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1982 : After Sefton

Librettist’s Introduction

1981-82 was a busy year for the IRA, and a bloody year for Londoners. In October '81, Chelsea Barracks was bombed, killing two and injuring thirty-nine.

Car after bomb

It was closely followed by a car bomb in Dulwich and one in a Wimpey Bar in Oxford Street, which killed the man trying to defuse it. A month later there was one at the barracks in Woolwich.

Regents Park

All these paled before the events of 20 July 1982, when two bombs exploded within two hours of each other. First at Hyde Park Barracks, in a column going off to the Trooping of the Colour, and second in Regents Park, under the bandstand. The first was remarkable for the carnage among the horses of the Blues and Royals. Three soldiers were killed, and seven horses. One horse, Sefton, struggled for life dramatically under the blaze of tabloid spotlights. In Regents Park, two hours later, six bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets were killed outright and twenty-four injured, one fatally, along with a dozen or so concert spectators.


What was remarkable at the time was the intense focus on the fate of the horses, especially Sefton, which elbowed out more human concerns about the wounded and dead. As the libretto says, we are a nation of animal-lovers, not soldier-lovers. There are monuments to the dead at both Regents Park and Hyde Park; but if you search 'IRA bombings' on the internet, the overwhelming majority of pictures are not of people, but of Sefton and the horses.

Sefton with rider

Sefton had an extraordinary medical ordeal. He had a severed jugular vein, an eye out, and thirty-four wounds from the four-inch nails that ripped through him. Eight hours of surgery followed - there had never been such complex operations on a horse. Cards and gifts and donations of over £600,000 flowed in, which were enough for a new surgical wing at the Royal Veterinary College. Numerous TV appearances followed, and a Horse of the Year award.

We know little about the individual soldiers who died, and the reaction of their families and friends. However, it is a statistical probability that one of them was gay. I have always resisted the 'heterosexualisation' of national calamity.

It was well known among the gay community that one of those who went to the aid of other passengers at the Kings Cross disaster in 1987, a hospital nurse called, if I remember rightly, Paul, was gay. He was a hero, and he was airbrushed. Similarly, when the Marchioness was hit and capsized in the Thames, none of the coverage mentioned the sexuality of the 51 victims.

The Marchioness was hosting a party, organised by Jonathan Phang for his partner Antonio de Vasconcellos's 26th birthday. They ran a modelling agency together. The boat was full of beautiful, gilded, mostly gay people. The DJ, who drowned was Jamie Peters, younger brother of the better-known Colin Peters, both popular gay DJs.

The account of the bungled post-mortems, misidentifications, and cover-ups in the face of the persistent distress and anger of families and friends is shaming. But nowhere on Wikipedia to this day is there any mention that this was, to all intents and purposes, a gay party, and a gay tragedy.

This invisibility is compounded by the self-imposed invisibility of gay people themselves, encouraged by a society which punishes openness. So many historic lives of lesbians and gay men are sketchy either because of the caution of those who do not wish to be 'found out' and destroy or fail to keep letters, diaries etc; or because of the wilful destruction of such material by family and 'well-meaning friends' who wish to create an 'unsullied' reputation for their subject 1.

I mention all this, because the closet allows no hints of the emotional depths experienced by gay men, and nowhere is that truer than in the Armed Forces. In the 1950s and 60s, homosexual rights organisers were advising their members, do not keep diaries, or letters, or even Christmas cards. This was doubly urgent if you were in the Army or Navy and remained so until the twenty-first century.

This year (2000) we are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in the Forces, but even after that there were plenty of unreconstructed homophobes who made life difficult for Queer forces personnel and their same-sex partners. It was still possible for people to be dismissed for 'conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline', where homosexuality was the unspoken underlying cause of dismissal. Thankfully, that has now gone.

My writing partner, Robert Ely, was one of those who suffered under the old order. He had been a Warrant Officer, 1st Class as a Bandmaster in the Parachute Regiment. Outed in 1986, he was dishonourably discharged, losing all his medals, his references, and his pension in the process. In response he founded the organisation Rank Outsiders and gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, which still held in 1991 that homosexuals in the ranks were a threat to good order and discipline.

Perhaps unwisely, he reached a settlement with the Ministry of Defence which in no way compensated him for the emotional and financial damage done him. He is still trying to improve that situation.

I wanted the cycle to reflect his experience, and it also seemed opportune to mark this year's anniversary. So, I have combined his experience with my own hobbyhorse about the damaging and self-reinforcing phenomenon of invisibility. I have no direct experience of being gay in the armed forces, and I have never talked to anyone about it in any detail. 

So, I was delighted to have the endorsement of both Robert and of another ex-Navy man, Patrick Lyster-Todd, who was part of the quartet which took the Government to the European Court of Human Rights to force change. It seems that I have nailed both the emotional cost and the petty details of MP investigation simply by imagining it. People who think there is some inherent merit in docudrama please note.

At the heart of this piece is an ironic contradiction, where exposure by enforced dismissal is paradoxically a liberating experience. The central character is in an intense relationship with a young bandsman who dies in Regent's Park. By conforming to the army code, he cannot mourn the loss of his great love, because that love cannot exist. 

By being forced out, he gains the space for his feelings and finds a way to compensate for the betrayal of his partner which his denials amounted to. The most oppressive thing which happens to Robert Duggan is also the most liberating.

Peter Scott-Presland, 20 April 2020

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All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.

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  1. A classic instance of this is the lyricist, Lorenz Hart, creative partner of Richard Rodgers, whose papers were systematically burned by Rodgers and his sister-in-law, Dorothy, to prevent the truth emerging. Even fourty-five years after his death, when Dorothy was editing the complete lyrics, there are no acknowledgments of homosexuality, only vague references to loneliness, emotional inadequacy, and self-consciousness of being short and ugly.
    For years I've had in mind an anthology show about the real crucifixion of Lorenz Hart entitled Doc Bender's Bum Boy Revue, although I doubt if the puritan and hagiographic Rodgers estate would countenance the use of Richard's music to such unholy purposes for a moment.
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