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For Your Convenience – the first queer city guide?

Back in April I wrote about a Gay-Z map of London, published by the Man to Man bookshop in Notting Hill c. 1977. It remains the earliest example of a separately published LGBT map of London I’ve seen, and I’m pleased to say that it will feature in a forthcoming publication (to accompany the British Library’s exhibition on 20th century maps, ‘Drawing the Line’, November 4 – March 1 2017). Ever hopeful, I asked people to get in touch if they could point me to anything older. I wasn’t expecting anything pre 1967, but there’s always a chance that something was privately printed (or even Xeroxed) for discreet circulation. Matt Houlbrook refers anecdotally to ‘hand-drawn maps of the queer city’ dating back to the 1920s, specifically ‘an antique dealer nicknamed “Miss Footsore” who had mapped London’s urinals’ (Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, 2006, p. 51). 

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‘For Your Convenience’, illustrated by Philip Gough.

So, nothing doing on that score, and perhaps none have survived, but a couple of people tipped me off about a pictorial map printed on the end-papers of For Your Convenience: A Learned Dialogue Instructive to all Londoners and London Visitors published in 1937 by Routledge – a long-established firm, noted for its list of academic titles. Just about as far from an underground publication as it’s possible to get! The author, ‘Paul Pry’, was actually Thomas Burke of Limehouse Nights fame. There are various possibilities for the origin of Burke’s pseudonym; it was used by caricaturist William Heath, which strikes me as one possible inspiration, but perhaps the most convincing is the 1825 farce of the same name (by John Poole). The play’s protagonist is in the habit of leaving his umbrella in a variety of places, giving him a good excuse to return later; this theme of the plausible pretext is hard to ignore.

The book takes the form of a dialogue between two members of a gentleman’s club, the Thélème, with its Rabelaisian connotations of ‘do what thou wilt’. ‘Mr. Mumble’, an older man and the ‘doyen’ of the club, refuses to relinquish the Sanitary World and Drainage Observer to a new member, but finds himself increasingly impressed by the (unnamed) younger man’s detailed knowledge of where ‘relief’ may be found in central London, supposedly after excessive consumption of tea or lager. ‘I get you, sir… I get you’, exclaims the young man after his senior has explained the ‘predicament’ he found himself in on Wigmore Street the previous afternoon. On the last page, the two men go off to the lavatory together (‘I’m coming that way too. Lead on, my boy.’)

The whole book could plausibly be read at face value: a straightforward guide to London’s public conveniences. But why go to so much trouble, when so many places offered the required facilities? Just after the older man’s (faux-naif?) observation that the facilities at Goodge Street were closed because they ‘got abused’, the younger man explains in detail how ‘places of that kind which have no attendants afford excellent rendezvous to people who wish to meet out of doors and yet escape the eye of the Busy [Policeman]’. This includes passing betting slips and ‘crooks who wish to pass information’: but perhaps it is the very absence of any oblique reference to other activities which all but confirms the true purpose of the book. The young man has ‘in preparation a series of section plans of the London streets, suitable for the pocket, on which I am marking with a green dot the precise location of every refuge’ (a further indication that such maps were not unknown?)

Whether or not Burke himself had any direct experience of the milieu he describes is almost impossible to say. He consistently fabricated details of his life, and it is all but impossible to untangle fact from fantasy. He made his name writing about Chinatown and the seamier side of life in the East End, and this book could have been born out of the same impulse to shock and titillate.

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Endpaper map in ‘For Your Convenience’

The end-paper map and other illustrations were supplied by Philip Gough (1908-1986), who was clearly heavily influenced by Rex Whistler. He went on, post war, to illustrate classic children’s books, including editions of Alice and Hans Christian Andersen; he illustrated the works of Jane Austen for the Macdonald illustrated classics series and designed dustwrappers for Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels.

Gough’s pictorial map employs a gently comic style of cartography which was enormously popular between the wars: a traditional compass rose and visual puns or cues such as an axe on Tower Hill, an artist’s palette on the site of the Wallace Collection and an orator haranguing passers-by at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. None of which has anything to do with the subject matter of the book, so one wonders what Gough’s brief was – he may not have been in on the joke at all. However, the reclining figures in the foreground are lavatory attendants, proudly bearing brushes, and the pavilions scattered across central London are actually public conveniences.

Matt Houlbrook describes it as ‘perhaps the first queer city guide’. Helen Smith muses on whether a book which gives advice on where to meet – for both potential participants and the authorities –had an impact on the number of men arrested in the year of publication (Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957, 2015). Having read it myself, I can appreciate how it slipped under the radar of the editors at Routledge. The bookseller I bought my copy from had also read it, without picking up on any of the book’s undertones. Or so he claimed…

2 thoughts on “For Your Convenience – the first queer city guide?

  1. Hi Tim,

    Marvellous review. How wonderful to have a full-sized photo of the end papers, thank you!

    Am I imagining, or is that dotted line a trail between conveniences, something like a circuit, maybe?

    Love the elephant for the zoo in Regent’s Park.

    Sarah in Toronto

  2. Thanks Sarah, the elephant is very nicely done although by 1937 it was a fairly standard pictorial shorthand for London Zoo (see, for example, Perman’s 1928 ‘Railways of London’ map). I have been mulling over Gough’s decision to represent the public loos as pavilions. Connotations of pleasure and entertainment, perhaps, though he may have been inspired by MacDonald Gill’s portrayal of Underground stations on his ‘Wonderground’ map of London. We always seem to be coming back to railway maps! What you say about the dotted lines is really interesting, and I don’t have an answer. There’s no itinerary, as such, in the text, and the dotted lines seem to represent a partial map of the Underground network. Mainline termini are represented pictorially. I’m a little perplexed because there’s no immediately obvious reason why the network (if there at all) should be incomplete. For example, the Central Line stops abruptly at Chancery Lane. It may be that it was on a Friday afternoon and Gough had a ‘that’ll do’ moment on discovering that the Underground network wasn’t fitting tidily into his somewhat schematic pictorial map. If you can decipher an artfully coded message, though, I’d love to have your thoughts.

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