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The Glamour Boys: The secret past of the rebels who fought to overthrow Hitler in Britain
About Chris Bryant
Bloomsbury, 25 GBP
WHAT a confusing book this is—The Glamour Boys have so much to find fault with, and so much to applaud. It would have been awesome; instead, it is slightly irritating.
The book tells the tale of the gay MPs who in the 1930s opposed appeasement and rallied to stand up to Hitler around Churchill. It is by Labour MP Chris Bryant, the first gay MP in Parliament to celebrate his civil union.
The book’s presumption is that a group of gay MPs, derisively referred to by appeasers as the Glamour Boys, were among the vanguard of those who opposed the Third Reich in the pre-war years. They included Conservative MPs including Ronnie Cartland, brother of Barbara Cartland, the popular romance novelist and socialite of the 1920s.
They realized Hitler had to be stopped after seeing what the Nazis did to their gay friends and lovers in Germany – arresting them, sending them to death camps and assassinating them.
This should be a fantastic piece of social and political history, in theory – presented by a perfect author. This book on battle, however, is at war with itself.
The end result sounds as if Bryant had attempted to merge two different nonfiction books: the antebellum era tale of gay men’s lives and the tale of the political fight toward appeasement.
They are both interesting subjects, both of which deserve to be well represented, but Bryant makes them quite a mess.
You’re one page deep into the world of gay men in the 1930s—the joy, the parties, the fear of detention, the fear of extortion and abuse, the tragedy of lies and love forced into the shadows—and the next you plunge into the political machinations of Churchill versus Chamberlain, almost without subtlety or change.
There’s a real deluge of names, dates and locations – more in line with a traditional history book than the snappy, gossipy style this book adopts. Bryant clearly attempts to cram too much in. I counted 12 individuals in one paragraph alone – too many for any reader to fairly process.
This book might and should have succeeded – it does not take a literary genius, in this case through the lives of the gay MPs who opposed Chamberlain, to bring a historical problem such as appeasement into context.
But like many popular authors, Bryant seems to be a writer who needs to be advised by a good editor: slow down here, tighten up there, this section is confusing, and do you really need that section?
This is a topic that seems to be becoming more persistent in British literature.
Novelists are allowed to turn what should be a taut job into an unwanted doorstop once they’ve made a name for themselves. For nonfiction, the same now appears to be true.
In their own way, both aspects of Bryant’s book – the lives of gay MPs and the battle against appeasement – are fantastic, and the book alone is worth the price for that.
The issue is the sloppy operation of stitching together these two pieces.
We get a Frankenstein’s monster where the traces of needle and thread should have been invisible – and like the monster, because of its lack of finesse, the book is made ponderous.
It is the tale of gay life before World War II that is almost certainly the stronger in terms of discovery and entertainment. We all know the tale of appeasement, a little at least. But while most of us claim that we are beautifully progressive and recognize what happened to the gay community before homosexuality was actually legalized, the best parts of this book show us to be bitterly wrong.
First, let’s pause to note that it was not until 1967 that our nations agreed to avoid sending people to jail and criminalizing fellow human beings for the easy, normal act of falling in love and having sex, in England and Wales – and even later in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in 1980 and 1982, respectively. What a stain on our heritage – and what a reminder that we all have to keep fighting to make sure we are all handled with the same degree of dignity.
As Bryant brings readers to the Ge