Peter Scott-Presland: Full Interview
Peter is the author of Amiable Warriors: A History of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Its Times. For more info, visit: www.amiable-warriors.uk
Interview by Ray Larman
6th March 2019
RL: Rachel Larman recording for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It is the 6th of March 2019 and I’m here with Peter who’s going to introduce himself.
PSP: Hello there, my name is Peter Scott Presland. I’m 69 years old. I identify as a gay man. And I’m writing the “official” (in inverted commas) history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
RL: So, Peter, could you tell me a little bit about Leeds and the bookshop on Woodhouse Lane?
PSP: Well, I had my involvement in Leeds in the years 1972/73, I had a sort of brief fling with a man called Roger who was bisexual – I can’t remember the name of his female partner; they had a baby between them, I remember that – and I went up to Leeds several times to go and stay with him. They lived, there were a lot of squats around Woodhouse Lane in those days and they, they lived in one of them. A huge Victorian, Victorian house. I can’t, there were about four other people in the house, and the thing I remember about it, overwhelmingly, was the smell of patchouli everywhere.
And we went in a few times, into the book shop at 153 Woodhouse Lane, and it was jointly shared between CHE – Campaign for Homosexual Equality – and the Gay Liberation Front, which in Leeds had a very, very good relationship. In fact, it was the Leeds Gay Liberation Front which suggested to CHE’s national office that they ought to set up a CHE group in Leeds because what Gay Liberation Front was finding was that a lot of people were coming along who were very closeted, very cautious, very afraid. They didn’t really want the level of openness which GLF took for granted. And so GLF thought that CHE could provide something for those people, as a kind of steppingstone out, which would provide social activities of course, as well. As a group where you could talk about your own feelings to other people who were in a similar situation and so build up a kind of collective consciousness and collective confidence for coming out as well.
The bookshop was – I remember it – you went downstairs to get to it, it was kind of a lower mezzanine, it was between, between the sort of ground floor and what would have been a basement sort of thing. It was a, it was a large, it was a large living room really, I suppose, with a bay window in it. It had lots and lots of sort of posters, copies of the Leeds Broadsheet around, which was the national information and contact sheet which Leeds GLF produced. And that is what I remember about it. I believe it suffered several attacks on it. There was an arson attack on the bookshop at one point, but I think that was before my time. And I can remember on one occasion going in there and there was a, there was a cracked windowpane, and somebody said, ‘oh somebody tried to throw a brick through that yesterday’. Quite casual about it, obviously it was something that happened, happened quite a lot. But it really was the hub of LGBT activity in Leeds from 1970 to ‘74 certainly. Leeds GLF itself folded towards the end of ’74 and I think that’s when the bookshop closed down.
RL: So, were there actual bookcases, or was it more kind of general information about GLF and CHE?
PSP: It was more sort of general information. I mean, you should remember of course that at that stage the number of LGBT books was minute. And you would not, y’know, what was there? There were mostly things trying to explain homosexuality, you know, with a subtext of if you explain it you can cure it sort of thing. And so mostly they were not regarded as anything other than suspicion at all. The big, the big book that was the real bête noire was a thing called ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask’ by a guy called Dr David Rubin, I think he’s Dr, it was spurious, I’m not sure, but he’s classic, classic Freudian approach, but it was, there’s a kind of glee about it which was about, he described the most bizarre specta- sexual practices, you know. His assertions like, homosexuals are very keen on having sex with vegetables and things like that. And – I’ll read you some extracts later on, but it’ll take a few minutes to find them.
But anyway, there was a big, big campaign in, in, in Leeds, jointly organised by CHE and GLF, against the, the book, trying to persuade local bookshops not to, not to stock it, which was indeed quite successful; it certainly got two bookshops not to, not to stock it. And, compared with the reaction around the country, it was actually much more positive in Leeds as well.
