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As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer
Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.
So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….
But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;
‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)
Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:
‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)
It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.
You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.
This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.
McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:
- National Archives in Kew
- British Library/British Newspaper Library, London
- Metropolitan Police Service Archive, London
- Wellcome Institute, London
- Parliamentary Archives, London
- Libraries of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, London and Edinburgh
- National Archives of Scotland
Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.
It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..
McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), ‘Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]
Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels. How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams? Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case. However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.
Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League. If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability. It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs. Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally. This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve. And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled. Make sense so far, I hope so?
If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students. Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades. We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts. We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university. We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades. The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.
Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’? These are a ‘1st and 2.1. At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades. The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’. This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade. Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’. A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.
Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player. Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League. The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.
With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.
It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.
The Office of National Statistics has admitted to some frailties in its data collection around migration. What a shock it must have been to discover that the manner in which it collected the data was somewhat flawed, so much so that they have now downgraded the data to ‘experimental’.
It might seem almost laughable that an organisation that prides itself in, and espouses data accuracy and has in the past criticised police recorded figures for being inaccurate (we know they are) has itself fallen foul of inaccuracies brought about by its own ill thought out data gathering attempts. The issue though is far greater than simple school boy errors, these figures have had a major impact on government policy for years around immigration with calls for greater control of our borders and the inevitable identification of the ‘other’.
The figures seem to be erroneous from somewhere between the mid-2000s and 2016, although it is unclear how accurate they are now. New analysis shows that European Union net migration was 16% higher in 2015-16 than first thought. Whilst the ONS admits that its estimation of net migration from non-EU countries is overestimated, it is not clear exactly by how much this might be.
Such a faux pas led to the story hitting the news; ‘EU migration to UK ‘underestimated’ by ONS’ (BBC, 2019) and ‘Office for National Statistics downgrades ‘not fully reliable’ official immigration data as experts claim figures have been ‘systematically under-estimating net migration from EU countries’ (Daily Mail, 2019).
So, there we are the ONS gets statistics wrong as well and the adjusted figures simply support what Brexiteers have been telling everyone all along. But why release the figures now? When were these errors identified? Surely if they have been inaccurate until 2016 then the mistake must have been found some short time after that. So why wait until the eleventh hour when ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is about to come to a calamitous conclusion? And why those headlines? Why not the headline ‘Big mistake: net migration from outside the EU vastly overestimated’?
I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories but at times it is difficult to overlook the blindingly obvious. So called independent bodies may not be that independent, the puppet master pulls the strings and the puppets dance. Little value in headlining facts that do not support the right-wing rhetoric but great political value to be had in muddying the waters about the EU and open borders.
This discourse ignores the value of migration and simply plays on the fears of the populace, these are well rehearsed and now age-old arguments that I and many others have made*. The concern though is when ‘independent institutions’ subtly start to join in the furore and the moral compass starts to become distorted, subjugated to political ideals. I can’t help but wonder, what would Durkheim make of it?
* It is well worth watching Hollie McNish’s Mathematics on YouTube.