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    Drew Payne
  • Author
  • 9,295 Words

Chalkboard History Lessons - 1. The Trial of The Century

In 1977 Gay News, the weekly gay publication, was put on trial for blasphemy. This story is about that trial.

11th July 1977


Mark sat on the wooden bench and waited. He still couldn’t shake that awkwardness sitting there, that feeling that he shouldn’t be there, as if any moment someone would point at him and call him out as an interloper, as someone there under false pretences. He was only waiting the trial to restart, the final part of it. The cold, wooden benches, the rituals of the trial that no one had explained to him and everyone else there seemed to know perfectly, the hushed and cold indifference of the place - all had added to that awkwardness pulling at his mind. But still he had returned here each day. He had to watch this trial: it was such an important one and he had to see British Justice being done, though the trial had left the unpleasant taste that justice was the least important thing here.

They had been called back into the court by an official, a surprisingly elderly man in a dark robe, with the announcement that the jury had finally reached their verdict. The courtroom was full, more people than had been there when he arrived that morning. At the front of the public gallery, with her hair in that solid and stiff permed style, her horn-rimmed glasses perched on her nose and a floppy bow tied at her neck, sat Mrs Mary Whitehouse. She stared out at the court room as if she was in charge of it herself.

In the dock, wearing a dark pin-striped suit and looking much more like an accountant, sat the defendant, Denis Lemon. When Mark first saw Denis Lemon, he had stared closely at the man. He'd imagined that somehow the man would look more radical than he did. He'd expected Denis Lemon to look like his own brother, Keith, and his friends - all long hair, denim jeans and cheesecloth shirts. Instead, Denis Lemon was a pale man, his dark hair cut into a neat and short style, the same style several of Mark's male teachers sported.

Raised up, dominating the far wall of the court room, sat the judge, on his “bench”: Alan King-Hamilton. Even the man's name sounded like that of a judge, a firm member of the establishment. In his judge's robes and white horsehair wig which hung down either side of his face like a spaniel dog's floppy ears, he was the image of authority and the law. Yet when Mark looked at the man's face, he saw the features of a plain, middle-aged man staring out at the court - men like Mark's father and his friends: little, middle-aged men who held no fear for anyone. Everyone had to stand up as the Judge entered the court though, even Mrs Whitehouse.

The Judge turned his fully attention to the foreman of the jury.

“Foreman of the jury,” the Judge spoke, his voice filling the court room, as the foreman nervously stood to his feet, “has the jury reached a majority verdict?”

“Yes, your honour,” the foreman replied, though the strain in the man's voice could be clearly heard throughout the courtroom.


The poem had been in the second edition of Gay News that he'd ever bought, but he hadn't read it at the time. Mark had no interest in poetry as studying O Level English had killed what little interest he'd had in it, so he'd just skipped past it. There were far more interesting things to read in it anyway. The magazine was his gateway into a whole new world, a world he hadn't known existed, a world that he'd still not had the chance to explore, but he promised himself that he would and soon.

He'd first seen it on the newsstand on Croydon Train Station, standing there at the end of the top shelf where all the pornographic magazines were also kept. He'd been traveling up to London that day with his older brother, Keith, and had only gotten a chance to glance at where it was kept. It had taken him three weeks to build up the courage to actually buy a copy of it. He'd only been seventeen at the time and had been worried that the man on the newsstand would refuse to sell him it. He'd also been worried that someone he knew would see him buying it. The more he passed through Croydon Station, the more he saw how busy it was and how he could hide in the crowd there when he actually bought his copy of Gay News.

On a Saturday morning, when he was firmly alone, he'd nervously handed over his twenty-five pence and bought his first copy of Gay News. The only thing the man on the newsstand said was to thank him for having the correct money. The man made no reference to the magazine he was buying or Mark's age or anything - he'd just taken Mark's money and handed back the magazine which Mark quickly hid away in his satchel. He'd only dared to read it when he was safely home and alone in his bedroom.

Quickly it became his fortnightly routine: he would make sure he had a reason to be near the station so he could buy his copy of Gay News. Soon, he'd started spending one Saturday afternoon a month up in London, spurred on by what he read in Gay News, and he would travel up on the train. He always planned his trips when a new edition of Gay News was published. His mother regularly complained about his trips to London, saying that there was nothing in London that he couldn't find at home in Croydon. Mark had just smiled to himself whenever she said that.

It was in a December issue of Gay News that he'd first read the magazine was being prosecuted. The poem published back in June was being called “blasphemous libel” and Mary Whitehouse had taken out a private prosecution against the magazine. He certainly knew who Mary Whitehouse was: the clean-up campaigner and self-appointed guardian of the country's morals. His mother was a fan of the woman. “That Mary Whitehouse speaks a lot of sense - she knows what she's talking about,” his mother would say. Mark had just seen the woman as a joke. That was how she was always portrayed on television as someone always obsessed with sex. Now she seemed something much more dangerous, directly attacking the gay community.

