We met in late February 1966 at a Sunday lunch hosted by a mutual friend. At the time, I was an actor while Roger was a university lecturer — both very tolerant professions. A friend of Roger, a distinguished music critic, came across me by chance when I was at a bit of a loose end, and he thought I might get on with Roger. But it wasn’t love at first sight, at least not on my side. Roger, however, knew from the outset that I was the person he would spend his life with. I was getting over an unhappy affair and didn’t want to be involved in a new one. In fact, I was considering returning to South Africa.
However, Roger’s persistence gradually changed my mind and it didn’t take long before he’d persuaded me that we were ideally suited and that he was actually the type of person I was looking for. I decided against going back to South Africa, and we saw each other with increasing frequency before setting up house together. Roger was my first — and only — significant gay partner. Although we’ve had the occasional problem, in general we have been together for 51 happy years.
We had one bad patch where Percy actually left me, and that was devastating. But fortunately he was only away for a few weeks and then decided he didn’t like the person he’d gone off with anywhere near as much as he likes me. He came back, and from then on it was straightforward and marvellous.
When we moved in together, there was no legal objection to two men sharing a home, but sexual relations between them were forbidden and constituted a criminal offence. It was not until the following year, 1967, that parliament changed the law and allowed two men over the age of 21 to have sexual relations.
But if more than two were involved, even consensual same-sex sexual activity was a serious crime. This part of the law was only overturned in the European Court of Human Rights in 2000. In fact, many men were prosecuted and some sent to jail, and others took refuge in extreme discretion, avoiding relationships altogether.
Percy and I were astonished by how much our relationship was taken for granted by our straight neighbours. They clearly knew that we were an item, but it was never talked about because it was illegal. Even after it became legal, it was not spoken of a great deal. When I was growing up, homosexuality was effectively a taboo subject. I never discussed it with my parents, and I don’t think they would have known what I was talking about. Percy was the same; he was in South Africa, and it would have never occurred to him to mention it to his parents.
Like me, he thought that his sex life was for him [to know about], not for anybody else. When I was living in London before I met Percy, there were a number of gay clubs and pubs. The first thing you’d check on would be the exit, so that if there was a police raid you’d know how to get out. Looking back, it was rather exciting in a way: dodging the police and breaking the law. I quite enjoyed it, it added a sort of relish to life, but on the other hand we knew one or two people who ended up in jail.
Growing up in South Africa, where the law was the same as in England, I pursued an active gay life but always had an eye out for the police, and Roger did the same in England. It never occurred to either of us that this taboo subject would be brought out into the light of day and public attitudes would begin to change.
It wasn’t easy to live a gay lifestyle prior to 1967, but we had many gay friends with whom we used to socialise and we took advantage of the underground network of gay-friendly pubs, bars and coffee houses. We also had many straight friends who knew exactly what our relationship was, but felt they couldn’t openly acknowledge it until the law changed.
The Aids crisis in the 1980s was a really difficult time, but fortunately Percy and I were not promiscuous. At one time, people we knew were dropping like flies. When you got up in the morning, you wondered which of your friends would have died during the previous 24 hours. I think that was probably the worst period we’ve lived through, and it changed people’s attitudes. People had been gradually becoming more gay-friendly, and then this changed it right round. It set back the gay cause a great deal.
Before that, we had been relatively optimistic about the progress we’d made. Aids seemed to confirm all the worst prejudices about gay behaviour. Of course, straights also behave in a very promiscuous and dangerous fashion, but it’s always been lumbered on gay people. At one time, we just despaired and thought, “Well, it will never clear itself up.” It’s amazing the extent to which it has. If it wasn’t for Aids, I think gay marriage might have come earlier, but when we first met, we never believed that any form of homosexual relationship would be acknowledged by the state.
We were lucky not to encounter any difficulties from the law or bigots and homophobes, but, of course, London was a much easier place to live in as a gay man than the provinces — and certainly than in the countryside, where extreme discretion remained the order of the day. It wasn’t until 2005, when the Blair government introduced civil partnerships, that the situation really began to change.
We were the first in London, and among the first in the country as a whole, to become civil partners. Eight years later, after same-sex marriage was legalised in March 2013, we converted our civil partnership to marriage.
We were astonished when Tony Blair introduced civil partnerships, but the moment he did, we volunteered. It was about recognition that our relationship was just as good as anybody else’s. The best way to stay in a long and happy relationship is to want to stay in a long and happy relationship! It helps a great deal if you find the other person very attractive, which of course I did in the case of Percy — he was a young, handsome man — but we also shared so much in common.
I learnt quite early on that if you want a relationship to endure, you must not bridle at every possible insult. We’ve both behaved badly to each other from time to time, and I just kept on thinking to myself: “It’s not worth losing this wonderful relationship over things that don’t really count. The little things are the little things; the big thing is the relationship and as long as that’s sound, then to hell with any of the details.
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