OH441 Interview with Charles Beaton (OutStories Bristol)
Please note this is not a full correct transcript but a detailed summary of the recording
00:00:00 Introductory sentences – Chris Webb introduces himself and then ask Charlie to introduce himself. Charlie gives his full name, date of birth (1st Feb 1950). Chris then explains that the interview is for the Oral Histories project and for the forthcoming exhibition in February 2013.
00:01:02 Chris asks Charlie to start by telling him about his childhood, where he grew up.
Charlie says he grew up on a hill sheep farm in the south of Scotland in the Cheviot Hills – his father was a shepherd. He had two sisters and one brother – he was third in line. There was quite a gap between him and his siblings – seven and a half years between him and his elder sister and the same gap between him and his younger brother.
His primary school was very basic – one teacher and about 20 children, aged between 5 and 12, all in the same classroom. Charlie says it isn’t an educational setting he would recommend – quite limited! However, he did learn to read and write and spell. His secondary school was in the nearest town……[interview interrupted by postman ringing bell]……
00:02.25 Charlie resumes explanation of his secondary education: he had to travel each day on a bus to high school (about seven miles away) and after that, he followed in his sister’s footsteps and went to university. He did a degree at Edinburgh University in biological sciences – which he initially says that he didn’t then use but then corrects himself and says he did teacher training and then came to Bristol and taught Biology for two years at Withywood School.
00:03:16 Charlie establishes that, biographically, he has now brought himself to Bristol and Chris asks him about his first impressions.
Charlie answers that he had lived in Edinburgh for seven years and coming to Bristol his initial thoughts were that it was a similar size, similar regional status to Edinburgh although, he thinks, Edinburgh would see itself as a cut above, being a national capital. However, for him, the contrast between the two cities is quite sharp – in Edinburgh he felt as if he was at the centre of things and, ‘gay-wise’, a national movement was gathering. In Bristol, he felt the movement was moribund and, in sharp contrast to Edinburgh, Bristol saw itself as an industrial city at the time and wasn’t trying to attract tourists – Edinburgh, in comparison, at that time was ‘fantastic’ in summer and full of visitors (Bristol just emptied).
However, things have since changed and Bristol has also changed its view of itself – it no longer sees itself as an industrial city: insurance companies have taken over from the docks and manufacturing.
00:05:37 Charlie then specifically addresses gay issues: when he first came to Bristol, there were two or three pubs which identified as ‘gay’, one major nightclub and two smaller ones – which is quite a lot for the period, in his view (a few years before, there was only one gay pub, he says, and this was the main pub when he came to Bristol – ‘Elephant’ – it had just opened as a gay pub and it was big, busy and the place to go).
Just along from the Elephant was the Radnor Hotel – it had been a long running gay pub but its business had been stolen by the Elephant and others and only old regulars went there.
00:06:16 Charlie can only remember going to the Radnor a couple of times in the 70’s – it eventually changed its name and ceased to be a gay venue. When he first arrived in Bristol, the first club he visited was the Moulin Rouge. It was set up in an old swimming pool in Clifton and was on its way out and he only went once. It had to have a supper licence, so you were presented with a bit of limp lettuce on a plate when you arrived in order to comply with the licensing regulations. A couple of smaller clubs opened in the centre of town which were much more convenient – e.g. Bristol’s Disco located on the centre, which took over from the Sedan Chair, and the King’s Club on Prince Street (the building has since been demolished). Charlie says that these were the places to go as a young man – he was 25 at the time.
00:07:35 Charlie says the thing he really wants to talk about is ‘The Movement’ – he says that when he arrived in Bristol, the Gay Movement was reducing in size, the city having been one of the early pioneers of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality: when the national group was set up in Manchester in the late 1960s, Bristol was the first group the Campaign set up by placing ads in the paper in the early ‘70s. So a group had been formed and had been running for about four to five years when Charlie arrived in Bristol – in his view the group was fairly moribund.