After reading that report he'd searched out his old copy of Gay News with the poem in it. He kept his back copies of it locked away in the cupboard at the bottom of his wardrobe. When his mother cleaned his bedroom, she would search through his things worse than any Flying Squad copper. He'd quickly read the poem, The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, but he hadn't been impressed by it. The drawing illustrating it, running down one side of the page in 1930s art deco style, showed a Roman soldier cradling a dead, naked Jesus. The poem itself was about a Roman soldier wanting to have sex with Jesus's dead body. Mark found it stupid and silly, not even slightly erotic. Reading it reminded him why he didn't like poems.

He'd followed the long run up to the trial itself through the reports and articles in the pages of Gay News and the repeated fundraising appeals for their fighting fund. As the months passed, the reports and articles rose in tone. This was going to be something serious and it seized Mark's attention. This was homophobia made real. Before, he'd just thought it was the natural way of things: queers were just hated by everyone for not being normal. He'd never thought of it as a specific prejudice until he started reading Gay News.

When the trial date was announced, Mark had decided he'd attend. Trials were open to the public. It was also scheduled to take place in July. His exams would be finished by the end of June and he wouldn't be starting his Civil Service job until September, dependant on his exam results and the grade he’d start on. His father had made it clear he could only afford to send his older brother, Keith, to university. Mark had to find a job after his A Levels. The Civil Service had been his mother’s idea and they had accepted him after his first interview, subject to his A Level results.

He thought up several excuses on why he'd be attending the trial to present to his mother. He couldn't tell her it was a project for sixth form college which was over at the end of June, so his mind tried to conjure up an alternative reason, but each one of them sounded hollow and he was sure his mother would see through all of them.

Eventually he told her the truth, well, half of the truth. That Sunday evening, the evening before the first day of the trial, he'd told his mother that he was off to London the next day to watch a trial at the Old Bailey - just not which trial. His mother just replied: “Don't get any thoughts about being a Barrister. Your father said he can't afford for you to go to university.”


The first day of the trial, Monday 4th July 1977, Mark had been early - nearly an hour early. He'd expected the Old Bailey to run on office hours and had actually got up so bloody early that morning to reach there. His train up to London had been full of commuters, men in dark business suits and women in bright summer dresses, all packed into any seat available. In his jeans and cheesecloth shirt he'd felt very out of place, and from the disapproving glances he received from some of the other passengers, he knew he was. When he'd arrived at the Old Bailey, he'd been surprised and slightly embarrassed to find the trial wouldn't start for nearly an hour - he'd thought he was going to be late. An elderly court official, an old man in a very dark suit, had told him that he was early and where he could wait. When Mark asked if the public gallery would be full, the old man replied: “That blasphemy trail thing? Nah! No one seems much interested in that one.”

Waiting for the trial to start, stood in the queue for the public gallery, Mark had felt a growing sense of discomfort, that he didn’t belong in a place like this. It seemed like everyone who was rushing around in there was well dressed and purposeful. The men who rushed past him were all wearing dark and pressed suits. Even the few women there were neatly dressed in jackets and matching skirts. There were men rushing past him dressed in barristers’ wigs and black gowns, manilla folders bulging with notes under their arms. Even the other civilians waiting with him in the queue were neatly dressed, though they were mostly middle-aged women in pale summer dresses and cardigans or jackets. In his white cheese-cloth shirt and pale blue jeans, Mark knew he was painfully out of place, and as the time approached for the courtroom to be open to the public, he worried more that they simply wouldn’t let him in if he wasn’t properly dressed.

When they did open the courtroom doors, the court official manning them barely gave him a second glance. But Mark didn’t lose that feeling that he didn’t belong there as he took a seat in the imposing wooden panelled courtroom. He was now face-to-face with the English Establishment, the thing his parents held in such high regard.

On that opening day of the trial was when he first saw Denis Lemon, and he'd experienced his long moment of surprise. The man was nothing like the image Mark had generated in his mind - the way the editor of Gay News should look.

There were two barristers defending Denis Lemon, Geoffrey Robertson, who Mark had never heard of, and John Mortimer, who he had heard of, mainly from the plays he wrote for television, while there was only one barrister conducting the prosecution, John Smyth, who Mark had certainly never heard of. All three barristers were dressed in their black gowns and white horsehair wigs, making them seem almost identical. The only way Mark could tell them apart was by their voices.

That also was the day Mark first saw Mary Whitehouse in person, sitting in the front of the public gallery. He easily recognised her from her many appearances on television, her horn-rimmed glasses, her stiffly permed grey and white hair, and her severe staring gaze, straight ahead of herself. Whenever Mary Whitehouse appeared on television Mark's mother would nod her head and say, “She speaks a lot of common sense, that woman does.” Mark had heard many jokes at school about her being frigid and sex obsessed, or why else would she be so obsessed about it on television. Through the pages of Gay News, he'd read about her prejudice towards gays and her repeated attacks on any positive move towards Gay Liberation.

That first moment he'd seen her, Mark had felt a sharp stab of hatred towards the woman.

