Ralph and Monty

I’ve posted a few of the photos from James Gardiner’s 1992 book A Class Apart: The Private Pictures of Montague Glover, much of which is taken up with the story of the long (53-year) relationship between the working-class Cockney Ralph Hall and the upper-middle-class (and significantly older) Montague Glover. The text and photographs give a window into gay male life in the U.K. 50 or so years ago, when same-sex relationships were illegal and sometimes savagely prosecuted. (Gardiner chronicled the history in his 1996 book Who’s a Pretty Boy Then? One Hundred and Fifty Years of Gay Life in Pictures.)

Along with the photos is a trove of Ralph’s letters to Monty during the four years Ralph served in the army during World War II. These have some linguistic interest, but even more interest as a record of an inter-class relationship between British men in the period. (It’s an accident that the photos and Ralph’s letters were saved. It’s a great shame that Monty’s letters were lost.)

I come at this with some personal interest, having stumbled into a brief but intense relationship with a younger working-class English man — a hod-carrier from Nottingham — decades ago in Brighton, England; see the fictobiographical account of my time with Norman here, with comments on the attitudes of working-class men towards the upper classes and on the division of roles in sexual encounters, in a world where gay men tended to be sorted into the serviced and the servicers, or, as Norman put it, bluntly but without contempt, men and women.

Norman was 100% gay, affectionate, and a romantic (he fell passionately in love with me), but absolutely rigid in his view of who did what to whom in sexual encounters. This view went along with his identification of the working class with toughness and masculinity and the upper classes with effeteness and femininity, and with his attraction to men of the upper classes because he saw them as sexually complementary to him.

I don’t think he ever appreciated that I didn’t share these views, that what made him attractive to me was his affectionateness, physical hotness, and intense sexuality, and that I put up with his attitudes (repugnant to me) in order to enjoy these qualities for a brief period (it’s a trade-off). He saw me as a Dream Lover; I saw him as a Great Trick.

So I read Ralph Hall’s letters to Monty Glover — fervent, full of endearments and emotional attachment — and wonder about the texture of their lives together, in particular their sexual lives. They certainly became a couple, sharing among other things a love for the garden and orchard they created together and a pleasure in taking long rambles through the countryside together. And they became entwined with each other’s families, though in general other people (like Ralph’s “lads”, his mates in the army) seem not to have discerned the nature of their relationship, or chose not to see it.

Two people who are deeply attached to each other tend to write similar things to one another when they are separated, regardless of their sexes, sexualities, or their roles in sex: they talk about the daily events of their lives, they reminisce about their times together, they say how much they desperately miss each other. So it was with Ralph and Monty.

Excerpts from Ralph’s letters, beginning with one from 10 November 1940:

Do you remember the old days when we first started darling. [Almost surely Monty picked Ralph up in London to service Ralph, as Monty did other desirable young working-class and military men, possibly for money.] I went back all over it again last night. What a time we had in them days [linguistic note: demonstrative determiner them, a feature that could be labeled as “standard demotic” English] and I am sorry to say I am crying I cannot hold it back no more [linguistic note: multiple negation, another standard demotic feature] my Darling.

From 19 December 1942:

You are the only one that ever gave me a frill [thrill — ear-spelling of the Cockney variant, though Ralph doesn’t spell this way in general] and you still do. Darling I can see me and you on the bed now you old darling. [This is about as carnal as the letters get. Old darling, by the way, doesn’t necessarily impute age, only long acquaintanceship, as in old friend.]

And from 24 May 1943:

If you want somethink. [Another Cockney ear-spelling, also rare in Ralph’s writing. Note somethink and not somefink; compare frill above.]

Each worried about the other’s habits — Monty that Ralph drank too much, Ralph that Monty continued to smoke — and Monty (as we can tell from Ralph’s letters) feared for Ralph’s safety (Monty had served in World War I). Some of the details are touching: Ralph sent Monty telegrams rather than letters on special occasions; Monty sent Ralph cakes to share with his mates. But if you didn’t know who Monty was, these letters from Ralph could easily be read as letters from a soldier to his wife.

Gardiner describes Ralph as “poorly educated”. Fair enough, but he was far from illiterate, and he was good at turning his ordinary speech into writing. He was also clearly a person of good heart and considerable charm. Not to mention (from the photos) a real hunk.

[Digression: My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother once, in an unguarded moment, spoke to me with feeling about the physical presence of her husband (who died 24 years before I was born): about his strong, muscular thighs and arms. She was an old woman then, recollecting him from their teenage years — country people got married young then, as a matter of course — but for a moment I saw him as she must have done, as a real hunk, with a charming manner and a beguiling smile. And he turned out to be a good man and a good father, too, until the great flu epidemic felled him young.]

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