He says that he and Chris Lee, who arrived around the same time decided to build the group back up over the next four years – they held regular meetings on a Thurs and a ‘tea and chat’ session on Sundays (which eventually became a separate group since the culture was very different in the two groups). Charlie gives funny anecdote about tea and chat events: always well attended when there were new members because events held in members’ homes and everyone wanted to snoop around new home.
However, teaspoons always went missing every time event held – never did find out who was pinching them.[Chris humorously suggests that a huge collection is being built up somewhere).
00:10:00 Chris asks Charlie the difference between activism in Edinburgh and Bristol.
Charlie says that he had been involved in a marginal way in Edinburgh and not really in activism but he did join GaySoc at uni and did share a house with Ian Donne, who was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Minorities Group. He says that it was fluke that he ended up staying in a house with Ian at a time when negotiations were taking place with the Scottish Office and other high level institutions such as Church of Scotland – Charlie says he felt very close to the ‘front end of activism’. He explains that although the equality laws had changed in England (homosexual acts were legal between consenting adults over 21), things didn’t happen in Scotland until the 1980s – so there was a lot to campaign about and the campaigning had a feeling of national perspective since the playing field was much wider than just a city – Bristol always felt quite provincial to him and still does.
00:11:53 Chris asks what activism meant for Charlie when he arrived in Bristol.
Charlie says his ambition was to create a meeting place for people – but not just for drinking and sex which, in his view, was what clubs and pubs had been about hitherto – he wanted to create a space for something for more serious, he wanted the community ‘to be looking to push back the boundaries’.
Charlie says looking for a meeting place was a political act in itself – there was great reluctance to hire out venues to gay groups back then. The Folk House in Park Street agreed to rent a room and wanted to be supportive but it was a very different climate back then and what was proposed controversial and they were turned down by most venues.
00:13:45 Back in the 1970s, says Charlie, the Gay Bristol Festival was started by Dale Wakefield, who wanted to promote support for Gay News – which was a national newspaper at the time. Gay News had published a poem which had been the subject of a successful prosecution by Mary Whitehouse and the right-wing Christian groups – so to support the Gay News blasphemy trial, the Gay Festival was invented. It was supposed to be some kind of big party and at the time the Corn Exchange was a nice-sized, beautiful meeting hall, according to Charlie, so they applied to Bristol City Council who owned it for permission to use it as the venue.
It was debated by the Council and permission was refused as objections were raised to ‘those people’ using it for a gay event.
00:15:00 Charlie defines ‘activism’ as organising and administering and creating and facilitating people to meet and do things – but you can’t avoid it becoming political. He says he’s not a politician in the sense that he doesn’t want to stand up and make speeches to try and change people’s minds but he has found himself in that position without intention. Referring to the Council Chamber debate in ‘76/’77 – which he says should be in the archives – Charlie says it is ‘an interesting little thing to shame the Council, as it were’.
Chris asks what then happened and Charlie says the party didn’t happen because they ran out of time and, in truth, they were probably ‘over ready’ – they didn’t have sufficient resources for an event which was too large-scale for a small activist group – they really needed a professional promoter.
00:16:25 Charlie says that the other thing he was involved in was active union involvement. He left teaching and retrained as a social worker in Swansea and then got a job with Avon County Council’s Social Services Department in October 1979 and became active in the NALGO union. He says it seemed really important to get involved in the union straight away because he saw it as a source of support when coming out to colleagues. He had always taken the position that he should be out but in the 1970s you had to plan how you were going to do it and where your support was going to come from because it was a much bigger deal – so being active in the union was one way of doing this.
00:17:21 Charlie says that a group of gay people became active in the trade union and also in the Labour Party at the same time, so got Labour councillors on board when the union asked for sexual orientation to be added to the Equal Opps Policy of Avon County Council – brought in around 1981 which was quite early for local government. Charlie felt they were pushing at an open door because Avon was ‘up for it’ – it took much longer to get Bristol to change (he says he never understood why Labour was so traditional in approach). Avon County Council was a new council at the time and was trying to be more modern in working practice (Avon was abolished in ‘95/’96 and its powers went back to Bristol and other authorities and Charlie still works for Bristol City Council.
