi book burnings that started on May 10, 1933 and demonstrated Hitler’s determination to destroy any form of expression that did not conform to his world view. The workshop I attended was aimed at thinking about how to sufficiantly commemorate this tragedy, but it developed into a much broader discussion.

From afar I have been tracking the activities in Wiesbaden for years. Voraciously I’ve read the newspaper articles covering the organized events commemorating the local persecution of the Jews during Hitler’s Third Reich, their humiliation, their banning from professional and civic life, then their eventual deportation to be murdered in concentration camps in the east.

Most of these acts of remembrance have been – and continue to be – planned in conjunction with Wiesbaden’s Aktives Museum Spiegelgasse für Deutsch-Jüdische Geschichte in Wiesbaden ( (Active Museum Spiegelgasse for German-Jewish History).

This museum does not consider itself just a Jewish museum. Located in one of the city’s most ancient buildings that is situated in the historic center of Jewish life, this museum is not a static place for visitors to passively take in exhibitions, but a smaller space offering changing exhibitions (also often at other venues), archives and a library for research.  And it is, as its name states, very active, creating an interface between the communities and organizations that make up Wiesbaden. It functions as an integrating force between varied religious confessions and between the young and old.

One of the museum’s major – and most visible – projects: is the ceremonial laying of Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), bronze paving stones set in the pavement in front of the houses where deported Jews once lived.


The service held on 4 September 2011 at the cattle ramp aside Wiesbaden’s main train station from where the Jews had to report for deportation. A candle was lit for each of the 1500 deportees. A visiting Israeli said the Kaddish.

As a recipient of the museum’s newsletter, I have kept an eye on their activities without participating. Although my interest in all things involving German-Jewish history is evident in the novel I wrote (The Peace Bridge), I’ve always found many excuses for remaining an observer, not the least of which is that I live a half hour away from Wiesbaden. A pathetic excuse.

When I received an invitation via the Active Museum to a workshop on the culture of remembrance (co-sponsored by six different Wiesbaden organizations), I decided to end my passivity and sign up. On a rainy Friday afternoon a diverse group of seventeen (age span ca. 18 – 70) gathered to talk about how the horrendous events that occurred during the Nazi regime can/should be commemorated. The main focus was on the upcoming eightieth anniversary of the book burnings which began under Hitler on 10 May 1933 (just three months after he came to power).

Could there be a greater symbol of the attempt to ban free thought from the world than the burning of books?

What kind of a commemorative event could sufficiently relate the significance of this act to the internet generation coming of age in the 21st century? Can they even imagine the possibility of losing the right to free expression and publication?

However, the focus of the workshop shifted very quickly to a re-think of the act of commemoration in general. How can it be carried out without it becoming an empty ritual? How can the youth of today be included in remembering historical events that they either don’t know or care about, or would perhaps rather forget? And how do we build a bridge from that past to make it relevant to the present? The afternoon ended with a lot of open questions.

One could denounce such workshops as “debating societies” with little practical use. But as my years of observing the Wiesbaden scene has shown me, there are a lot of people in the sponsoring organizations (including the Active Museum) who go to great lengths to find the ways and means of remembering an infamous past so that it might never happen again. My hat off to them!

We never did get around to talking about the forgetting part of the workshop title. I’ve concluded it isn’t an option.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana


Filed under German History, Holocaust, Politics, Traditions



Almost partly inhabitable – the house that is Italy?

Today I am very pleased to welcome Nic Mudie as a guest blogger. Nic has been living in Italy since the mid-nineties and is a keen follower of local and national politics as well as the Italian economy – and has a slight bent towards satire. So I was very interested in hearing – and sharing – his take on what the hell is going on in the country. This morning’s paper has reported that Berlusconi is on the verge of withdrawing his support of the government if Enrico Letta doesn’t revoke the property tax post haste. Thus I must get this report out to my readers before it becomes redundant! For the benefit of the uninitiated (including myself), I have added “translations” of some of Nic’s nick-names in parentheses. Let’s give Nic the floor!

Ok, where have we got to in the land of the lotus beaters – i.e.  makers of Ferraris?

Beppe Grillo (head of the Five Star Movement protest party that collected 25% of vote in election) had to be told, and he was, by me in Italian and English, that he was behaving like a dickhead and that even the soporific self-serving Italian electorate would recognise a poltroon when they saw one.

