I owe the idea for two of the operas in this series to old friends. Andrew Lumsden gave me the idea for ‘Fishing’ when he told me the story that he’d been told by a friend of how the friend met Lord Alfred Douglas in the 1930s.
Eric Thompson, the partner of Anthony Grey, told me this one.
In the early 1960s Anthony had recently become the secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the campaigning body set up persuade Parliament to implement the Wolfenden Report and decriminalise sex between men.
They had recently moved into a flat in West Hampstead; their good friend Esme Langley, the founder of the lesbian magazine Arena 3 and of the women’s Minority Research Group, lived down the road, along with several other homosexuals, singly or in pairs. As a result, among themselves, they called the road ‘Queer Street’.
One evening there was a terrific noise in the street. Eric and Anthony rushed to the window, to see that a car had wrapped itself round a lamp post. People were already rushing to help. However, their first thought was ‐ ‘Police!’ They’d be on the scene to investigate the crash in no time; maybe they’d go house to house to question possible witnesses as to what had happened. If they did, how would they react to two men who not only shared a flat, but also, quite obviously, a bed.
If this seems like over‐reactive paranoia, the journal of the HLRS was full of cases in which groups of men had been prosecuted for consensual activity in private ‐ eleven in Lancashire, ten in Swansea ‐ with fines or up to two years in prison in consequence, not forgetting the newspaper publicity.
For the next ten minutes they raced against time to distribute clothing and bedding between their room and the spare room, to create the illusion that they were ‘only’ flatmates. They could quite easily have been arrested, maybe even imprisoned, if the police thought otherwise, which would scupper Anthony’s law reform work and stymie the career of Eric, a high-flying civil servant.
Some of those cases, dredged up by following up contacts in people’s address books, went back over ten years. This was the reality of those dark days, deep fear and panic. And yet the spectacle of moving clothes and bedclothes around the flat also had elements of a Feydeau farce.
I decided there would be enough pain and fear in this cycle, and there was a need to lighten the tone occasionally. So, I took the story down the farcical route, with an undertow of that grim reality. I moved Esme Langley down the road and into the flat upstairs and added a couple of plot twists.
Anthony Grey was a pseudonym. He avoided using his real name Edgar Wright in public, to avoid causing his parents embarrassment or pain by association with the cause of homosexual rights. This was a benevolent hypocrisy of which he was conscious.
In all these operas I have imagined a traditional operatic composer as providing the kind of musical 'ambience' of the piece. Often, I have kept that thought to myself, because Robert is very much his own man as a composer, but it has helped me to find the shape of the words. Here we were very much in the comic opera world of Rossini or Donizetti. As a result, the libretto is more intricate, heavily rhymed and going very fast.
Robert has more than kept up the pace. On paper this is one of the longest of these little pieces, but in practice it comes out well within the space of a one‐actor.
Read the Score and listen to the Music
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