00:18:50 Chris asks when Bristol adopted the same measures and Charlie responds that he doesn’t know exactly when it was but it was a considerable number of years later. He says that Bristol was always much slower to respond to requests.
He adds that the Avon Lesbian and Gay branch of the union was very active nationally when the authority was in existence but they could never get the Bristol branch to be active in the same way. He says that, in his opinion, the truth of it was probably that it was the social workers who were making things happen (he thinks that ‘activist-type’ people are drawn to social work.
00:20:20 Chris asks Charlie to talk about his experiences of working within the union re activism.
Charlie says that he initially encountered resistance from the traditional elements of the union – initially gay issues were seen by some as bewildering but they slowly gained acceptance for an equal opps policy. He tells an anecdote re a national conference which was held on the Isle of Man where a protest was held outside the Douglas Tynwald (Parliament) because of its refusal to legalise homosexuality. The protest passed without incident, he says, and it was a good event and made a point. He remembers that the unions were very supportive and had been ever since equal opps policy had been adopted nationally by UNISON. Charlie says it was very important for him to be active in the union as well as the Labour Party – the combination of the two pushes back another boundary, in his view.
However, he adds, there were gay councillors in the City Council who never came out – it would be interesting, he muses, to hear their views of the time – in his view, it is so hard not to be out – even harder than being out!
00:25:40 Chris clarifies that these were Labour councillors who didn’t come out while they were councillors and Charlie adds that this was equally true of some Labour Party politicians (he was very active in the Party in the 1980s – in his view it was a boom time for Labour politics because Mrs Thatcher was in power).
00:26:40 Chris asks about the bigger picture – how does the story of Charlie’s involvement with the union fit into the bigger picture of his coming out and being actively gay.
Charlie says that coming out is a continuous process – you do it every time you go into a new setting. However, there are stages of coming out: he came out to his mother when he had just moved to Bristol – he didn’t plan to stay in the city and expected to go back to Edinburgh at some point (although it never happened for various reasons). He says his mother was bewildered and he made the mistake of promising her not to tell anyone else. He was just building up to telling her that he needed to come out when she died suddenly (in 1980) – she was ony 59. Charlie says he felt as if he had been pushed back a stage and it was two years later, after his grief, that he wrote to his father and siblings and told them all that he was gay.
He says that they were very supportive and wondered why he hadn’t said something years ago – they had all met Donald, with whom he had been living for four years already.
Charlie wonders why no-one had ever asked but then says that people never do. So this was his coming out to his immediate family and he says that he doesn’t think that they told anyone else. However, in 1982, a lesbian he knew asked him if he would become a sperm donor and he did and his son was born in 1983. Then he had to tell his wider family and this was a much bigger deal but fun - his father went on holiday with him and his son. He never had to deny or pretend that he was straight – he doesn’t think that he could. In certain situations people assume you are straight, which is convenient.
00:31:03 Charlie continues – the hardest place to come out was when he was teaching. He was young when he started (25) and he came out to some young colleagues (who were quite supportive) but thought that if the head teacher had found out he would have been sacked – he didn’t think that he had the capacity to deal with this at the time. He gives an anecdote dating back to the late ‘70s re a 6th former turning up at a night club at the bottom of the Christmas Steps and being thrilled to find a teacher at a gay club – he was no longer teaching then so there was no problem with the school. The boy in question was called Nigel and, according to Charlie, he went on to bigger and better things and was living in Clifton with another man in Clifton (at the time of recording). Charlie suggests that Nigel would make a good interviewee as Withywood School was a rough environment in which to be different (in Charlie’s view teaching at this school was more a matter of crowd control than imparting knowledge).
00:34:01 Chris asks Charlie if he thinks that his story is representative of other ‘out’ gay people at the time.
