‘Strictly speaking, psychometry is the occult power of divining the properties of things by mere contact. I do not recommend it as an alternative to reading but it is an exciting supplement’ Jeanette Winterson
I love books. I love the feeling of a book in your hand, the heft of the pages, the beauty of a cover. Even more I love a first edition, a signed first edition if you please. Why? Does it really bring me closer to the author, knowing that their fingers have pressed ink into this page, their sweat has permeated the absorbent paper, the absorbant paper of their firstborn (well, of this particular title, anyway)? Obviously, in a strict sense the answer is no and yet…
In her excellent book of essays, ‘Art Objects’, Jeanette Winterson writes about her love of books and the signed first edition by way of the psychometry of books, how such books can provide a medium’s contact with the author, a psychic connection which is pure nonsense and yet thrillingly enticing. Having the means, Winterson is able to talk about her Hogarth Press pamphlets, hand set and hand sewn by Virginia Woolf, her sweat, tears and even blood put into those few pasty sheets. With my meagre income, I cannot afford such greats, but my collection continues apace: I prize my Gordon Burns and Zadie Smiths, my Jeanette Wintersons and Ali Smiths, my Tracey Thorns and Sarah Waters, my Andrew O’Hagans and my Shena Mackays and my Douglas Couplands …but despite my deep attachment to these books, amongst others, there are books by one author which would truly benefit from a touch of psychometry: those of the late, great Tony Warren.
To think that a book that I own, having been signed by the man himself, could contain a sliver of DNA of the man who created ‘Coronation Street‘ (the world’s longest running television soap opera) and in doing so revolutionised British television. Before ‘Coronation Street’, British television was a mealy-mouthed place, chock-a-block full of middle class accents with scarcely a dropped vowel or mispronounced consonant. ‘Coronation Street’ brought the brash and proud working class to the screen – and to add insult to injury, they dared to be northern.
It’s hard to imagine the shock and recognition this 25 minute black and white programme – set in a street with a pub at one end and a shop at the other, separated by 7 tiny houses and some cobbles – must have had on audiences, but it worked and it was a hit and it is still with us, 56 years later.
With his creation, Warren created a template for other soaps to follow: the matriarch; the tart with the heart; the snob who needs to be brought down a peg or two; the bright kid who yearns for something more, embarrassed by his roots. These were people he knew, growing up in Salford and these were people easily recognised by the working classes up and down the land.
‘I’m Mrs Sharples. I’m a neighbour, I’m a wider-woman. Caretaker o’ the Glad Tidin’s Mission ‘all. What’s your place of workship…hmm. I see, nothing in particular… C of E. Where you bein’ buried? Whatever you do don’t go to that Crematorium down at the bottom. As the coffin rolls away they play ‘Moonlight and Roses’. I spoke to the Superintendant personally. ‘E said: ‘That’s not ‘Moonlight and Roses’ that’s Andantina.’ I just took one look at ‘I’m and said back: ‘Andantina’ or no ‘Andantina’ I’m rollin’ away to the tune of ‘Crimond’. Are them fancies fresh? I’ll ‘ave a dozen an’ no eclairs… NO eclairs’ Coronation Street, episode 1, 1 December 1960
But why Tony Warren? What makes him so interesting that I’d want to exhume his metaphorical body? Well, apart from the freemasonry of rules which he set up when he created ‘Coronation Street’ he also lived the life of a gay man before and after the legalisation of homosexuality…and this makes him intriguing in that the life he led opens up an underworld often lost on mainstream historians – the pubs, clubs, theatres and secret rooms when homosexuality thrived – and a network of gay and lesbian people, famous gay and lesbian people who occupy a fascinating corner of British culture. What Warren also has in his legacy, his television and especially his novels in which this life – these lives – merges into a fantastic soapdish of history.
So, where to begin?
‘On one occasion I sat there and listened and listened until I got to my feet and said, ‘I have sat here and listened to three poof jokes, an actor described as a poof, a storyline described as too poofy, and I would just like to remind you that without a poof, none of you would be in work!’
As this anecdote from the ‘Coronation Street’ set – recounted in Warren’s 1969 memoir, ‘I was Ena Sharples’ Father’ – showed, Tony Warren took no prisoners when it came to his sexuality. You could say that this, perhaps, came with his position – the writer of a smash hit television series who wasn’t (yet) a public face. Power without fame. Unlike one of his close friends, Nancy Spain.
