Despite their near-50 year relationship providing the inspiration for E.M. Forster’s famous Maurice, it’s only in recent days that Edward Carpenter and George Merrill have registered with me. Carpenter in particular is the kind of figure every LGBT figure in the UK should know, the kind I feel ashamed to have been ignorant of. A socialist, he is identified as being one of the pioneers of the gay liberation movement while being an instrumental figure in the labour movement (he helped found the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party). He seems to have led a relatively open, if careful, life as a gay man and it’s profoundly affecting to see photos of him with his partner(s) or read his declarations of love:
. . . I shall be glad to see thy dear face again as I have such longings to kiss those sweet lips of thine. I will wait till I hear from you, first. So I must close dear heart as I am feeling a little low and lonesome. I’m always with thee every night in spirit,
fondest love from your dear Boy G XXX.”
This was, after all, the age of the Oscar Wilde trials. This book review-cum-life summary by the magnificent Colm Tóibín is essential reading, with this paragraph describing Carpenter’s first encounters with Merrill being particularly touching:
In 1891 Carpenter met the love of his life, George Merrill. He spotted Merrill on a train, where they ‘exchanged a few words and a look of recognition’. Merrill got off at the same station as Carpenter and shadowed him and his companions as they walked in the countryside – Carpenter was a great walker. Carpenter moved away from his friends to speak to Merrill, and secured his address. Merrill was 22 years younger than Carpenter and from a working-class background. He had had a number of homosexual relationships with older, wealthier men before he met Carpenter. He knew what he was looking for. Merrill, Carpenter saw, was ‘at ease and quite himself in any society, aristocratic or vagabond’. He delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’ and loved the fact that his new companion appeared not to know too much about Christianity. (On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night at Gethsemane, Merrill asked: ‘Who with?’) The relationship between the two, which lasted almost four decades, is one of the best-charted versions of homosexual life in this period, rivalling in its documentary value the lives of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement, and differing from them in its calm, domestic bliss and lack of a tragic ending.
As LGBT people I think we generally know too little of our history – particularly when it is not easily framed to be made more palatable for our tastes. There’s an issue in that versions of it are often pushed into modern contexts, made to serve our current obsessions and identifies. So, for example. The Normal Heart presented modern LGBT history as a teleological journey towards marriage and a movement dominated by affluent white men. I’m sure Carpenter and Merrill could be presented in a similar way, not least as it was Carpenter’s position and means which made it much easier for him to push boundaries. His politics would be secondary to the romantic love and individual ‘bravery’ he showed in attempting to live an ‘authentic’ life (said authenticity is always dictated by an apolitical sexual identity in these things). Indeed, while the presentation for mass audiences of the solidarity shown between gay people and miners in 1984 is something we’d have found unimaginable not long ago, by all accounts the violent class war at the heart of the miners’ strike is buried beneath a ‘heartwarming’ tale of overcoming difference in Pride. This negation allowed our insipid gay media to joyously embrace the film – I’m not sure if it’s hilarious or depressing that Attitude awarded it ‘Best Film’ at an award ceremony sponsored by, and heavily promoting, Virgin Holidays. Lest we forget Richard Branson’s own relationship with ‘solidarity’:
…Branson talks about looking after his workers and no doubt being a part of the Virgin empire has its perks. But he has a deep antipathy towards unions and does everything in his power to dissuade his employees from joining them. In 2009, when his airline was losing money, Branson cut its workforce by 15 per cent. The working conditions for those who remained were not good, despite Branson’s repeated protestations that the test of any business is the way it treats its employees. In 2011, Virgin America’s flight attendants attempted to join the Transport Workers Union. The union’s director complained of Virgin Atlantic’s employment practices, saying that ‘promises regarding rest, vacation and benefits are often broken, and discipline for minor violations can be unnecessarily harsh and inconsistently applied.’ Branson was appalled, not by the accusations, but by the thought of the union muscling in on his territory. He resorted to his traditional strategy of accusing the TWU of being an outmoded and inefficient monopoly. He told his staff that joining would take their ‘independent spirit and uniqueness away’. ‘Say “no” to the old way of flying,’ he told them, ‘and say “no” to the TWU.’ He won a tight ballot and his business remained non-unionised.
It’s precisely because of this tendency to strip our history of any radicalism which threatens to explode our current identities, both sexual and political (of course the two are not separate, despite current mainstream LGBT culture depending on the notion that they are) that it’s extremely important we make the effort to educate ourselves. This isn’t some finger-wagging exercise in ‘respecting what came before’ but rather an essential foundation for understanding who we are and what our movement means both ideologically and socially. This is necessary across the board – the Scottish independence referendum exposed a woeful grasp of even relatively recent history, an ignorance which many are still exploiting (brilliantly tackled by the pro-independence Gerry Hassan here). Yet as any regular reader will know, I have a particular frustration with the utterly dire state of LGBT politics and its inability to approach modern identity and its relationship to/use by power with any critical thought could be argued to have many of its roots in its ahistoricism.
So look at Edward Carpenter and George Merrill; at what they stood for and what they still represent. Those links between radicalism, sexuality and love may be weakened and obscured but they are still there. In discovering them we find ourselves anew; we understand our power both as people and as a community. As Carpenter wrote in Towards Democracy:
Stronger than all combinations of Capital, wiser than all the Committees representative of Labor, the simple need and hunger of the human heart.
Nothing more is needed.