The trial hadn't run the way he had expected: in the summer holidays and whenever he got back from school or college early enough, he'd watched the drama series Crown Court on television. It portrayed fictional trials, all portrayed by actors, but all in a plain and documentary style. Mark had been fascinated by it, the way the trial and its story unfolded in the testimony of the different witnesses and the way the Barristers questioned them. Mark had expected this trial to unfold in the same way as those fictional trials on Crown Court did, but he'd quickly realised that he was wrong. This trial seemed to mainly consist of the Barristers presenting their different arguments to the Judge and the Judge deciding on them, almost always in favour of the prosecution.

These arguments filled the first four days of the trial. As the barristers argued back and forth, the judge had excluded the jury from the court room - the jury box remaining noticeably empty. Each morning he'd sat himself down in the public gallery, he'd hoped that that day the real trial would start, but Mark was only further disappointed and then frustrated by yet more legal arguments by the three barristers there.

The first legal argument had been over the defence barristers wanting to call expert literary witnesses who would give evidence about the literary merit of the poem. Even after weak arguments from the prosecution barrister - in Mark's eyes, the man's arguments were so weak compared to the defence barristers - the judge disallowed this defence with no second thoughts.

Next, the defence barristers argued to be allowed to present expert theological witnesses to testify that the poem wasn't blasphemous. This argument certainly made sense to Mark: if the prosecution was claiming this poem was blasphemous, then the court should prove it. Again, after another lacklustre argument from the prosecution barrister, the judge disallowed this argument too. Mark found himself clenching his fists with anger when the judge announced his ruling - it was so unfair, and that judge was so biased.

The defence barristers’ third argument also made sense to Mark. The defence barristers wanted Denis Lemon himself to give evidence about why he actually published that poem. This argument was also clear to Mark: let Denis Lemon explain his reasoning - he was the man on trial. When the judge denied this argument too, with one of his usual nasty comments, Mark had to bite down on his own anger and disappointment. He’d wanted to storm out of there in disgust, except it wasn’t that easy to do in a courtroom (Not like his mother in the cinema when his father had taken her to see Taxi Driver and she’d stormed out after fifteen minutes). This time the judge’s decision was so unfair, so unjust. It felt as if whatever argument the defence barristers put forward the judge just shot it down with his sneeringly nasty comments. How was this justice? How was this fair? How was this a trial? There was no evidence or witnesses, just the defence barristers presenting their arguments about how they wanted to defend these charges, and the judge just shooting them down one by one, even in the face of the prosecution barrister’s weak arguments against them. How was this British Justice? Mark wanted to shout, but he knew to keep quiet because if the judge threw him out of the courtroom, he would be unlikely to be let back in. It didn’t stop the burning injustice pushing up inside of him.

At the end of the fourth day, the judge summed up his ruling, how he saw the trial continuing, but all Mark could see was that this man was handcuffing the defence barristers, making a defence almost impossible. The judge decided that the reasons why the poet wrote the poem or why Denis Lemon decided to publish it were irrelevant. The prosecution barrister didn’t have to prove this was an attack on Christianity - as far as the judge was concerned, that was already a fact. The views of literary experts and theologians on the poem were “inadmissible”: the court wasn’t interested in that. The judge defined blasphemy as anything that would upset Christians and would lead to a breach of the peace. The judge also defined a breach of the peace as anything that “would make a man worthy of the name of a man go out and thrash the offender or punch him on the nose.” Mark had again clenched his fists as the man’s posh, clipped voice announced this to the courtroom.

When he caught sight of Mary Whitehouse, beaming proudly out at the courtroom in front of her, as the judge made his ruling, Mark had felt his anger boiling over into a physical desire to hurt the woman. He wanted to smack her ugly, dry, old face, strike it with as much force as he was able to, to make her hurt the way she was hurting other people. He felt a flush of embarrassment the moment the thought flashed into his mind. His father had always said he shouldn’t hit a woman: men should never do that. Even the thought of striking a woman as ugly and hateful as Mary Whitehouse embarrassed him.

At the end of the proceedings that day, as the judge left the courtroom. For a moment, Mark had considered not standing, staying firmly sat on his seat to show his contempt for the judge and his arrogant rulings. The next moment his brain rejected the idea: showing such contempt could get him banned from the courtroom before the real trial had finally begun. As everyone else rose to their feet, so did Mark.


He’d missed them on the first day of the trial because he’d been there so early, but each morning afterwards, he saw them, the gay protesters. They were always stood in a line, some days chanting and some days singing or remaining quiet. They were always stood under their large banner that proclaimed “Gay Pride” above a large, pink triangle. They were mostly men protesting there, though there were also a few women amongst them, and they were all dressed in jeans and tee-shirts, even the women, the men’s hair styled and coiffed into the most fashionable styles. From the third day of the trial, the protesters were joined by a man in drag, dressed as Mary Whitehouse. The same tweet jacket and shirt, the same floppy bowed blouse and the same permed solid grey hair as Mary Whitehouse, though this man’s waist was half the size of the vile old woman’s. The drag queen Mary Whitehouse, in a foe Yorkshire accent, would shout out at passers-by: “Buggery is good for you!” and “Sodomy for all men!

