Village green preservation societies. “To the Queen”. Prim schoolmistresses on bicycles. There’s a self-conscious magic to the little phrases writers use to create the past with – a green landscape painted on a little bit (two inches wide) of ivory. But our past isn’t as lily-white, or as gentle, as we paint it. There’s a brilliant Salman Rushdie passage, somewhere in the sprawling vastness of Midnight’s Children, where a character reacts with surprise to the discovery that the English see themselves as bumbling, quaint, apologetic. His experience has been of brutal, ruthless efficiency – there’s nothing self-effacing about colonialism.
But, then, no one side owns the past to conjure with. And the past is rarely as palatable as we want to make it. That virginal schoolmistress on her bike would have shocked moral conservatives by displaying her legs: she might have been queer, she was probably a feminist. There’ll Always Be An England, and it’ll always be full of people from every country in the world, a ferment of new ideas that make people angry, of ancient nonconformism that no amount of repression can stamp out.
Duckie understands this, and makes it visible. Their Duckie Vintage Clubbing Series has restored the bits of the past that moral conservatives would happily ignore – sex before The Sex Pistols, drugs before The Shamen. Gross Indecency in 2010 reconstructed a secret gay club in 1960s London, where attendees were advised to attend with a member of the opposite sex for their own protection. Gateways in 2013 looked at butch/femme binary culture in the 50s-80s. And Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball, last weekend, looked back even further.
Its setting in 1920s and 1930s London is pure Downton Abbey territory: repression, brittle ladies in beaded smocks, subservient servants, benign lords of the manor whose soft-soled shoes are still firmly in the faces of their underlings. But although the extravagantly beaded flapper dressed were in evidence, they were gilding the backs of bearded men and queer women of all shapes and sizes. Cabaret performers jived and charlestoned to ragtime songs, and brought out the subversion that made them so shocking the first time round. And the institutional cleanliness of The Bishopsgate Institute’s white corridors gave way to something a little messier, mixing post-Pride flotsam with lovingly administered queer history education with dress-up silliness.
Lady Malcolm ran her servants’ balls at the Royal Albert Hall (which also played host to the riotous art student jamboree that was the Chelsea Arts Ball). Her intention seems to have been a kind of patronising benevolence: to allow hard-working skivvies one night a year where they could dance and mingle as equals. She imposed a fancy dress code – so that everyone would be on an equal footing. Although that didn’t stop her sauntering through the crowd in satin and pearls – Duckie co-founder Amy Lamé impersonated her with regal condescension, introducing the evening’s sparkling line-up of dance and cabaret turns, and handing out trophies for best costumes.
Rather than retreating into an elegaic fantasy land of the balls of their moneyed contemporaries, the bright young things – who’d dress as Elizabethan queens, medieval peasants, clowns and jesters – the crowd at Lady Malcolm’s Servants Balls would often come in costume as the household implements and products that tormented them, all working year long (in homage, two 2016 revellers came in suits, with boxes of Borax tipping foamy suds over their heads and down their shoulders).
And as E-J Scott’s research into the original balls has found:
“Many servants dressed as satirical comments on their working class conditions. One girl went as an alarm clock set at 6am, and one fellow dressed up as the “The Porter’s Nightmare” with muddled up luggage tickets stuck to him from head to toe. Another chap dressed as “Vimmy” (the character Lever & Archer had used to advertise their powder scouring agent since 1904) and one girl, possibly a cook, won a prize for her costume of an Empire Christmas pudding inspired by a recipe in the Daily Mail.”
The rigid class divides in British society meant that rich people had permission to be stylish, anarchic, witty, queer – the sparkling Noel Cowards and Virginia Woolfs weren’t forced into cowed subservience. Working class people didn’t – a series of posters at Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball documented the moral outcry that surrounded the event, as it became a notorious outlet for sexualities that domestic servitude refused to accommodate. Men in drag were banned, and Lady Malcolm wrote a coded letter to The Times protesting that her ball had moved far beyond its original purpose.
In the 80s, there was a flurry of interest in the retired servants who’d spent their lives clearing up other peoples’ mess. The resulting interviews had all the expected cockney character and charm – but also a kind of terrible desolation. These twinkling matriarchs or avuncular gentlemen’s gentlemen were never able to marry and have families of their own. They were left as footnotes in someone else’s story – and when they were too old to play their part, they were adrift with no one to look after them.
They could have been the same servants who were full of witty, satirical energy in the 1930s – poking fun at their mundane working lives. It’s a poignant thought. And a reminder about how little credit we give older people – for being radical, for fighting battles we’ve barely thought about. There’s a generational divide in the queer community that’s deep, sad and solemn. It’s visible in the language we use, in how we dress, in where we go and how we meet each other. And if we see each other at all, across it, it’s not always with respect. If the LGBT/queer community can’t speak the same language, how can we tell a history that’s not Downton: not whiter-than-white, subservient, grateful, and gentle?
Last weekend, there were middle-aged men in mermaid costumes, silver-haired butch women in sharp suits, twenty-somethings in pants and the odd smear of glitter. And seeing them all rub shoulders with warmth and generosity made me glow, a little: there are some things you could only imagine happening at Duckie.