Charlie says that he thinks that he was part of a set who were all about the same age – teenagers in the 1960s who decided that they were going to be out and not closeted – a small and limited group. He thinks that this group could be divided into two: those who were out and proud and those who were closeted and feared being outed by the other group. Charlie says that he doesn’t think that these fears were justified – he thinks they would have supported the gay councillor if he had come out but obviously the councillor didn’t think that the support was there.
00:36:22 Chris asks Charlie if he thinks that were unwritten rules re outing – ‘discretion and whatnot’.
Charlie says that he does think that there were rules re discretion – even today you are seen as a pretty bad person if you out someone who doesn’t want to be out. You have to be careful not to make assumptions, says Charlie – you meet people at gay gatherings but you don’t know if they are out at work. That’s why there are so few pictures taken at gay gatherings – you have to get everyone to go to one side of the room – although, he says, at a recent event no-one went to the non-picture side of the room because now there is pressure not to be in the closet. Chris comments that it’s as if you’re outing people who want to be closeted and Charlie responds that it’s an interesting development and maybe there is no longer a need to announce that there is a ‘no picture’ side of the room?
00:38:10 Chris asks whether the language which is being used now such as ‘outing’ and ‘closet’ was being used back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Charlie replies that it was but now the experience of being gay is much more inclusive. There used to be segregation between gay men and women – lesbians wanted to be seen as a separate group – only in the union did Charlie have a close working relationship with lesbians because the union and Labour Party were not going to have two groups – so they had to learn to work together – and the union (UNISON) had a predominantly female membership.
00:40:30 Chris asks Charlie to describe the atmosphere of a typical night out in the 1970s – clubs, bars, etc.
Charlie says that he can only talk about the past as he hasn’t been to a club in years. He remembers clubs as sweaty and smoke-ridden and always places for cruising. He didn’t really go drinking so he wasn’t into pubs. He met his partner through activism – he says he thinks it’s important to be aligned politically for a relationship to work – he was with Donald for 27 years but are no longer together and he thinks their views have now diverged. He says that he was never any good at small talk and so was usually at a loose end in pubs – he has always needed a role and responsibility, hence his activism.
00:41:10 Chris asks Charlie about the Gay Centre and how it differed from the club and pub scene.
Charlie replies that the centre was initially the idea of Dale Wakefield who set up the Gay Switchboard in a room in her own house. Charlie got involved in 1975/76/77 and was keen to get the switchboard its own premises and so the idea of a Gay Centre was conceived. Every movement, says Charlie, has a building associated with it – even religious movements – ‘so we wanted a building’.
Then a building came up – McArthur’s building in Gas Ferry Road next to the SS Great Britain – it was very run down and rough back then and ‘wrong’ but cheap and spacious so ‘We were bamboozled into taking it’, says Charlie. The centre opened in 1978 and the idea was to have it as the focus for all activity and use the building to run all these activities.
However, explains Charlie, there were only enough people to run one thing at a time so everyone became a generalist. There were also volunteers who would run the café on Saturday morning and lunchtimes and for evening events as well.
The centre, says Charlie, eventually closed in 1983 because the volunteers stopped coming – the reason, he thinks, is because ‘instead of having fun’ they found they were doing social work – there was ‘too much social need’. Charlie says that ‘we were dealing with people in greatest need – which is not what we were set up to do. We were supposed to be providing organisational space for a wider movement but ended up providing not quite a soup kitchen but a refuge.’ Additionally, there was no public money involved – ‘it all came out of our own pockets and what we raised by our little discos’, explains Charlie.
00:48:00 Charlie continues to talk about the history of the gay centre: he says that in Bristol there were two serious attempts to open up a gay centre again but both failed – Charlie ponders whether the concept is at fault. He says that the London centre also failed but the Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow ones are still going but went for a very commercial approach – this stopped them being riven by political fighting, in Charlie’s view. Bristol, however, says Charlie, did not manage to ‘pull it off’ and its politics has always been ‘mild mannered’.
00:49:10 Chris asks Charlie whether he managed to get gay festival up and running ‘outside of’ the Corn Exchange when the application to hold it there was turned down.