When he first saw them, on that second morning, Mark had felt a rush of embarrassment. They were so flamboyant, so blatant about their sexuality. They had suddenly generated a deeply uncomfortable fear that pushed up inside his throat. If he got too close to them, then would they recognise him as queer too? It was one thing to read Gay News, to even to be attending the Gay News trial - he could explain his presence at this trial - but it would be very different if he was identified as queer by these protectors out there on the pavement. He couldn’t cope with that. Just the idea was too frightening. So, he would purposefully enter the Old Bailey as far away from those protestors as he could.


As the week progressed, increasingly more people would turn up to queue for the public gallery. On the third day of the trial, the Wednesday, he was one of the last people to be admitted to the courtroom, there were so many people now waiting. After that, he made certain that he was once again early getting to the Old Bailey.


That week, Mark learnt more and more about the background of the trial, from the occasional newspaper article and from re-reading his old copies of Gay News. This was not a public prosecution - the authorities had refused to prosecute Gay News - and even Church leaders declined to back Mary Whitehouse. So, she had taken out a private prosecution against Gay News herself - she was in charge of the prosecution. She was also using a very old piece of legalisation, the old common law act of blasphemy, so old that no one had been prosecuted under it for over fifty years. One article had called Mary Whitehouse “The Director of Private Prosecutions,” because she had taken out so many of them as part of her own campaigns.

The more he learnt about her, the more Mark hated Mary Whitehouse. She wasn’t just a self-appointed moralist - she was also a deeply unfair person. She used underhanded and plain dishonest tactics to win her fights - like prosecuting someone under such an ancient and unused law as the blasphemy law. She didn’t fight fairly. For someone who talked about morals so much, Mary Whitehouse was a deeply dishonest woman: she’d do anything to win.

He’d met so many boys like that at school: they’d cheat and lie and bully others out of the way just so that they could win. It was often on the sports field, but he saw the same attitude those boys had in Mary Whitehouse’s actions, and it left a nasty taste in his mouth.


On the fifth day, the trial finally began - well in Mark’s eyes it did. That was the day the jury was finally brought into the courtroom and finally witnesses started giving evidence to the court.

Mark was surprised by the way the judge treated the jury. As soon the twelve people were sat in the jury box, the judge almost fawned over them. He asked them if the courtroom was warm enough for them and he hoped their coffee had been to their taste.

“I do apologise to you, ladies and gentlemen,” the judge directly addressed the jury, “for having to force you to read that vile poem. I hope you have suitably recovered.”

Mark was shocked. Weren’t judges supposed to be impartial? They always were on Crown Court, yet here, this judge was openly stating were he stood. Mark could barely believe it! Yet, this trial had run oppositely to all that he had expected to be.

The defence were first to call their witnesses, though they only seemed to be able to call two.

Their first was Margaret Drabble, a novelist Mark had never heard of, and the journalist Bernard Levin, who Mark had certainly heard of. His mother didn’t like Bernard Levin and every time he appeared on television, she would complain that she didn’t know why they let “that communist” on their programs. Mark always paid attention to him just because of his mother’s disapproval.

Both Margaret Drabble and Bernard Levin were asked roughly the same questions by the defence barrister, and they both answered in roughly the same way. They were asked how valuable Gay News was and how reputable it was. Both of them gave evidence to the good character of Gay News, how valuable it was to many people, how it gave support to isolated homosexuals. Bernard Levin gave evidence to the journalists’ integrity of Gay News’ reporting.

The prosecution’s cross-examination of both these witnesses left Mark shocked and then angry. The prosecution barrister made a short statement to the witness, linking homosexuality to paedophilia, saying one automatically leads to the other, and then he asked the witness to defend sexually raping children. Margaret Drabble was physically upset by the question. Bernard Levin angrily argued back with the prosecution barrister, but at no point did the judge attempt to intervene and stop this line of questioning. The judge just sat back and allowed the prosecution barrister to harass them.

Mark glanced over at Mary Whitehouse as Bernard Levin angrily answered the prosecution barrister’s vile questioning and saw her smiling proudly at the court room. She actually approved of this line of questioning. She approved of it! The anger again rose in Mark’s throat. Then, he saw there was another woman sat next to her, a woman dressed in dress and jacket, a shiny white string of pearls at her throat. This woman was smiling too and whispering to Mary Whitehouse behind her raised hand.

The prosecution only called one witness, a Probation Officer called Kenneth Kavanagh. He told a story of buying a copy of Gay News on St Pancras station (Mark felt a pang of recognition there). He’d wanted to know what the cover said about gay probation officers, he said. (Mark couldn’t see why a straight man would buy Gay News). Kenneth Kavanagh said he’d been shocked, horrified and then deeply offended by the poem when he read it. He said, as a Christian, it attacked his very beliefs. He then passed his copy of Gay News onto Valerie Riches, Secretary of the Responsible Society. It was she who passed it onto Mary Whitehouse.

