The Strange Decline of The English Cottage is a documentary that is being made at the moment, for BBC4 about the old tradition of ‘cottaging’ in Britain. Men having sex with each other in public toilets. I found this article about the project delightfully ironic, as it mentions Miss Marple in relation to the traditional English landscape. As Miss Marple is one of my alter-egos, and as I have already started (but aborted) a piece of kind of ‘slash fic’ about Miss Marple and the murder of the homosexual, I thought it was hilarious she was being brought into this murder mystery on TV. But, I know one thing about Jane Marple, it would take more than a few homos and glory holes to shock that old bird! Anyway here is the article. ..
It is perhaps inevitable that within the vagaries of English slang a word so redolent of the English village, Miss Marple and vicars cycling to give evening sermons, should come to be associated with acts so unspeakable and perverted that they are morally repugnant to your average citizen. Yet on the fiftieth year since Lord Wolfenden, a man so repulsed by the deviancy of the homosexual act that his report found it necessary to recommended its legalisation, the fortieth since the death at his lover’s hands of the eminence grise of the cottage, Joe Kingsley Orton, it is perhaps appropriate to consider what has happened to this most Anglo-Saxon of leisure pursuits.
It is an activity once favoured by playwrights, pop stars, politicians and Republican Senators from Idaho, allegedly with codes of its very own. Yet it is also in sad decline.
Here, I must declare an interest as a homosexual, whose formative years were spent throughout the land in, or within spitting distance, of such places of deviancy, perversion and undeniable pleasure. For cottaging has through its long and honourable history (since 1729) remained a purely gay pursuit; partly because of the puritanical attitude towards sex than has always existed in the English social body, but mainly because the idea of unisex public lavatories never caught on. There was a cottage in my village, which from an early age my parents told me to avoid, although no reason was then given. Such was the seriousness of their warning that I frequently underwent humiliating journeys home to visit the toilet until one day, aged fourteen, I ventured into the grimly painted forbidden zone with the purest of motives, but left with intentions to revisit for quite a different purpose. This early encounter, such as it was, was the beginning of almost ten years of intense, almost obsessive devotion, I may even say love, of the English cottage. From such origins came many encounters, some of them quick, some more fruitful, but none of them dull, and all of them enacted with a sense of risk that is now lacking from my life: being fucked in a cubicle by a student from Leeds University as my train left for home is a memory that sticks in my mind with a certain fondness. For cottaging is addictive, like heroin, except less expensive and easier to get hold of. I even met one of my best friends in a cottage, in a small university town. The building has since been knocked down and turned into a shopping centre. But we remain friends. He is now an illustrious academic at a respected institution over the Herring pond, but on his rare visits to perfidious Albion, we remember – over a bottle or four of Veurve Clicquot – times idled away in various provincial towns of England and London, looking for cock.
The intervening decade has been kinder to him than I. He still claims to be roughly the same age, I have aged eight years, taken up new hobbies – bridge, fine wines, crack cocaine – and almost verge upon the respectable. That is not to say that even when cruising on Hampstead Heath or Clapham Common, I do not hanker for the old days of sideways glances at urinals and the cautious half opening of a cubicle door. But the sad fact is that although successful, I was never any good at cottaging: I was by my friend’s feckless standards too nervous and unobservant of slight signals. Of course, he now has two convictions for gross indecency, whereas I do not.
And there perhaps you have at least part of the reason for this tragic decline but not all. In London alone the cottages of Bethnal Green (always highly recommended) and Pettycoat Lane to those of Hyde Park, Carnaby Street and Oxford Circus have either closed or been sanitised to prevent extra curricula activities for the homosexual. It is now with fond nostalgia that one recalls the cottage in the old British Library, where upon the cubicle wall was affectionally ascribed: ‘I had David Starkey here’.The cottage has been across cities and towns been replaced by units that act as lavatories and act against the cottager’s inherent interests. Of course, such places do still exist: I am told that in the toilets University College London remain a rare paradise in barren desert and I am sure that some remain in the more remote parts of these Sceptred Isles. But it is rather like living in the last days of the British Raj: some of the magnificence is still there, but the glory days are far behind. If you’ll forgive the puns.
Of course, like many an English tradition, modern technology and social advances has played a role in its demise. Yet logging onto one’s Gaydar, Gay.com and GayRomeo, lacks an equal frisson to shoving one’s knob through a glory hole in a cottage in Peterborough, Kettering or some such God-awful place. If you ask me, the advance of the internet as a tool for the homosexual is welcome, yet its role in the death of cottaging is evidence of not only the laziness of the average sex-addict, but also of the creeping bourgeoisation of homosexuality. The current liberal, tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, greatly welcome though it is, has correspondingly led to the de-sexualisation of the homosexual in the public mind: he must be well-dressed, coiffed to perfection, witty and preferably totally, publically neutered. Of course, promiscuity itself amongst gay men is far from on the declining: my accidental entrance to the FIST tent some years ago at Gay Pride proves that. Yet, like the decline of the Liberal Party after 1909, in its finest hour, the gay community has cunningly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and submissively accepted the demise of the most public actualisation of its inner self.