Thank you so much, Ofelia, for having me as your guest again today! (You’re always welcome 🙂 ) I’m Ellie Thomas, and I write Gay Historical Romance. In this blog, I’m chatting about London in the Rain, my story for the April Rain or Shine submissions call for JMS Books.
When I decided to pick the Rain option, I immediately thought of London (for some strange reason!) and, after exploring the city during the Elizabethan era in my Valentine’s story, The Spice of Life, it was fun to move five centuries forwards to the 1930s.
As I wanted my story to be atmospheric, I turned to the Lord Peter Wimsey books by one of my favourite Mystery Golden Age authors, Dorothy L. Sayers, to see the scale of early 20th century London through her eyes and get an ear for the language of the times. I have to say it felt like an indulgence to leaf through my well-thumbed copies of Murder Most Advertised and Strong Poison to get a mental map of 1930s London.
In homage to the author, my main character, Raymond, lives in Bloomsbury (like Sayers herself and her mystery writer heroine Harriet Vane) and he also works in Southampton Row, where Pym’s advertising agency is based in Murder Most Advertised. Also, David, Raymond’s love interest is an Oxford graduate, like Lord Peter Wimsey, and if asked, he’d confirm he’s also a Balliol College man.
As Raymond, although sexually active, lives an outwardly closeted life, I had already decided that David would be much more open in his attitude and was at least an observer of the vivid Berlin scene in the late 1920s and early 1930s, where anything went in terms of artistic and sexual expression. What I was fascinated to discover, was that by the mid-1930s, London had a vibrant LGBT (or to use the contemporary term, “queer”) scene of its own, despite draconian laws.
Unsurprisingly, as it has been for many years, Soho was also the centre of this earlier hub. Although Charlie’s, the bar in my story, is a figment of my imagination, other clubs that I mention like the Shim Sham and Billie’s were real if relatively short-lived due to police intervention.
I discovered a fascinating virtual walking tour that rediscovers and celebrates this forgotten and colourful world and is well worth a look.
I also used references from the National Archives for my chapter set in Billie’s club, including descriptions of the spacious club room featuring a grand piano. Also, regular performers and some of the clientele mentioned in this excellent article.
Much of the writer’s observations are taken from the criminal and prosecution files, which is a desperately sad indictment of that period, but also contain fascinating details of the décor, acts, and the atmosphere of fun and escapism.
These sources inspired to me recreate that ambience in the concluding scene of my story, set in Billie’s Club. Here, at last, Raymond relaxes his inhibitions enough to dance in public with David, surrounded by an inclusive and vibrant crowd.
A life of set routine is the norm for Raymond Smith. Now in his mid-thirties, a fleeting wartime romance far behind him, he is an exemplary clerk at a London insurance firm where he’s perceived as dry and conventional.
But Raymond has a secret. Every month or so, he visits Charlie’s, one of the more understated bars in Soho’s flowering gay scene in the 1930s. There, he seeks relief with strangers to get him through the next few weeks.
On one of these visits, he encounters suave David Carstairs, a well-travelled linguist with the Foreign Office. Rather than a brief encounter, David offers him friendship and even affection. Despite Raymond’s misgivings, the two men, with their contrasting backgrounds and experiences, start to form a bond in the spring of 1936 as Europe inexorably begins to march towards war. Will Raymond fearfully reject this chance of happiness? Or can he unbend enough to allow David into his heart and life?
Raymond was almost breathless when he entered Charlie’s, the doorman lifting the curtain for him without hesitation. He paused in the inner doorway, taking in the quiet scene. As it was so early, very few tables were occupied, and the pounding in his head increased as he fruitlessly looked around the room. At last, his gaze locked on a familiar figure, sitting in the same position as Raymond had occupied the previous Thursday.
Charlie, the owner, elegant in black satin with her brassy hair piled high, was leaning over the bar talking to him in a familiar way that indicated long association. As he approached, the man gave a welcoming smile and Raymond’s headache vanished.
“Scotch and soda?” The man queried before giving his order to Charlie. As he chatted with the proprietress, Raymond looked at him surreptitiously. He’s not out on the town tonight, he thought, as the stylish dress clothes had been replaced by a tailored Savile Row suit. He must have come straight from work in much the same way as Raymond, and he wondered if his gentleman was something in the city or even a cog in the wheel of government.
Placing down their drinks with a vermilion-lipped beam, Charlie moved down the bar to serve the next customer. The man smiled at Raymond, picked up his glass, and said, “Cheers!”
Braced for the first taste of harsh spirit, Raymond’s eyebrows rose when the contents proved to be far superior to what was normally served. He must be more than a vague acquaintance of Charlie’s, thought Raymond, as this is the good stuff. He took a long swallow, appreciating the fine flavours.
“Bad day?” The man asked sympathetically.
“Oh, you know,” Raymond shrugged. “The usual ups and downs of office life.” Although his companion smiled understandingly, Raymond would have been astonished if the man had any familiarity with his humdrum routine.
The gentleman took a sip of whisky, and after hesitating, he began, “Well, whatever happened today, despite any inconvenience to you, I’m glad it brought you here. I was hoping I might see you again,” he finished with a shy smile.
Raymond said nothing, hiding his confusion with the rest of his drink. He must be joking. Why would someone like him give me a second glance?
Embarrassed, he changed the subject, pretending to peer into the corners of the room, saying, “Your young friends not with you tonight?”
The man laughed, “Thankfully, no. One round of the delights of Soho was sufficient for my young cousin and his chums. From the amount and variety of booze they put back, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still suffering from sore heads. Talking of which, would you like another?”
He gestured to Charlie, who took away their glasses to refill them from her private supply, returning their replenished drinks with a conspiratorial grin. Raymond took a sip of his fresh drink, letting the fine whisky roll around his mouth.
“By the way,” the man said, “I don’t know your name. How remiss of me. I’m David Carstairs.”
Taken aback by such openness, Raymond paused before he shook the proffered hand, his own captured briefly by a warm, firm grip.
“Raymond Smith,” he muttered in response. Meeting David’s amused, slightly disbelieving glance, he laughed and said, “No, it’s not a false name.”
“There are plenty of genuine Smiths in the world, I suppose,” David said lightly. “And not merely assumed for reasons of disguise.”
Raymond felt keenly aware of their surroundings and all the secrets this place of assignation held, including his own.
As though on the same wavelength, David said casually, “This bar is a pleasant place to unwind and not too far from King Charles Street where I work.”
So he’s in the Foreign Office, then, Raymond thought. I should have guessed. He’s got the looks and poise and, no doubt, the education too.
He cleared his throat, “I’m not far away either. My office is in Southampton Row.”
It seemed oddly personal to trade such information here, where Raymond had exchanged greater intimacies with men, never knowing a single fact about their lives.
David glanced at his watch. “I assume you haven’t had the chance to eat as yet? Perhaps after we’ve finished these, we might get a spot of supper somewhere?”
After gulping down his first drink, Raymond had been slowly sipping his second glass of whisky to remain as long as he could in David’s presence, convinced the other man would excuse himself at the first opportunity.
Raymond blinked, taking in the import of the invitation. “I’d like that very much,” he replied. David’s shoulders relaxed as though they had held some invisible tension.
Ellie Thomas lives by the sea. She comes from a teaching background and goes for long seaside walks where she daydreams about history. She is a voracious reader especially about anything historical. She mainly writes historical gay romance.
Ellie also writes historical erotic romance as L. E. Thomas.