Under the defence barrister’s cross-examination, Kenneth Kavanagh admitted that he’s campaigned against Gay Liberation, but he saw no problem with this. He’d said he was committed to fighting for the family and Christian principles. The man admitted his prejudices in open court, seeming not to see anything wrong with his admission. Mark should have been shocked or angry; instead, he just felt dumb after all he had seen that day. He’d seen naked homophobia there and this was a British court of law. He’d expected more from this place: he’d expected justice; instead, he’d seen the bigotry and prejudice of the playground, the thing he’d spent his whole time at school avoiding.

The judge adjourned the trial there for the weekend.


During the weekend, Mark found that he couldn’t stop thinking about the trial, his mind brooding over the events he’d witnessed during the previous five days. He wanted to talk to someone about it - he needed to talk to someone - to relieve the pressure building up in his mind, but there was no one he could talk to.

His mother held Mary Whitehouse in such high esteem that she would be angry at him for what he wanted to say, what he needed to say. His father had shown so little interest in politics and social issues, would his father even know who Mary Whitehouse was? How would he explain his anger to his father? His brother still made jokes about Mary Whitehouse being a sex obsessed, frigid old bag. How could he explain how deeply he hated the woman and why? His family was closed to him. He couldn’t speak to anyone there.

He still had his handful of friends from school and sixth form, all his own age, but they were busy with their lives. Two of them already had girlfriends and his third friend, Eddy, was complaining loudly about not having one. How would they react to hearing that he had been attending such a high-profile homosexual trial? All three of them still told queer jokes, viciously laughed at all the queer stereotypes, and in his shame, he’d laughed along with them too (he had to laugh, didn’t he?). How would he tell them about the anger and injustice he felt boiling away inside of himself? He would have to explain too much and could lose the only three friends he had.

That weekend he’d felt so alone. There was no one he could turn to. There was so much of himself he had to keep hidden away.

He spent the weekend doing all the usual things he did: going to the supermarket with his mother, watching television with his parents, bickering with his brother, and all the while, the anger simmered away inside him.


On the Monday morning, the last day of the trial, Mark made sure he was early at the Old Bailey. He wanted to be certain that he got a seat in the courtroom. He feared the place would be packed. He wanted a seat in the gallery. He’d watched the whole trial - he couldn’t miss the final part of it. They wouldn’t be saving him a place in the public gallery, the way they did for Mary Whitehouse.

As he rushed into the Old Bailey, he saw the gay liberation protestors stood outside on the pavement, again under their Gay Pride banner. The drag Mary Whitehouse was again among them, preaching her message to all the passers-by.

Finally in court, sat on the back row of the public gallery, Mark watched the last day of the trial unfold.

The prosecution barrister was the first to deliver his closing statement. It was brief and to the point. The poem was blasphemous, the poem was deeply offensive to all Christians and therefore, the jury had no choice but to convict.

The defence barrister, who delivered their closing statement, instead concentrated on Denis Lemon, the man in the dock. “I am defending not a poem, nor a newspaper, nor an idea, but a person. I am defending Denis Lemon who is on trial today,” the barrister said.

Mark looked at Denis Lemon as the defence barrister spoke, but Denis Lemon just stared straight ahead of himself, a fixed and unemotional expression on his face. He wore exactly the same expression on his face as he had throughout the whole trial.

The judge was the last to make his closing statement, his summing up of the trial. It came as no surprise to Mark the judge blatantly supported a conviction, telling the jury to find Dennis Lemon guilty. The judge had made his opinions clear throughout the trial. He’d obviously sided with the prosecution, allowing the worst excesses of the prosecution barrister go by with barely a word, and yet he seemed to obstruct the defence barristers at every turn. Once he’d even interrupted a heated discussion between the barristers to tell the court the latest cricket scores. He’d been anything but impartial. To Mark’s minds, weren’t judges supposed to be neutral, or at least that was the impression Mark had gained from television. This judge let the whole court know where he stood.

At the end of the judge’s summation, he told the jury that he was certain that they would come to the right conclusion. The judge gave the whole court the impression that the jury would quickly return a guilty verdict.

The jury were first to leave the courtroom, filing out in an uncoordinated line. Next, the judge left, the whole court having to rise as he did. Finally, everyone else did, many people almost rushing out of there. Mary Whitehouse led a small gaggle of her followers behind her. Mark wanted to stay in the courtroom and wait for the jury to return, which it seemed would only be a short time, bringing in their inevitable verdict of guilty. How could it be otherwise with the way the judge had run the trial? But he also knew that they wouldn’t allow him to do that: the court officials liked everyone to leave the courtroom. If he upset the court officials, then his chances of being let back in to hear the actual verdict could be slim. So, following behind the last of the people moving towards the courtroom’s exit, Mark left.


The short wait that everyone had expected ended up dragging out in a five hour wait. The jury’s deliberations just seemed to drag on and on, and everyone just had to wait. The jury’s deliberations took place in secret: no one else was allowed to watch, so no one knew what was happening, Mark just had to wait.