RL: So, in the bookshop would people come just to sort of hang out, was it more –
PSP: It was social yeah, it was that kind of centre. There was a, I remember there was a desk, there was a telephone there. And don’t forget, at the time that we’re talking about, telephone ownership was the exception rather than the rule – nobody had telephones. I think the figure is, in 1970, 30% of the population had access to a telephone actually, something like that. So I mean, for campaigning, for example, it made it really very difficult if you wanted to do anything. I mean CHE’s campaigns organiser, who was in Liverpool, a guy called Robin Blocksidge [?], he didn’t have a telephone, and he used to just collect pennies and used to go down to the corner sh- the corner and, and feed pennies into the local telephone box, y’know, ‘press button A’, and that’s how he conducted the campaigning, you know. And that was not at all unusual: if you were trying to find the convener of a group, the first thing you would ask, ‘anybody here got a telephone?’ Y’know, so, so, so the bookshop, something like that would be used as that kind of resource, particularly for telephoning, and you’d have small, small meetings in there as well. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t just LGBT stuff as well, I mean, there was alternative sort of peace campaigners there and things like that as well.
RL: Were there alternative publications, like kinda left-wing magazines and things like that?
PSP: Well, 1971, 1972, there really – there was very, very little. I mean, all the gay stuff was either sort of soft porn or lifestyle stuff, there was a magazine called Jeremy that was, that was very much sort of about dolly men models and things like that. There was, there were the London sub, counterculture magazines, there was Oz, before that was closed down, so that was important. And the IT as well, the International Times so, and they had a certain amount of LGBT information in them; International Times did indeed have small ads in it, until it got prosecuted for that. But mostly those were about London rather than – with a few articles about America as well, and very little about what was going on outside London, and as far as I’m aware there wasn’t anything that was actually specifically geared to the north of England at all at the time.
RL: Was the, was the bookshop open every day or was it somewhere you could just –
PSP: Well I only went up at the weekends, y’know, cos I was at college at the time, I was still at university at Oxford and so I would go up on a Friday and come back late Sunday. And it was open on the Saturday, it wasn’t open on the Sunday as far as I remember. But I, I think it was open during the week yes, as I can remember Roger talking about going down to, to work in the shop on other days. Or go to meetings on other days as well, but I don’t know quite how regular that was.
RL: So, were there paid staff or was it all –
PSP: No, it was all volunteers, all volunteers. I think it was squatted originally, I’m not quite sure how, how the bookshop came into being, because when you come along a bit later, you assume because it’s there, it’s always been there, and they won’t have any problem about it. But I think it must’ve been a squat, given the state of the rest of the street and, and, and the area. And of course, in those days, squatting was very much easier than it is, than it is these days.
RL: Okay. I wanted to ask you about the Huddersfield Pride as well in 1981.
PSP: Huddersfield Pride, okay, alright. Now, pride, in the early 80s, in general, was going through a little bit of a bad, a bad time. It’d sort of established itself towards the end of the 70s and in 1979 it had the first grant for a pride arts festival, from Greater London Arts, they got £1,000, which of course it diverted into organising the march and publicity as well. As a result of that, we got over 10,000 people on the march, which was unheard of at that time. I mean it still didn’t get into the news of course but for us on it, it was really, really powerful and inspiring and that ended up at, ended up at Hyde Park. There were lots of banners from all over, all over the country, because of course at that stage we had Gay News as the national paper and they were very, very much behind it and gave the whole thing a lot of publicity and stuff, so yes we had a, we had a stage at, at Hyde Park as well. Tom Robinson headlined. There was a woman called Polly Perkins who, who started a terrible row because she appeared, she appeared in a kind of spangly hot pants on the stage and all the heterosexual male cameramen of course were filming from down below were shooting up her hot pants and the women got very angry about this and they said she shouldn’t have been wearing it in the first place. And sort of tried to chase her offstage so it was all a bit strange.
After that, after ’79, 1980, not nearly so much publicity behind it, didn’t get a grant anymore. A lot of, a lot of problems on that one, cos people were arrested on it. Pride being much more political at that stage than it is these days. So, yes there was a, there was a, there were arrests and there was a march on, at the end of the march people marched down to Bow Street as an extra thing, to wait outside and block the roads until the people were released and so on.
And in ’81, during the course of 1981, there were lots and lots of reports in Gay News about a club called the Gemini in Huddersfield, which was being constantly harassed by the police and constantly raided. And John Addy, who was the owner of it, was having a real hard time keeping the club open, he was saying he was going to have to close and police made no secret of the fact they wanted to close the place and they – what happened – the club had a, had a kind of area outside, out the back, which was very dimly lit, and I’m sure people were having sex out in the area, out the back as, as, as well, but on the other hand, it’s private premises, why should they care?