Consequently, he is losing weight in the polls and, this least Plautian, if not least  plausible, of comics  is allowing Burly Boy (Silvio Berlusconi) somewhere near the levers of power. The latter  is getting his garden gnome (Renato Brunetta) to push hard for his chairmanship of a commission that is  about to be set up to re-think a constitution that should have been consigned to the bin years ago. (Try this last remark on anyone in the nation that had Seneca but eschewed democracy for lunacy and you’d think you’d put cigarette ash in the butter).

Grillo won’t give anyone a vote of confidence – which we all know is only the ref’s whistle at kick off. This self-imposed principle is, as a matter of history, not worth a light – but mountebanks of his ilk are not those to let the effing facts destroy a good argument.

So, I will. Since 1945 Italy has had  65 governments – one lasted 9 days, two eleven and two the eternity that is twelve – so we can conclude that votes of confidence  in ‘das Land wo die Zitronen blumen’ (the country where lemons bloom) obviously carry the commitment of Don Giovanni on Viagra.

The electoral law that allowed the broad left with 25.9% of the vote (Burly’s + Burlesques took 25.4% but Grillo on his own 25%) to take 55% of the seats in the lower house has resulted in a government headed by a youngish left-leaning ex-Christian democrat (Letta)  looking for support from Burly and the rest. The main bone of contention at the moment is Burly’s promise to withdraw the property tax and Letta is tempted.

However, yet again, the facts are of no importance. The average family pays 140 Euros p.a. (somewhat less than two fill-ups of a nano-Fiat), but this brings in some 1.5 billion p.a. that’s going to go missing in a moment. Meanwhile, what we would call unemployment pay is running out and is likely to start costing the Italian government about 2 billion p.a. extra in about 4 nanoseconds.

This explains Letta’s precipitous visit to the Teutonic sphere – no, I don’t mean Auntie Angie (Angela Merkel), (t’was purely a dislocation of the digit squire, honest) followed by a mea culpa to two monuments to incompetence – one Roll out the Barrel (no idea….), whom I wouldn’t put in charge of a drunken orgy in the Douro – let alone a Portuguese Parish council, and Olli Reindeer (Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs) who, despite all evidence to the contrary, still thinks he ‘s a postilion to Father Christmas. These two luminaries have agreed to let Italy out of the Brussels’ observation room because it showed a primary surplus (more tax in than government spending out BEFORE interest payment on government debt) for two years running. Well done lads! Your reputation for ineffectiveness remains unsullied.

A) The observation room disgrace means not a light, as France and Germany were the first to break the Maastricht rules (3% annual deficit 60% total government debt as  %age of GDP) and remained unpunished, and…

B) Italy’s GDP is dropping like stone so the ratios get worse even with no extra spending and, remember, real interest rates are historically ridiculously low.

When the Japanese insurance companies inter alia stop buying European bonds and the European banks are completely stuffed, interest rates will go up and Italy will have to default. Government debt this year will be about 132%, to which you can add about half again in unpaid bills to suppliers.

I didn’t mention Rumpy Pumpy (Herman van Rompuy, EU Council President) because he’s not worth mentioning. As the Euro high priest he’s perfectly placed to dismiss science as not worth believing in when you’ve got religion.


Filed under Beginnings, Endings, Italy, Politics

GUNS R US – Just for the Kiddies!

A five-year-old boy shoots his two-year-old sister.

Words fail me, but I will try anyway to express my disgust with a mentality that considers guns and rifles suitable gifts for children. They aren’t even suitable gifts for ADULTS!

This news item does not represent an isolated case either. In light of this occurrence, several other similar instances were highlighted where small tikes, who should be playing with dolls or cars, have gotten a hold of weapons that are just lying around and manage to kill someone with it.


Our newspaper today brought up another absurdity which I already wrote about in a December 2012 post: German chocolate “surprise eggs” (a chocolate shell containing a plastic egg inside with a little toy to assemble) are banned in the USA because a child might not recognize that the plastic part and toy are not edible. They could choke on it.  Okay, maybe that is some kind of argument.

BUT: guns and rifles in pink and blue, BIG ENOUGH NOT TO CHOKE ON – specially made for the children’s market segment — well, they are just fine. Let’s sell ’em – advertise them on Saturday mornings when the kids are watching cartoons — or let’s face it, they are watching TV ALL the time these days! Mom and Dad are off doing…..whatever….just not doing any parenting.

I’m sorry, but the whole time I’m writing, I’m just shaking my head in despair. Does a society get….the kind of society it deserves? They certainly get the government they voted for: see my post linking to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show on GUN CONTROL!

Forgive all my BOLDness here. But I’m mad!


Filed under Endings, Fiction and Other Truths, Gun Control, Parenting, Politics