It quickly occurred to Mark that perhaps one or more of the jurors had seen through all the judge’s antics and the biased nature of the whole trial, that one or more of the jurors had seen through to the truth of what was happening there. It gave him a spark of hope, though it must be hard for whoever it was in that jury to hold out. Mary Whitehouse had set up a prayer meeting in the Old Bailey’s courtyard. She and her supporters were praying loudly for God to grant them justice, for God to grant them victory, for God to do what they wanted. Their words felt so selfish, but they were also so loud. Could the jury hear them in their jury room? Mark didn’t know but he retreated back into the body of the Old Bailey to escape those loud prayers.

As the time dragged on, Mark found himself listlessly waiting for something to happen. He quickly noticed other people were just as listless, people sitting bored and fidgeting on the public benches, people walking endlessly back and forth in the hallway, or people absent-mindedly trying to read newspapers, but glancing up at the slightest distraction. He saw a woman, dressed in cardigan and slacks, busily writing copious notes in an exercise book: was she a journalist? He saw a man and woman, both of them middle-aged and smartly dressed, stood against one of the marble walls and arguing in hushed tones: were they Mary Whitehouse supporters? But he didn’t see Denis Lemon anywhere. Did they keep the accused in a separate place while the jury deliberated? He didn’t know.

When they were finally called back into the courtroom, the elderly court official’s voice booming out along the corridors, Mark had felt a rush of dread. It was guilty, it had to be guilty. After such an unjust trial what other verdict could there be? But Mark had hurried back into the court with everyone else. Eventually, his stomach was full of dread. He still had to hear it - he had to reach the end of this trial.

As soon as the judge returned to the courtroom, and was settled in his chair, he called on the jury’s foreman for their verdict. The man nervously stood to his feet and answered the judge in a voice that would have been heard in the courtroom, except a silence had fallen across the room, a silence heavy with anticipation. The man’s stuttering voice announced that the jury was deadlocked: they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict. The judge glared at them angrily, not even attempting to hide his feelings, but Mark felt a rush of excitement. It was true - somebody on that jury had seen through all the lies that had filled that courtroom during the six days of this trial. Someone in the jury room could see the truth that was so plainly obvious to Mark. Maybe even the majority of the jury had been seen through the lies. For a moment, Mark scrutinised the faces of the jurors, his eyes scanning over their different faces. But none of the jurors were looking towards him, in the public gallery. They were either staring down into their laps or staring straight ahead of themselves into the body of the courtroom. He couldn’t see any of their faces full on. He couldn’t see what emotions they were trying to hide, if any.

The judge straightened his back, obviously pushing his head and shoulders backwards, and told the jury to come back with a majority verdict, the anger still plain in his voice.

As they all stood to their feet, the judge left the courtroom, his body moving fast, as if propelled by his anger. Mark leant forward and glanced down at Mary Whitehouse. She was in the position she had been throughout the whole trial, front and centre in public gallery. Her face was creased up in an expression of annoyance. He recognised it easily - it was the same expression his mother would wear when someone else got to the last chocolate biscuit before her.


The jury seemed to take next to no time to return with their majority verdict. Barely had Mark left the courtroom than they were being called back it. Mark still held the hope that this was good news, hoping the majority of the jury had seen through all the prosecution’s lies.

Mark quickly found a seat on the second row of the public gallery, but at the far end of the bench of seats. He found himself glancing first at Denis Lemon and then over at Mary Whitehouse. Back and forth his eyes went in those few moments. Mary Whitehouse was surveying the court before her as if it were convened just for her purpose, which in a way it was, because she was the person behind this prejudiced trial. Denis Lemon just stared straight ahead of himself, his face fixed in a blank and almost neutral expression, as he had done throughout the trial.

Then the court official, in the long black gown, called out: “All rise!”

As he stood to his feet, Mark saw Judge King-Hamilton stomp back into the courtroom. The man was still obviously in an angry mood. Did the man brood on his anger, the way Mark’s father did, making his resentments and anger last all day long and even longer?

Once everyone was seated again and the court resumed, the Judge turned his fully attention to the foreman of the jury.

“Foreman of the jury,” the Judge said, his voice filling the courtroom. The foreman nervously stood to his feet. “Has the jury reached a majority verdict?”

“Yes, your honour,” the foreman replied, though the anxiety in the man's voice could be clearly heard throughout the court room.

“And what is your verdict?” The judge’s voice commanded an answer.

“Guilty your honour,” the foreman answered, the nerves slipping some from his voice.

The courtroom erupted into noise, supporters on both sides shouting and calling out. Some people even jumped to their feet to shout at the court. Two men only a few seats down from Mark jumped to their feet. They were conservatively dressed in dark trousers and blazers, but they were shouting against the verdict. Mark stayed seated but he felt the anger rush up into his mind and he didn’t stop it. This had all been so unfair and so unjust: the courtroom had been filled with lies and those stupid jurors had believed every word of it. They had been so stupid, and the prosecution had so readily lied.

“Order! Order!” The judge shouted at the courtroom, his voice barking above the noise. “Silence in court! If there isn’t silence, I will have this courtroom cleared!”

His barked command, exactly like Mark’s Headmaster drawing a morning assembly to order, drew a sudden hush over the courtroom. Those standing hurriedly sat down again. People wanted to hear the end of the trial as much as he did.

