On Saturday 30th June London's gay pride went ahead, despite a terrorist alert the day before and some very wet weather. Dave and I joined in the parade, which started at one end of Oxford Street and finished with a festival in Trafalgar Square. Celebrations were also held in Leicester Square, Soho Gardens and gay pubs and clubs in the capital. The increased security didn't appear to affect the mood of the day, but it was a shame that it was raining.
Earlier this year patrons and stallholders at the London Alternative Market raised over £2000 for the Spanner Trust in a single day. I was one of the volunteers running the coat-check, where I met Eric, a veteran of the straight fetish scene. Eric was of full fascinating stories about life in London from the 1940s to the 1960s. I asked him if he'd be willing to take part in an interview for the Leather Archives and Museum Oral History Project. A few weeks later he sent me an 8,100 word essay of his reminiscences, which has been forwarded to the LA&M along with a signed donor form. Here are edited highlights:
You see, rubber occupied a strange place in society. It was perfectly acceptable as the standard material for waterproofs of all kinds, professional and domestic. A respectable woman could wear an SBR mac quite normally and be praised for choosing a sensible garment against the rain. So could schoolchildren. No problem there. The military used rubber almost exclusively for waterproofing everything, from equipment to personnel.
Yet there was a strong undercurrent of awareness that rubber had strange properties. Used in standard clothing - perfectly respectable. But shift it to catsuits or dresses and Bang! You're perverted! People knew or felt this without ever mentioning it openly. Shops like the long gone George West advertised their rainwear with large pictures of ladies in every kind of shiny black rubber macs and boots, with everyone knowing that these ads were hugely attractive to men (always men: women could never be thought of as pervs), yet wearing rubber in the wrong style or the wrong place could and did lead to prosecutions and jail.
There's some misunderstanding over this. The prosecutions were never aimed openly at fetishism, only at the offence given to "decent" people. So it was OK for rubber to be worn by respectable ladies, motor cyclists and fishermen, no matter if it meant layers of the stuff wrapped over the whole body. And ladies buttoned and strapped tightly into rubber trench coats, sou'westers and rubber boots, no problem, because the rubber was simply the standard way of warding off bad weather. But rubber worn as a sexual stimulant - no, no, no, throw them in jail!
A lady friend of mine sported a complete rubber outfit: coat, trousers, wellies and gloves. In that gear she strolled around and sure enough was accosted by a policeman who suspected her of being a prostitute. Why? Because it wasn't raining. Same with two girls who walked around Piccadilly Circus in rubber catsuits: stopped by police, taken into custody, questioned, and then released with a police warning. The funny thing about that episode was that the arresting officers sought to hide the offending gear by throwing their shiny black oilskin capes over the girls, much, we were told, to the girls' delight.
The way to avoid police interference was to take up a rubber-friendly activity. Nowadays it's surfing, when you can stroll around the right kind of seaside town in a wetsuit without being arrested. Not in those days: we had a choice of motorcycling or fishing. Motorcyclists were well served by the firm Belstaff which produced massive stormcoats, overtrousers and headgear, all in thick-coated shiny black rubber. Waders were the footwear of choice for motorcyclists. It meant that wretched pervs had to stagger around shopping streets steaming in all that gear but safe from arrest provided they had a motorbike nearby. Fishing was ideal, for one could mack up to any degree, however extravagant, and sit out all night in the rain.
Saturday 30 June - A pup in full rubber we met on the gay pride parade.
Bondage games were completely impossible in public and dangerous in private, where any suggestion of putting the wrong girl in bondage led to imprisonment for rape and a complete shattering of one's career and family life. The only people who got away with public bondage were professional escapologists ("escape artists"). One such had a pitch in Charing Cross Road just behind the National Portrait Gallery where he indulged daily in chains, sacks, occasionally rope, and delighted thousands of onlookers, not to mention himself. The patch of pavement is still there, and every time I pass it I think back to his happy writhings and wrigglings and I still kick myself for not having the courage to set up my own little act with an obliging bondage partner. In theatres, in the good old days of music halls, escapologists were fairly common, but few were women and even those hardly went beyond simple handcuffs and never, never did anything to endanger their hairstyle. True bondage as we know it never had a chance of being practised properly or even discussed, and the idea of the modern open bondage/ BDSM club was completely inadmissible.
