Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1999-2000

Just Take Your Frock Off, by Barbara Bell

reviewed by Claire Hodgson

Barbara is an elderly lesbian living in Brighton, and this is her story – starting out in a Lancashire mill town, moving to London and the Metropolitan Police, into teaching, and finally retirement on the South Coast – an uneventful passage through life.

Diva has described the book as “fascinating, authentic and hilarious”; authentic it certainly is, as it is apparently distilled from 40 hours of taped conversations. It is also interesting, as an account of a 20th-century lesbian life. Fascinating is overdoing it, and whilst there are some funny stories (particularly when Barbara and her partner, both policewomen, are burgled and Barbara’s uniform is stolen whilst they are asleep in their flat), it is not to my mind hilarious.

Anyone picking up this book and expecting to read a polemic against the difficulties faced by lesbians in the earlier parts of the century, or a political analysis, will be disappointed. One senses that, whilst Barbara was not “out and proud” in the way that term would be understood today, she was not faced with the serious prejudice that might have been anticipated. I think particularly of her time in the Met, and her descriptions of her life in Nigeria, amongst the “ex-pat” community. Preconceptions of that milieu would lead one to suppose that a lesbian would have a very bad time, but it appears not.

Whilst there is some description of the beginnings of the group that eventually became the forerunner of Kenric, the only mention of politics is that it led to a split in the group.

She grew up in a small town where one might think she would have experienced at least some prejudice, since it appears that she never hid her sexuality. However, there is no sense of her facing any difficulties over and above those that would be faced by any young girl starting out in life.

A move to London to join the police appears to have been prompted by a desire to have a good career and have a more active life, rather than by any pressing need to escape prejudice at home. Her father, knowing that she wanted a career, suggested it.

The police service at that time confined its women officers to dealing with children and domestics – they were not involved in the gorier sides of the criminal world. It was not until the War that Barbara was able to show her mettle. This was, of course, true of many women in many fields during both World Wars. Given the reputation the Met has today, I expected to read of at least verbal abuse from her male colleagues – but apparently not. One wonders where the Met went wrong after that, given the current series of adverts in the Pink Paper and elsewhere!

After the War, she left the police and moved into teaching, which it seems she half regretted. However, she enjoyed her teaching career, which took her from “approved schools” to mainstream teaching, and eventually to Nigeria after Independence. On returning home, Barbara obtained work in Sussex, eventually buying a house in Brighton where she still lives in retirement.

She tells of a number of long- and short-term relationships – the latter sometimes leading to the break-up of the former – and is honest about the mistakes she has made in her life. Her experiences enabled her to be an effective source of advice when she became the area contact for the support group, the MRG, she joined in the early 60’s. This eventually split, and one part of it became what is now Kenric. Barbara was the local contact for the group, a forerunner of modern “Lesbian Lines”. Indeed, this is the only point in her story where one is made aware of the difficulties that could face lesbians at that time and of the fact that she did have some concerns herself about “what the neighbours thought”.

Frankly, I found it difficult to get into the book, as it is not well written – the reduction from taped conversation to book has not worked well.

Overall, I have the sense that Barbara would be a fascinating woman to talk to in person, and that perhaps much was omitted in editing that could have been included.

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Created : Sunday, 2000-01-30 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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