Audiobook Review: Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd. Audiobook narrated by Will Watt.

I would guess that many of us have listened to an audiobook that we thought we’d absolutely love and instead found ourselves disappointed. Queer City by Peter Ackroyd was such an audiobook for me.

If you’re an American, as I am, you may not realize just how extensive a creative career Peter Ackroyd has had. Ackroyd is a poet, a playwright and an author of fiction and non-fiction. He is a television presenter and radio broadcaster, who has worked as a film critic, a book reviewer and an editor. He’s written several books on London and famous Londoners.

Born in London in 1949, he graduated from Cambridge. He then took a fellowship at Yale University where he met the love of his life, Brian Kuhn. Their long term relationship ended when Kuhn died of AIDS in 1994.  

Given his talents and background, I don’t think anyone is better suited to attempt a history of queer London than Peter Ackroyd. And he’s clearly gathered all the research. The book is full of anecdotes and stories that stretch all the way back to (and a bit before) Roman Londinium. 

The original Celtic inhabitants of the area that is now London, seemed very tolerant regarding gender roles and sexuality. By Victorian times legal strictures against homosexuality reflected the great intolerance of the day. 

Indeed, one of the themes of Ackroyd’s book is that tolerance for queer folk has waxed and waned over time. At some points being gay, or being seen as gay, could ease your entry into the royal court. At other times it could lead to harsh punishments up to and including death.

Unfortunately the source material showing the existence of queer folk in London before modern times is spotty, and mostly found in trial records. This makes it very difficult for anyone, even Ackroyd, to write as comprehensive a gay history of the city as the subtitle of this book promises. So the book focuses more on time periods for which there are records, and less on others. And it presents an overly dark history reflective of the persecution of queer folk on trail. 

It is certainly true that queer London history did contain much desperation and sadness. As increasing legal intolerance for queerness solidified from the 1800s on, blackmail of suspected gay men began to rise. The simple accusation that someone was gay could enable blackmail or force a man to flee the country.

And it is gay men who are the object of most stories in the book. While lesbians get some attention, they remained mostly hidden from official records and thus unavailable to the historian. There are reasons why this might be so - including higher social tolerance for emotions between, and close relationships among women - meaning more ability for lesbians to live on the down low, without legal repercussions. So historical lesbian relations represent a gap in our knowledge that Ackroyd is not really able to shed much light on.

He does dive into the history of cross dressing, which is not surprising given that one of his first non-fiction works is titled Dressing Up: Transvestism and Drag, the History of an Obsession. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time on gender identity -  just a brief discussion in the very last pages of the book, in which he seems both vaguely supportive and somewhat confused about the whole concept.

I listened to the audiobook and had problems with the narration. The narrator has a smooth British accent, but his fey readings of many of the queer historical quotes found in the book didn’t always hit the target. My American ear had a hard time deciding if he was camping it up (realistically, I’m sure that’s what he was going for) or if he was instead being faintly disdainful (which is sometimes what I heard).

So, while I wanted to love this book, I was disappointed. There’s certainly a lot of history here. I did enjoy parts of the book. But it was too spotty and about two thirds of the way through I just wanted it to be finished. Two and a Half Stars ⭐⭐🌠 for me.

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Title: Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Audiobook Publisher: Abrams Books
Publish Date: July 2, 2018
ISBN-13: 9781683354338
Publisher’s List Price: $26.00 (Hardcover as of 04/2022)