‘The only time the generation gap showed…was on the subject of sexuality and my absolute refusal to wrap any veil of mystery around what I was…I think she found me much too much out of the closet. She never actually told me not to, but sometimes I could almost feel disapproval when I was so open about it. But there she was, in full drag, as it were, still being hugely closeted.’ Tony Warren, quoted in ‘A Trouser Wearing Character’ by Rose Collis
Nancy Spain was, until the time of her death in a plane crash in 1964, a huge personality in Britain. She was the great-niece of Mrs. Beeton. She wrote deliciously camp crime novels (‘Poison for Teacher’, ‘Death Goes on Skis’; ‘Cinderella Goes to the Morgue’), had popular columns in newspapers and was a frequent guest on many radio and television programmes. So popular was she that she had three volumes of autobiography published before her untimely death. But what her adoring fans may not have known was that she was a lesbian with a long-term relationship and family with Joan (‘Jonnie’) Werner Laurie, the editor of popular women’s magazine ‘She’.
‘We both said we thought sex was wonderful – and she said no one could accuse her of any activity with any woman in England. And yet, oddly enough, not long afterwards she arrived in a very rosy and giggly state, claiming to have been seized in a bathroom by a very famous American star of, let us say, irretrievable heterosexual reputation.’ Tony Warren
Spain was had numerous other homosexual friends, including Noel Coward and Gilbert Harding, her co-star in the smash hit quiz ‘What’s My Line?’, and once described as ‘the first household name of the television age’ (Independent 090193 Brian Masters) as well as ‘the rudest man on television’. Homosexual, Harding was incredibly popular, making regular appearances both on television on in films, but he always had the nagging doubt that this work was beneath him and his Cambridge education. The fact of his homosexuality was, like Spain’s, hidden from his audience. Naturally, so was his inability to come to terms with it. Roger Storey, Harding’s secretary from 1953 – 1960 once described Harding as being ‘about as good at being a homosexual as he was at being a Catholic.’
‘No one can have been blessed with a wider circle of friends than me, yet I am all too aware that I am essentially a lonely man… I find no pleasure in consorting with myself…I hate to have companionship thrust upon me.’ Gilbert Harding
But Spain never let her sexuality either define or limit her. In fact, in many ways she revelled in it and broadcast it whether deliberate or not. As Tony commented, Spain could be said to prefer being in ‘drag’, preferring jumpers and trousers to more feminine attire:
I suspect the British public deliberately chose to ‘turn a blind eye’. Her writing was hardly timid, either. Take, for example, the second volume of autobiography – ‘Why I’m not a Millionaire’, in which she wrote of her beloved Jonnie:
‘I cannot write lightly of her, for she saved my life. By her example and her faith in me she has taught me things I could never have learned in books. Her faith in the fact that I am doing my best is worth a hundred paragraphs of praise from other people. My pen dries and my heart spills over and cannot express itself when I think of everything that Jonnie and Nicky have done for me.’
Her fiction was also awash with queer goings-on. In ‘Poison for Teacher’, in which the headmistress of girl’s school ‘Radcliffe Hall’ (!), Miss Lipscoomb, has an attempt made on her life. Believing the culprit hides in the rival school set up by Lipscoomb’s former partner, Miss bbirch. At the school we find the school prefects having crushes on the chemistry mistress, Gwylan Fork-Thomas who, in turn has a ‘forbidden friendship’ with the classics mistress, Miss Puke. Meanwhile Miss Lesarum, the maths mistress has a fondness for wearing men’s clothes and is described as being ‘queer as a coot’. And this almost coded style worked. Tony Warren remembers coming across the very same novel as a schoolboy:
‘I was much intrigued by the photograph on the back – the Angus McBean shot of a woman lying on a piece of corrected copy. So I started to pick my way through it and I was absolutely riveted. I thought ‘this woman is inside my head, she’s saying things I’ve half thought’. It had an extraordinary effect.’
In fact, like Spain before him, Warren smuggled signs to his fellow queers into his early scripts: “The gay village is not new. I’d known all these queens in the village. Some of them were sensational. I remember giving Elsie lines they would say. When you think of some of the things she came out with, how many straight women have you heard say that?”
Of course, being queer was a dangerous business. Nancy had myriad famous women friends, Hermione Gingold, for example, but if she ever got too close, such as with the writer Elizabeth Bowen, then friendships could just as easily be rescinded. Elizabeth Bowen had attracted the passions of other writers in her time – May Sarton and Carson McCullers being two examples – and while details are unconfirmed, it appears that Bowen terminated her friendship with Spain after some sort of advance was made.
