Sunday, May 24, 2009

Traditional Interest in Bermondsey

I've been reading the diaries of Kenneth Williams, which he kept consistently from the 1940s until his death in 1988. I must admit I found the younger Williams a more likeable character - there is a lot of self-loathing later on as he struggled with being gay (though apparently celibate for large periods), and he became a Tory.

In his earlier years he was something of a socialist, and does a great put down of a racist acquaintance: 'Lunch. J. was there. Never was she more futile and boring. 'I just don't want to mix or be friends with coloured people...' O dear! She's certainly not depriving them of anything!' (8 March 1960). Unsurprizingly he also expressed strong views about homosexuality being illegal, as it was until 1967: 'Obviously the sex life of consenting adults of same or opposite sex has nothing to do with the State' (14 january 1956 - referring to the Montagu case, and the 1954 jailing of Peter Wildeblood for 'homosexual offences'). There's the odd bit of Polari, the London theatrical/gay slang that he used to famous effect in the radio programme Round the Horne.

There a few memorable put downs of South London places in the diaries, with Croydon being summarily dismissed: 'Went to Croydon with John but didn't like Croydon, so returned straightaway (11 October 1952). In 1953 he was playing in Peter Pan at Streatham Hill Theatre: 'It looks like a great cinema of a place. Oh! Horror. I choose bus - though one can by train from town - because I hate the smells on the Southern Railway, and the grimly smug suburban feeling on those dreary green stations. And all those circumspect men with milk and sandwiches stuffed into important-looking briefcases' (29 January 1953).

However there is one South London location which he was very favourable to . His diary entry of 7 July 1958 states: 'Went to Bermondsey for traditional interest and it was quite fabulous'. The reference is to Bermondsey municipal baths on Grange Road, where the Turkish Baths were a well known gay meeting place.

Source: The Kenneth Williams Diaries (1993).

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