And so, the pride committee – I wasn’t involved in the pride committee, but what I was involved with was organising sort of entertainment afterwards. In those days the march used to finish up, in London, at University of London’s student union, which was a big sort of building on, not Marchmont Street, I can’t remember – Malet Street, Malet Street. And so we used to take over the whole building for the afternoon, a couple of thousand people going and seeing shows and going swimming in the swimming pool and all sorts, all sorts of stuff. So, so I was involved in the entertainment side and then – they decided that they were going to take the march out to Huddersfield as an act of solidarity with John Addy and the Gemini Club. That in itself caused a lot of controversy, cos for a lot of, well for two reasons.
For, for a lot of people in London anything that happens y’know north of Barnet just doesn’t exist, y’know, ‘so, why are we doing this? Why are we going in support of a commercial organisation?’ Because there was that element in the political movement which saw all kind of commercial or profit-making gay organisations as complete anathema, y’know, ‘he’s only exploiting us and making lots of money out of us’. So, there was that, and then on the other hand there was also the lesbians saying, ‘this is a male issues, Huddersfield, the Gemini Club, gay men doing naughty things in the backyard, what’s it got to do with us?’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, it got, it, it got through.
And we decided to go, we went, I can’t remember if we – well I at that time was with a theatre group called Consenting Adults in Public, which was I’m pretty sure the only gay theatre group at the time, cos Gay Sweatshop went into hiatus and folded around about 1979/80 and didn’t re-emerge for about four or five years later. They had their Arts Council grant withdrawn, and they had problems getting it back. And so, as a theatre company we, we did sort of touring stuff and stuff and I had a van, so I think we took our van up to, to Huddersfield. And… there would’ve been about, I would say about 2,000 people on the march, so again, from all over the place – because of the nature of what the march was and where, where it was, you would’ve only had the kind of more political elements of the LGBT movement going on it, which is why it was down sort of from previous years.
We assembled on what I think was a piece of waste ground – no, no, no it wasn’t, where did we assemble? I’d have to look at the photos, I can’t, I can’t remember. But I remember that we went through the, through the centre, the shopping centre of Huddersfield, as a march, and local people were just sort of, they didn’t, ‘what?’ Y’know, it was, ‘duh?’ But there was a strong fascist sort of counter demonstration as well, you know they, prob- there was a public announcement from National Front that they were gonna stop this, stop this march, which in fact because there was, there was a very large police presence to try and, to actually to protect the march. It… it… There, there sort of presence melted away on, at that stage, as the march was going through. And we went, we ended up in this park, at the end, and had sort of speeches and stuff.
That was a really funny thing, just on the last bit of the march as we, as we were just going towards the park there was a church on the right-hand side and there was a, there was a couple getting married in, in, in the church, and a whole lot, and they were standing, y’know stand outside to take the photographs and stuff okay, and a whole section of us on the march deviated into the church and sort of into the photos in the way and stuff and he was very attractive was the bridegroom I seem to remember as well, y’know, saying, ‘you belong with us, come on, come with us’ and stuff, so we completely ruined the wedding for them.
And then we got to the, the, the park and had the speeches and stuff. The march was led by John Addy, and John Addy had a pink Rolls Royce. Now, such a sort of ostentatious display of wealth, even if it was a very camp display, didn’t go down terribly well with a lot of the more radical elements, and he told us afterwards unfortunately that his, his pi – lovely pink Rolls Royce was, was covered with scratches, after those people’d taken their keys and, gone, gone along the side of it, and so, and so he was a bit pissed off about that.
And then afterwards, we had to get from the... park, to the... what would then have been Huddersfield Polytechnic, which was going to serve as the equivalent of the University of London’s student union. And, and we had a sort of whole afternoon of doing, of doing entertainment, and things there, and I was doing a cabaret there, and a guy called Bob Montbunion, and I can’t remember who else was on the bill, but we had tremendous excitement getting from the park to the thing, because this is where all the National Front people came out of the woodwork, once the march was actually dispersed, we became more vulnerable, and stuff like that. So there were sort of, you know, groups, groups of skinheads just sort of materialised, sort of round the corner as you, as you were going along the streets and stuff. And, be-, be-, be-, because we, because we had a banner with us on, the Consenting Adults one, we were, we were fairly well-placed sort of to, to react, because we simply just [laughs] took the ban, the banner down like, and like a lance, a battering ram, and just charged into these groups of skinheads and got – and out the other side. And we got, we got through it. I mean I don’t think, I don’t think there were actually any casualties, but it was, it was quite, it was quite exciting and it was, it was... it felt really good to be doing something like Pride... harnessed to a particular cause.