Charlie replies that a number of smaller events were organised – party in a pub, boat trip, speaker in a library – in effect, festival started in 1977 and has run since continuously – three large Pride events in the last few years, says Charlie. Events, he continues, have been scattered around through the years with different organisations taking the lead e.g. The Pineapple pub, the Arnolfini – a chance for lots of little groups to get involved and promote themselves – which, says Charlie, is what Pride should be about. Charlie says that he himself belongs to a cycling group and that there was a lot of interest in them after the Pride event on College Green. He says that although he used to be very involved in the organisation, he is now more of a participant.
Charlie makes the observation that with regards to Pride in Bristol, the organisers seem to manage to pull off a big extravagant affair (like having a fun fair) for two consecutive years then things fail on the third year and the event collapses back to being tiny. In his view, events work best when there is a formula – so you don’t need the founders any more but just people with inspiration.
The first events, he says, were not really aimed at the general public and they used to send out brochures to a predominantly gay audience – now the events are open to all and there is publicity everywhere, including in straight places.
00:56:04 The first time the event went properly public, says Charlie, was when a bookshop called ‘Full Marks’ in Ashley Road did a window display (there are pictures of this in the archives, thinks Charlie). This was the first time the event was ‘properly public’ in a non- gay place. Charlie comments that he is surprised that the windows were not broken since the climate was very different in the ‘70s.
This shop is now long gone, says Charlie, but another shop in Old Market called ‘Hydra Books’ now works along similar lines and has hosted a couple of events for LGBT History Month. This event is what they hoped Pride would be in the early days, says Charlie, with its highlighting of various issues and talks and serious events – not just a huge rock concert (which is what Pride has become in Charlie’s view). Charlie is very enthusiastic about the LGBT History Month - ‘Outstories Bristol’ is going to be the backdrop to the month – and he is also involved in co-ordinating events for the month.
00:58:20 Chris asks about geographical plotting of gay movement within Bristol.
Charlie prefaces his answer with caution – he says he never knows if it’s just what his circles think or whether it is actually true. For example, there always appeared to be a large lesbian population in St. Werbergs – the network was informal but, nevertheless, various gay events were held at St. Werberg’s Community Centre and other local venues. Similarly, Southville gained a reputation as a place where gay men lived – Charlie says that he and Donald bought their first house in 1980 in that area and they were there for seven years. Charlie says he felt as if he was living in a network of gay men and Labour Party members – Charlie notes that there were a lot of gay men in the Labour Party (which must have made it very difficult for the gay councillor who wasn’t out, he muses).
Chris asks why Southville had as gay reputation? Charlie guesses that may be they all knew one another, so it naturally built up? The area in the 1980s was rather like ‘Tales in the City’ (Armistead Maupin) – it was story they were living. However, Charlie says that he was worried about flooding because their house was at river level, so they moved to Knowle – very suburban in Charlie’s view – and lived there for 20 years. Donald, says Charlie, is now back in Bedminster and he moved further up into Knowle, where he now lives with his son. He says that although he has now lived in Knowle for 20 years, he has always missed the intimacy Southville offered – he says that people have never ever just knocked on his door in Knowle – it’s only ever by appointment – very English!
01:02:20 Chris asks whether Charlie chose Southville because of its reputation. Charlie replies that there were several reasons why he chose various areas: he rented a top-floor flat in Caledonian Place (Clifton) when Clifton was still quite run down, inhabited by students – it was just on the cusp of turning around and people were beginning to buy houses and selling them for astronomical sums (and parking became a big problem in Clifton). Charlie says he looked at various areas including Totterdown but Southville was cheaper, centrally located and also exciting things were happening in the Labour Party in Southville – he also knew people in the area.
Charlie digresses with a tale of someone who was very active in the Labour Party and known for being outrageous in his dress who ended up marrying and having kids and passing for straight.
