Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
In thinking queer, this essay for a special issue of Modernism / Modernity takes the sexuality out of modernity and interrogates our impulse to make the modern sexual.
The essay reflects on two stories, told a decade apart by the confidence trickster and crime writer Netley Lucas, about something that happened in his youth. In the Autobiography of a Crook (1924) and My Selves (1934) Lucas described how he absconded from his prestigious public school in 1917 and signed on as a pantryman on the Kenilworth Castle, a liner plying the dangerous wartime route from London to Cape Town. His narrative of adventurous mobility was troubled by an enigmatic incident en route. The Autobiography observed “upon mature consideration, that the ‘glory hole’ of a large liner is about the most vicious and immoral place I have ever had to live in, and that is saying a great deal.” Lucas was no ingenue, and his unusual hesitancy made the oceangoing liner’s immorality more acute. Below decks and far removed from the purifying air of the open seas; overflowing with smells, sounds, meanings; crowded with bodies, bunks, gas pipes; notoriously airless, dirty, and fetid, the glory hole was a strangely empty space.
My Selves revisited the “glory hole” in an account that was more detailed, but still did not explain what had happened. Charm and good looks allowed the gentlemanly trickster to cultivate the desire of those he seduced. In the confines of a ship he found that task impossible:
The Chief Pantryman was a swine, for realising my callow youth, innocent appearance, and clean boyishness, he made a suggestion to me upon the second day out at sea which caused me in fury to flash my fist quickly toward his face …
An unnamed “suggestion” warranted a “furious” response, resistance brought only more “perverted attentions” during a hellish voyage in the “greasy sordidness of the third class pantry.” In his lives and life-writing, however, Lucas resisted any attempt to fix the “truth” of his sexual practices and character.
There are, of course, things that we might do to fill the glory hole, were we so inclined. Taking our cue from successive generations of LGBT and queer historians, we might give it content and substance patterned on what we know of the other spaces through which Lucas moved, or from what we know of what other men did in the close quarters below deck.
Just as Lucas resisted any impulse to fix the “truth” of what happened on the Kenilworth Castle, however, so I am more interested in what happens when we leave the glory hole empty. To do so is to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge of the past and disavow the historian’s epistemological imperialism. It is also to acknowledge the radical queerness of the past — to see the early twentieth century not just as a period in which sexual categories and identities were different, but one in which notions of sexuality were themselves absent from everyday ways of seeing and being. Looking through the glory hole, we might see only the emptiness of sexual modernity.