And it was really the first year that it was anything more than, ‘let’s come out’, y’know, more than just, ‘let’s show how many of us we are’, that very kind of generalised political objective. And afterwards, I mean John… John actually won his battle to keep his licence, cos the police opposed his renewal and, but he, he, he kept it and he was really very… supportive and stuff.
And then a couple of years later I went up to Edinburgh to do, to do a show on the Edinburgh Festival, on the Fringe, and we stopped off and did them, did shows in clubs on the way up. We stopped in Nottingham and did one there, we stopped in Huddersfield and did one at the Gemini. And John was just all over us and sort of still going on two years later about what an event, y’know, what a thing that pride march had been and stuff and he gave us lots of, a lot of support and poured alcohol down our throats and things. So that’s, that’s, that’s it, I’ll show you the photographs in, in, in a bit.
RL: Could you say a little bit about like the presence of the fascists, how much of a threat was that at the time?
PSP: Well, this is the days of the height of Rock Against Racism and the, and the National Front presence. I mean, I’ve got no idea what the situation was in terms of, sort of, within the city of Huddersfield or in Leeds, y’know as a percentage of the electorate or numbers of members or anything like that, but what I can say is that it seemed… there seemed to be quite a lot of them sort of roaming the streets afterwards looking for us, but nearly as many as we were. So I would say, probably there were about 1,800 maybe people on the march as well again or going through back to the polytechnic. And, okay there’d be a group of, of, of skinheads you’d see, but usually, but when you saw them there were more of you than there were of them. And you know, a lot of it’s just front, if you pardon the pun, you know, but it’s just pretending, big boys, y’know?
RL: What was it like at the Gemini Club then?
PSP: What was the club like? It was well a standard club of the time, really: it was all very dark. It was very small compared with the larger clubs these days, y’know, a couple of mirror balls. The nice thing about clubs like that, and it’s true in generally in, in, in areas where there’s like, only enough of a queer population to support one venue, it was the mixture, you know. It wasn’t like in London where it was all, I dunno if you went to one place it’d be all leather people, if you went to another place it’d all be very young people, another place it’d all be lesbians, or whatever, it wasn’t that kind of specialisation. It was all very, very, very, very mixed in, which, which, which was good.
I mean, John himself, very camp individual, but absolute sweetie, absolute sweetie. Very warm, very welcoming… and not a trace of sexism about him, at all. So, I mean I think it also reflected his personality at, at, at the club as well. This would’ve been the era, the peak era of disco I suppose it would’ve been y’know. It’s the era of hi-energy, ‘I Will Survive’, Sylvester, y’know all those, all those kinda things. So, it was kinda the era of fun, fun dancing. And I remember, you’d get little groups of people who, who obviously had rout- you know groups of friends, who had sort of routines worked out for themselves y’know, the Madison or something like that y’know. They would get in their little formation and a four or a square or something and they would do their routine, which they obviously rehearsed at home to particular tracks y’know, and they’d finish and a little later somebody else’d come along and they’d do another one and so on.
But because it was a club, and had a late licence, it was always a condition of late licences in those days that you had to serve some kind of food – that was the only reason you could get extra alcohol selling time. And it was awful. You know, you got this tiny little plastic plate with one burnt sausage and about five dried up chips and that, that, that was it, that was the price you paid for being able to get served alcohol after 11 o’clock.
RL: Is there anything else you want to say, or do you want to leave it there?
PSP: I think, I think that’s… that’s fine. Except I will say that CHE’s part in the campaign, in the Gemini campaign was very, was very strong, because it had a kind of resurgence as an organisation in the early 80s having sort of lost its way a bit. And that was really down to a general secretary called Anna, called Anna Durell, that was their first female general secretary, who was a superb speaker, fiercely intelligent as well. And there’s photos of her speaking and… very, very effective. I’ll have to look at the photos to remind myself if there’s anything else.
RL: Okay, thank you.