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Performing homosexual acts in public places


Casual sex on the Thames river towpath
Brian Sewell Writer
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Very quickly… I don’t know who told me about it or indeed whether I simply observed that it was happening, but I bought a house near the river at Barnes. And it transpired that, between Hammersmith Bridge and Putney boathouses, there was a path along the river, quite wide, with quite a lot of shrubbery, and that extraordinary things happened there. And I went to explore, and extraordinary things did happen. It was pitch dark, because there was no lighting at all once you… 50 yards from the bridge, and you were in pitch darkness. And there were men. And you could have any kind of homosexual activity there. It was risky, because occasionally the river police came along on a boat. They’d shut the engine off and coast along in the water, and when they saw something, switch on a searchlight. Wham. So you had to be wary and you had to know how to deal with that situation. The best thing to do was lie down as close as you could to the earth and face away from the light, because nothing shines so brightly in a searchlight as the human face. And sometimes, you might be in the middle of a coupling, call it, and there you are, still attached, and you throw yourselves to the ground and stay attached, because you can’t… you must not move.

Why the police never… I think it was a bit of sport for the river police, because they never seemed to do anything in coordination with Policeman Plod on the ground, who, if they’d just sent one policeman from Putney towards Hammersmith, and another from Hammersmith towards Putney, they could have caught a hundred of us. But it was a funny… well, it wasn’t at all funny. It was a time when you simply could not legally be homosexual. You were not allowed to perform any kind of homosexual act in public. You were not allowed to importune male persons, which meant that if you spoke to somebody, not even by suggesting a sexual activity, but, you know, 'Can you tell me the time?' 'Have you got a cigarette?' or sort of, 'Have you a match?', or any of those things were dubbed importuning for indecent purposes. And you could be sent to prison, you could be fined, you would quite certainly lose your job, if you had a decent job.

It was asking for expulsion from any kind of decent society, and the penalties were out of all proportion with the crime. And it was believed to be a crime. And judges and magistrates were pretty beastly about it. But then, of course, you occasionally came across the queer policeman. And I had two affairs with policemen. They were very instructive. Lessons in how to be careful, how not to be recognised, and all the rest of it. But if you wanted a quick shag without any complications, there were very few places you could go to. There were the odd pubs where you might pick up a Guardsman whom you’d have to pay a fiver to, which was expensive, especially if you gave as good as you got. And there was a rule with Guardsmen too, which was Guardsmen always fucked, because that wasn’t queer. A Guardsman would never be the recipient, he would always be the donor, so actually there… quite a number of Guardsmen had been, at a very early stage in their careers, had been told by their sergeants or sergeant-majors that if they fell on hard times, this is the way you supplemented your income. And that as long as you did the fucking, you weren’t queer and nobody would mind. But you must never, never, sort of bend over. So…

But one of the places that was notorious for that kind of casual sex was the towpath. And it… well, it was fun. You know, it was sex without responsibility, without affection, without ever saying, 'Oh, what’s your telephone number?' I mean, no, you just did it and went. And what was quite surprising was the number of oarsmen who had been sculling, or whatever oarsmen do on the river at Putney, and had fancied a fuck on the way home. And who were, nine times out of ten, the passive partners. And not terribly rewarding as passive partners. They’d sort of lie on their tummies and let you do it and then get up and go home, which was kind of not what you’d expect. And that kind of exchange of activity is what makes it exciting, or used to.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Putney, Thames, boathouses, Guardsmen, oarsmen, Barnes, river police

Duration: 6 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013