01:02:20 Charlie says the Southville branch of the Labour Party was very instrumental in putting forward a motion at the national conference in 1985 and he, himself, seconded the motion on equal rights for gays and lesbians – this was televised and also in the Bristol Evening Post and Charlie was worried about identification because he was a social worker and working for the Council (but he was a manager by now and no longer on the front line).
Charlie then explains the importance of the motion: the Labour Party agreed to implement gay rights when they came to power – this happened under Tony Blair but they had to wait until 1997 when Labour finally came to power.
Charlie then explains why the issue arose in Bristol: a gay haunt was shut down (lay-by on A4) following a local councillor’s concerns that gay men were having sex in areas frequented by families. The Bristol Evening Post ran an expose called ‘Men of Vice’ so the Southville group held a picnic in the lay-by with a banner which read ‘Men of Vice’ and a photo was sent to the Evening Post. Charlie adds that the lay-by was closed but he isn’t sure whether this was actually the reason.
01:11:53 Charlie talks about the policy initiative set up by Berkeley Wilde: liaison with the Police to try and improve relationships with the gay community – they tried to get the Police to agree to ‘a zone of toleration’ like the Dutch with prostitution but, says Charlie, the Police would have none of it. You have to remember, says Charlie, that we are talking about the 1990s (1994-2000) – they stopped the link with the Police once they could pass on ‘victim support stuff’ to Victim Support and other such agencies.
01:13:45 Chris asks whether the article in the Evening Post and Police raids were a representation of the conflict at the time?
Charlie replies that he thinks that the raids on the Downs (area nicknamed ‘Fairyland’) was an absurd waste of public money. He says that he managed to persuade the Police to talk to people rather than automatically make an arrest. He says that the word on where to go got passed on by word of mouth among the gay community and there was also a publication called ‘Spartacus’. Nowadays, he continues, it’s all done by text. He says that they managed to get the Police to shift from being harassers themselves to dealing with harassers.
Charlie adds that he thinks that the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry really changed the way the Police dealt with the community – although he thinks that it’s still difficult to be a gay police officer. Things, says Charlie, have definitely changed for the better and Victim Support is now able to reach people who are in isolated areas.
01:25:20 Chris asks Charlie if there is anything else he would like to say.
Charlie responds that being a father is hugely important to him – his son, Tom, is the most important person in his life – he would drop everything for him – he is 28 now and ‘the joy of my life’.
Chris asks how this came about and Charlie explains that he knew a lesbian woman who was living with another woman who already had a daughter and who asked him if he would become a sperm donor. Originally, the idea was for minimal involvement on his part but as soon as Tom was born he became very involved: he looked after him one day a week and would take him and his ‘sister’ swimming every Sunday – so he saw him at least twice a week.
01:25:20 Charlie tells an anecdote about Tom asking the girlfriend of his lodger why she was still there in the evening because he made sense of what was happening by dividing things into all-male or all-female households. Charlie says that he was surprised by the fact that Tom chose very conventional friends – he had expected him to choose children like him.
He says his own family were unsure at first but once they had met Tom they were charmed by him. Charlie adds that he was careful not to parade Homosexuality in public where Tom was concerned – for example, at his school – he didn’t want Tom to suffer homophobia on their behalf.
01:35:30 Charlie says there was a Gay Fathers’ Group in Bristol for a short period and he found it very supportive, especially over issues like accusations of paedophilia against gay men.
Charlie adds that Tom’s mother has just had her 65th birthday party – she is now in a civil marriage and very happy. According to Charlie, Donald was not happy about the arrangement but he bonded with Tom and Tom actually went to stay with Donald when he broke up with his girlfriend. Charlie says that the man with whom he is now is not connected to Tom in the same way.
He says that he makes trips with Tom to Scotland so he can meet his cousins in Scotland. He says that he is sad that there will be no more ‘Beatons’ once he’s dead since Tom has taken his mother’s name.
Interview concludes with Charlie saying that he can’t remember many things – it’s the big events that he remembers like the Secondary Motion to the Labour Party at conference and then the Labour victory on 1 May 1997.