This is our truth, tell us yours
As an amateur historian, I am accustomed to evaluating sources.
Part of the process of critically appraising sources involves a judgement about the breadth of vision of the individual who tells the tale, and whether they are a reliable narrator.
It’s not about truth. That’s too obscure a concept for historians. It’s about appraising evidence.
One of the problems of biographical sources as evidence for history is that the biographer is telling you about themselves, as well as about history.
One of the problems of observer accounts is that you have to judge, carefully, how much is what was observed, and how much is assumption or conjecture.
Here’s an example. This story in the Mirror today concerns the accusation that Margaret Thatcher covered up allegations against one of her ministers. Bearing in mind that it’s written by a journalist, who you’d expect to use words carefully, consider this paragraph.
The Sunday People reports Tory Prime Minister is said to have held a high-powered meeting with the rising star, who was being tipped for promotion, and told him: “You have to clean up your sexual act.”
It followed an allegation that the minister had sexually abused young boys at the home of one of his political allies in 1982.
Now, note a couple of things. One is that it was only an allegation. To deal with the other let me take you back to 1982 dear reader. It was a good year for me. I could legally have sex with girls, and join the army, and leave home, and get married with my parents permission. But I wouldn’t be legal for sex with another man for another five years, because the age of consent was 21.
I have to confess dear reader, I broke that law, and may even have led older men to break that law with me. The most common accusation against gay men was that they corrupted young men who even though they were old enough to join the army, were still ‘young boys’ when it came to sucking cocks or other delights. It sometimes seemed as if the press was obsessed with the idea that every public toilet was alive with predatory men who would bugger me at the drop of a hat. Even as I was busily reversing that stereotype and buggering any older man I could get my hands on, I was aware that there was a dominant narrative about young gay and bisexual men that we were seduced into being the catamites of older, powerful, corrupting men. And in that dominant narrative I was a young boy, even though I had a salary, and, by the time I was seventeen, a motorbike, a girlfriend and all the trappings of independence.
Now, in terms of that dominant narrative, any man who went cottaging was ‘in search of young boys.’ Except… I went cottaging. I was not in search of young boys – I wanted, not someone like myself, but a older man who would help persuade me that the fairytale I had created, that my first abuser had chosen me because I was so sexy, and because he feared my latent power, was true. Forgive me my foolishness dear reader, but that experience means that when I hear the ‘going to public toilets in search of young boys’ narrative, I look for better corroborating evidence than ‘because that’s what they do’.
As if that dodgy paragraph is not enough reason to have doubts about this story, try this paragraph for size.
Mr Marnoch, who died aged 58 in 1999 soon after his retirement, also intimated to the source that police working in Piccadilly Circus had got a report of the same politician importuning at one of London’s most notorious rent-boy haunts – the “chicken rack”.
The “chicken rack” was a set of metal railings close to Piccadilly underground station which was a vice hotspot in the 1980s.
Boys as young as 13 waited there to be picked up by men for sex – often VIPs such as politicians, TV stars or even policemen.
Scotland Yard was unable to confirm whether the politician had been named in connection with either the “chicken rack” or Victoria Station.
I knew guys who hung out on Piccadilly, and on Leicester Square. I knew guys who hung there because they had jobs that didn’t pay enough, or parents who they despised, or a desire to have a life somewhere other than Tulse Hill or Eltham. Some of them could be bought, and some were just looking for daddy. Lots of them knew that the kind of guy who picked up boys on the street preferred young and innocent to hard-boiled and experienced. The narrative of rent boys (that boy word again) and ‘vice hotspots’ concealed as much as it revealed. I hate argument by anecdote, but let me tell one which will help explain why I doubt this.
When I was eighteen I had several threesomes with a couple in their thirties. He was the office manager of an agency down the street from where I worked; she was a school teacher, and they were both London Lefties of a very nineteen eighties kind. When he had been the office boy, he had hung out around Piccadilly and Leicester Square, and he had met men who had given him introductions to friends and colleagues, and to places where clever young men met and talked business. Like me, he knew boys from those days who would turn a trick for dinner and money; but like me he had a healthy distrust for tabloid narratives about boys for hire and meatracks,because we both knew that we had done some of those things to satisfy other needs than the need for a tenner or a bed for the night. If you wanted to find a chicken hawk all you had to do was go to any gay pub; they were everywhere, and anyone who thought that the meatrack was the answer probably was asking the wrong questions.
One topic of our conversations, as gay and bi men who felt cocky about how we lived (because we hadn’t worked out what AIDS would mean) was the ineptness of so many closeted gay and bi men. They shuffled their feet at the urinals, or asked you if you wanted a coffee, and couldn’t have been more obvious or embarrassed if they’d gone to a funeral in full drag. We even had a theory, as cocksure guys who knew how it worked, that undercover cops liked to take their names and book them in preference to trying to deal with some wannabe tough guy in leather and denim.
So if the police had someone’s name in their books, in the circumstances described, you have to have further and better evidence to prove that he was looking for young boys, beyond the assumptions of the Met Police. That young boy he fucked at a friend’s house might have been a victim of abuse, or an ambitious young guy like me. Hanging out at Piccadilly by the meat rack might just have been evidence that he didn’t know where to go.
The jury may still be out on this one.
A short coda needs to be added. Lots of people are running with this story, about Anthony Gilberthorpe. People might want to read this story and this story about Gilberthorpe before they decide to give too much weight to his evidence.