Yet, oddly enough, in the 40s and 50s fetishism and bondage were on display in many "respectable" ways. Towards the end of the second World War women were playing major roles in military duties. I remember vividly a huge photo in a daily paper of a regiment of women dressed against gas attack. They wore the usual gasmasks, but with complete suits of rubber or oilskin, belted and buttoned up to the neck. And over all this they had huge hooded rubber capes which zipped shut underneath them so they sat on the ground, locked into these rubber bags, no armholes, masked, breath-controlled and obviously quite happy. Also in the 50s we in the UK saw still pictures and occasionally films of Americans sporting shiny rubber catsuits as they swam, surfed and dived: I think it was the American firm Scuba Totes which did the honours. A short-lived UK firm took up this market and produced a marvellous two-piece moulded rubber Dip Suit complete with feet, hood and tight cummerbund. No zips, loose-fitting, and made from pure shiny black rubber. The manufacturer demonstrated this rig at a Boat Show by shoehorning his teenage daughter into the suit, tying her wrists and ankles, standing her on a high diving board and pushing her into the drink: whereupon the suit ballooned her to the surface, showing us how safe it was and exactly how we could introduce our girl friends to the world of rubber bondage.
More often, one heard of uneasy prosecutions of men, always men, who had played some kind of fetish/ bondage game with a girl, only to be discovered and prosecuted, usually for rape, even without any kind of sexual act. The girl was always assumed to be innocent, always, while the man took the full blame, even though the girl insisted in court that she was a willing partner, not a victim. The law assumed that the woman had been seduced by an evil man and had become so love-struck that he could make her say anything he desired. So her evidence would never work in mitigation. We heard only the prosecution case which had phrases like "interfered with her clothing" "touched her" "dressed her in items of clothing" (rubber of course).
The effect of these prosecutions was that the girl walked away free, her reputation (almost) unsullied, while the man took the full force of a charge of hideously deviant rape. The completely respectable jury would be given hopelessly strong hints of the worst forms of sexual deviance (you see? If you like bondage you must be a rapist/ murderer/ paedophile etc) and the poor man would get a stiff prison sentence, have his career destroyed, be abandoned by friends and family and be outcast from society.
Saturday 30th June - Inspirational human rights activist Peter Tatchell was also on the parade.
So, yes, things are better now. The huge improvement in all aspects of BDSM is that it can now be a group activity performed with so many people around that safety is more or less assured. Useful classes in bondage emphasise these points, and even the most innocent maiden can now accept a visit to a fetish/ BDSM club knowing that she'll be reasonably safe, at least compared with the private games of past times. Yes, modern club life has much to recommend it. But I wonder if others feel as I do, that the increasing availability of fetish/ bondage facilities has led to a curious lack of cohesion in the BDSM community? Clubbers don't seem to realise the fragility of the current reasonably liberal system: it's difficult to arouse any interest in campaigning, however quietly, against a return to the days of prosecutions and bans.
By now you've gathered that I'm getting on in years. Let me have a good old grump at something you youngsters clearly haven't noticed. It is the huge increase of government intrusion into citizens' private lives. In the 1930s there was almost no such intrusion, what there was could be somehow justified but was still regarded as dangerously officious. But since then we've had reams of legislation eroding our right to privacy. I'm not going to quote lengthy examples: it would take too much room, but just think to yourself how many once-private activities are governed by laws.
I can't help thinking that a Government like the present (April 2007) is again using sly methods of suppressing anything which doesn't conform to a bland code of boringly staid behaviour. It's the old attitude that if you don't understand something you ban it. They don't understand why some people love bondage, fetishism, BDSM, so they ban everything in that field, not directly, because we can argue a good case against any such ban, but stealthily in the manner which has become so well known over the past ten years.
That's why I think we have gone through our golden years and why we might be approaching a period of old-style restrictions on our pleasures. Our fate lies in our hands. We must find careful and responsible ways of counteracting the negative images so frequently shown on TV. We need to tell the truth and force the public to see why we feel the way we do about the rich, complex activities we group, rather unfairly, in those four letters BDSM."
Since this essay was written the UK Government has published the first draft of it's new Criminal Justice Bill. The bill proposes legislation to "criminalize possession of extreme pornography", which could include images of consensual SM scenes. To learn more about the campaign against these proposals please go to the BACKLASH website at www.backlash-uk.org.uk
Have fun, look after yourselves and the people you play with.
International Mr Leather 2003