The judge turned his attention to Denis Lemon, his face still set in its angry expression. He stared straight at Denis Lemon as he addressed the defendant.

“You have been found guilty of the most heinous crime. You wilfully published the ultimate profanity of this filthy poem knowing full well that it would shock and offend, and with the full intent to attacking one of the cornerstones of our society, the sanity of religion. You have broken the law, committing blasphemy, and you will now face the full force of the law. I will pass sentence upon you tomorrow and, because of the disgusting nature of your crimes, you can expect the most severe sentence that is within my power. You may expect a custodial sentence.”

Mark watched Denis Lemon’s face as the judge barked his judgement at the man. The emotionless, fixed expression Dennis Lemon had worn throughout the trial crumbled as the judge delivered his sentence. His face now wore a scared and panicked expression. Denis Lemon now looked so human and so small trapped there in the court’s dock. The sight of him was so sad: this man had been cut down so much by so many lies. Mark blinked away a salty tear of anger and sadness.

Mark glanced over at Mary Whitehouse, sat there in her prime position, and he saw she was smiling. Her face was lit up with a broad and pleased smile. She was actually pleased that Denis Lemon was facing a prison sentence. She was happy that a man had been falsely prosecuted: she was taking pleasure from his prosecution, which was solely based on lies. She was broadly smiling. Mark felt his fists clenched with anger. He wanted to hurt the ugly old bitch for what she had done. She was so vile and hateful, and he wanted her to suffer the way she had made other people suffer.

The violence of his own response frightened him, that flash of violent anger and against a woman, but it didn’t stop his anger, didn’t stop him dwelling on it.


He couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. The courtroom seemed to reek of the very prejudice that had filled that trial, but as he was at the end of the row, he was trapped behind a column of slowly moving people. He felt his frustration and anger increasing as he was stuck behind them, slowly edging their way out of the courtroom. Even as they were slowly moving, Mary Whitehouse stayed sat in her place in the front row of the public gallery. God, the old bitch was glorifying in her moment, Mark thought, as he stared at the back of her head.

Mark felt himself being almost swept out of the courtroom. He wasn’t the only person who wanted to get out of there as soon as possible: people exploded out of the courtroom’s door, a flow of people hurriedly rushing out into the wide corridor there. Mark rushed along with them. He wanted to get out of the Old Bailey as soon as possible. He didn’t want to stay around and hear the crowing Mary Whitehouse as she stood herself in front of the waiting cameras and reporters. He didn’t want to hear her bigoted voice, her lying claims of victory. He wanted to be as far away from the old bitch and as soon as possible. His feet hurriedly walked along the marble floors there. He quickly headed towards the building’s main entrance.

As he finally rushed out the main entrance, he saw them stood there on the pavement, the Gay Liberation Front protesters. They were a large number of them that day, mostly thin young men in jeans and tee shirts, but there were also women and even the drag Mary Whitehouse. He suddenly saw what he could do, how he could manage the anger and frustration boiling away inside of him: he could join them. He could shout his protests with them, he could shout against the prejudice and lies he’d been subjected to in that trial.

He strode over to the protesters and spoke to the man nearest to him, a tall and thin man with chestnut brown hair that fell down past his shoulders, a long and smooth curtain of hair sweeping over the back of his head.

“Can I... Can I join you?” Mark asked him, a moment of nerves seizing him as he approached this handsome man.

“Sure you can,” the man replied. “Everyone’s welcome.”

“Thanks,” Mark replied as he took his place next to the man.

Over the next hour or so, Mark stood on that protest line, shouting out his anger. The tall, thin man with chestnut brown hair, who was called Gavin, quickly taught him their chants, and gleefully, Mark shouted them out. The physical act of shouting and protesting did help him control his anger: it was a relief shouting about how unjust this trial had been, but not just shouting alone, shouting along with others - he wasn’t alone in his anger.

When Mary Whitehouse swept out of the Old Bailey, followed by her matching follower, he had booed along loudly with everyone else on protest line, as the drag Mary Whitehouse castigated her. Shouting his anger at her had felt really good. He told her how hated she was, puncturing her bubble of self-righteousness.

When it was all over, when Mary Whitehouse and the reporters and everyone else had left, jumping into their taxis and cars, and the Gay Liberation Front protestors began to pack their banners and stuff away, Gavin asked him, “We’re all going for a coffee around the corner. Great way to wind down. Do you want to come?”

“Yes, please,” Mark replied. He felt a rush of excitement, a handsome gay man like Gavin wanted him to join in, to be part of the group.

“Why were you here today?”

Mark had been stood next to Gavin for the last hour or so, shouting as loud as him, and yet he’d barely spoken to Gavin.

“I’ve been watching the trial, the Gay News trial, from the public gallery. I’ve been to every day of it,” Mark explained.

“Why did you want to watch this trial?” Gavin asked, his voice filled with curiosity.

“I read all about it in Gay News, about them being charged with blasphemy, and it was so unfair. I wanted to watch the trial - I wanted to see justice done and the truth about Gay News to come out. That’s why I came to every day of the trial.”