While lesbianism may have been frowned upon, it was never illegal, unlike male homosexuality. Angus McBean, who took the photo of Spain which so appealed to Tony Warren, came a cropper of the law in 1941. McBean had befriended a young man who had recently run away from home with his girlfriend, inviting the homeless lad to stay at his house, despite friend’s fears that the police had his residence under surveillance. Under the pretext of searching for another missing young man, the police took McBean in for questioning and accused him of running a ‘homosexual ring’ from his house. They charged him with three counts of buggery and gross indecency with two men. Eventually he would recieve four years hard labour for one charge buggery and 12 months for indecency to run concurrently (McBean pleaded guilty to these lesser charges, hoping for leniency. This was not to be, Mcbean himself noting he got ‘twice as long as Oscar Wilde’ ). While many friends ran scared and left him to rot in jail some, such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Coral Browne remained loyal.
In 1981 the force of the law came closer to the Street’s cobbles when Peter Dudley, who played who played long suffering Bert Tilsley in ‘Coronation Street’ was arrested by the police in a Manchester public toilet. The Times wrote: “Peter Dudley… was fined £200 at Manchester City Magistrates’ Court yesterday when he admitted importuning for an immoral purpose in a public lavatory”
Tony Warren knew of all these risks. His birth, in 1936, coincided with one of the most notorious cases of the law versus homosexuality, and took place just down the road from his birthplace, in Altrincham. Twenty-nine men were brought before the courts. It is alleged that the ‘gang’ (as claimed by the judge) had met in cafes and bars in Manchester. The men ranged from 17 to 59, with the youngest “who was unable to work for several months did not make a complaint to anybody, but his employer dragged the truth out of him. As a result the prosecution spread, one prisoner incriminating another.” What the charges actually related to are vague, with most press accounts referring to the men as committing ’improper conduct’. However, the prosecution said he “did not suppose that in the criminal history of the country had a batch of prisoners been brought before a court on such serious charges – certain of the charges were about the most serious which could be brought against any man. It was something just less than murder.”, by which I think we can presume the charges were sodomy or attempted sodomy.
It was reported that while the defendants were, naturally, dejected on the first day, the words of their defence drew from them a spontaneous round of applause : “However much you admire the Cheshire police, it is impossible for your worships to believe that one after another these men, against whom the police had no evidence, immediately volunteered statements which convicted themselves.”, which gay activist Allan Horsfall sees as an ‘and previously unheard of demonstration of gay solidarity in adversity’ (which) must have come as a profound shock to the prosecution.’
Evidence produced by the prosecution included letters and photographs, powder, lipstick, greasepaint; evidence of presents – slippers, flowers, chocolates. Hotel registers were produced to demonstrate who had stayed with whom and where and when. It was even dragged up that one of them had been known as ‘The Queen Mother’.
A handful were acquitted and a few were treated leniently, including one whose employer asked that if any treatment could be found for his workman as an alternative to imprisonment he would be willing to meet the full cost of it, including accommodation. However, others received jail sentences of two, three and four years with one man sentenced to seven years penal servitude with eighteen months hard labour.
The scandal of ‘The Altrincham Case’ haunted the town for many years. Indeed, prominent gay rights activist Allan Horsfall remembers that, long after the scandal was over, even into the 1970s, with people warned: If you should drop a half-crown in Altrincham, don’t ever try to pick it up.”
In 2007 Tony admitted that for a good number of his early years he ‘never went past Strangeways jail without thinking, `Is that where I’m going to end up?‘. But like many others he carried on regardless, visiting the network of pubs and clubs which grew up for people just like him and having relationships with men, including Ernst Walder who played Ivan Cheveski, Elsie Tanner’s son-in-law in the early days of ‘Coronation Street’.
The law couldn’t stop love, and it couldn’t support networks which developed between rich and poor alike. These networks needed places to meet and in a future article I’ll write on some of the places which Tony Warren himself frequented and so atmospherically described in his books…
- ‘Art Objects’ – Jeanette Winterson
- ‘I was Ena Sharples’ Father’ – Tony Warren
- ‘Behind Closed Doors’ – Tony Warren
- ‘A Trouser Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain’ – Rose Collis
- ‘Poison for Teacher’ – Nancy Spain
- ‘Facemaker’ (The biography of Angus McBean) – Adrian Woodhouse