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Luke Turner on Men at War and the Legacy of Denton Welch

Posted on 18th May 2023 by Mark Skinner

Exploring the Second World War through the prism of LGBT+ men's experiences during the conflict, Luke Turner's revelatory and vital Men at War rescues numerous narratives from erasure. In this exclusive piece, Turner reflects on the wartime writings of Denton Welch, who due to injuries resulting from a cycling accident was unable to enlist yet nevertheless managed to capture much of the flavour of the home front at the time.     

Very few men who served in or lived through the Second World War are still with us. What remains are millions, if not billions, of pages of memoir, diary, letters, official documents and historical analysis to try and understand those times, but even then the lives of the LGBT+ men and women of the Second World War linger only in scant fragments. In the months I spent researching Men at War, I was able to uncover a few of these – Dudley Cave, a gay man who suffered as a prisoner of the Japanese but after the war devoted his life to reconciliation and LGBT+ activism; Ian Gleed, a fighter pilot hero who concealed his male lover with a woman’s name; Micky Burn, a bisexual commando; Roberta Cowell, a trans woman who during the war flew Spitfires. But I finished writing with the knowledge that out there were others who would have added colour and life to what I was trying to do. 

I wanted to write about LGBT+ men in the context of the war not merely to bring their forgotten voices into an increasingly conservative contemporary culture, but to shine a light on wider aspects of masculinity. As outsiders from the norm, I often feel that we LGBT+ men have a more acute view on our gender than most. I was therefore quite sad that Denton Welch came into my life months after my keyboard had stopped rattling on Men at War, for his insights into the bodies and behaviours of other men during the war years has a sharpness unlike any other I’ve read. 

I encountered Welch one day in early spring when I took a train down to the North Kent coast to interview the wonderful DIY pop artist Patrick Wolf for a feature in the Guardian. Patrick told me that Welch’s writing, much of it set in the area, was a constant source of inspiration in his own exploration of the fields and cliffs around Deal, Ramsgate, Margate and Dover. Born in 1915, Welch spent a privileged childhood living between Britain and China, an itinerant existence he wrote about in his Maiden Voyage, a work of autofiction published in 1943. He was also a painter and poet. His life was changed forever at the age of twenty when he was hit by a car while out cycling, resulting in severe injuries that contributed to his untimely death in 1948. Welch’s perspective is fascinating in his removal from the expectations of wartime masculinity not only in his sexuality, but his physicality too. In addition to recommending Welch’s fiction, Patrick Wolf had also mentioned that The Denton Welch Journals, published in 1952, were reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, my favourite book. I went home and immediately ordered the journals. As I read, the growing sense of ‘oh bugger, I wish I’d found this a year ago’ gradually eroded under the pleasure of experiencing Welch’s evocation of both place (Wolf is correct, the writing about the Kent landscape is as vivid as that of Jarman writing half a century later) and time. 

Perhaps it is because of his understanding of the frailties of his own body that Welch spends much time on his perambulations watching and commenting on men swimming, or going about other forms of physical exercise. His disability meant that he was never fit for active service and the journals are an account at a remove from the devotion of the body to the demands of the state. This never seems to bother Welch. He makes no grand analysis of the conflict, or his lack of involvement in it, and is far more concerned about the reception to his writing and the acclaim of Edith Sitwell, displaying a hunger for fame and exposure that often comes across as very modern. The war is present in the background, no more nor less than his poetic evocations of the Kent countryside and squabbles with his friends. His journal entries are full of accounts of travels around the countryside on his bike, eating picnics that are a curious mixture of the elaborate and plain, thanks to wartime rationing – a feast might be made up of Ryvita crackers, cheese, apricot jam, chocolate, a bar of squashed dried fruits, coffee. He is acute in his descriptions of queer cottaging in public toilets, on 30 August 1942 visiting one in Notting Hill where men stand ‘in a sort of sinister trance’. Feeling like an intruder, he leaves and wonders ‘if people were all night in there, standing together in silence’. Welch writes through the war years about friendships and falling out, anxiety over places to live, and his love of art and objects – Alan Bennett once wrote that ‘the nearest he had come to active service was in the battle against beige.’ Into this the war appears now and then, almost like a haunting. Take this passage, from 28 March 1943: ‘Airmen flashed by on bicycles. They all wore that intent look of people who are grimly determined to enjoy themselves for their few free hours from slavery. It’s an almost fanatical look. The anxious eyes seem to say, I must drink, copulate or what you will . . . O tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; they’ll all pile up until I did.’ I can’t think of many sentences that so visually and vividly sum up the sexually-tinged urgency of life in wartime.

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