“And what did you learn?” Gavin asked him.

“It was so unfair,” Mark relayed. “It was like they had decided that Gay News was guilty even before the trial started. They wouldn’t let any sort of defence. How can you defend yourself when you can’t even say why you printed that poem?”

“The establishment hates us queers, especially judges and the legal system,” Gavin said. “That’s why we have to fight fascists like Mary Whitehouse.”

“Oh come on,” a woman in denim dungarees stood next to Gavin said, as she folded up her homemade banner. “Denis Lemon wanted this trial.”

“What?” Mark asked.

“Denis Lemon only published that poem to get someone as stupid as Mary Whitehouse to sue him,” the woman replied. “He only did it for the publicity of a trial, the old publicity queen.”

“That’s only what some people are saying, Jeannie,” Gavin said to her, as Jeannie tossed and pushed her banner into her bag. “Now, you still up for a coffee?” Gavin asked Mark, turning his full attention back on Mark.

“Yes, of course,” Mark replied, shining in Gavin’s attention.



2nd February 2017


Mark pushed his key into the lock of the flat’s front door and found that he only needed to turn it once for the door to open, but it was seven o’clock and Kieran would have been home for over an hour. He quickly hung up his overcoat in the flat’s square hallway and dumped his document bag there too.

“I’m home!” he called out.

“I’m here, in the sitting room,” Kieran’s voice called back.

He pushed open the sitting room’s door, off the square hallway, and walked into the room. Kieran was slouched back on the sofa, wearing his post-work clothes of tee-shirt and jogging bottoms, as the television played in front of him. It was the first thing that Kieran did when he returned home from work - change out of his work clothes and into casual ones, usually jogging bottoms and some top. When Mark had first met him, Kieran had still been working in uniform and Mark understood why he wanted to change out of it as soon as he got home. Kieran had been working as a Sexual Health Specialist Nurse for years now, only ever wearing his own clothes, and yet he always changed out of his work clothes as soon as he got home. Mark never bothered changing his clothes when he got in from work, but he wasn’t a Sexual Health Nurse.

He sat down on the sofa, next to Kieran, his bent knee brushing against Kieran’s thigh, and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. the Jennings case is taking up so much time.”

“I was only fifteen minutes late leaving work, not bad really,” Kieran replied. “I’ve prepared dinner, It’s in the oven and all we have to do is turn it on and thirty minutes later it’ll be ready.”

“Thank you. You are good to me,” Mark told him, and then leant forward and kissed Kieran on the forehead. God he was lucky, he told himself. He often joked to colleagues that the best thing he did was to marry a nurse, because Kieran always looked after him.

“Channel 4’s news has just started. We can watch it, then have dinner,” Kieran said, resting his body against Mark’s.

“Sounds good to me,” Mark replied. He rested his shoulder against Kieran’s shoulder, their usual position of affection when they were both sat there on the sofa.

Channel 4’s news had already begun. Mark had missed the loud theme tune and bright graphics, followed by the fast-moving news headlines. Then had come their major news report, which was playing on the screen as he looked at the television. It was one of the things that Mark did like about this program: it wasn’t just short news item after short news item, like the other channels. This program took one or two news stories a day and looked at them in depth.

That day was a Channel 4 exclusive: the major news report was an exposure of decades old sexual abuse. A man called John Smyth was alleged, under the cover of an Evangelical Christian charity, of having physically abused countless teenage boys in the 1980s. He’d coerced and bullied those teenage boys into stripping naked and then he’d cane them on the buttocks, often so severely that the boys’ buttocks would bleed for days later. One survivor talked about having to wear nappies because his buttocks bled so much. That was shocking enough, but it seemed that both the Evangelical Christian charity and a leading public school knew about Smyth’s actions and covered them up. The Evangelical Christian charity had produced a report that was full of evidence against Smyth, and yet it was never turned over to the police. Since then, Smyth had escaped to South Africa.

Mark felt his levels of disgust rising at break-neck speed throughout the item. He knew it a was knee jerk, emotional reaction, but he couldn’t help it. He felt it every time at work whenever they received a new case of abuse: he would keep those feelings to himself. Always he had to be professional, but that deep feeling of disgust never went away, and in some way, he never wanted it to. He never wanted to lose his feeling of disgust at the abuse of others, otherwise he’d have been grown immune to the suffering of others, and that wasn’t human.

The news report contained several different interviews: harrowing interviews with Smyth’s former victims now traumatised men; interviews with people who knew Smyth and noticed strange behaviour; but the most shocking interview had been with Smyth himself. The Channel 4 reporter than doorstepped Smyth, now an overly tanned elderly man with very white hair. As the reporter repeatedly asked him about the allegations, all Smyth said was, “I’m not talking about that.” It was as if the reporter was asking about some youthful indiscretions that Smyth felt were beneath him.

Mark had seen this attitude so often before: abusers, when confronted with their actions, denying that they had ever committed them, denying any abuse had happened, claiming their victims were liars, arrogantly claiming that the abuse never happened, bluntly claiming their innocence even when faced with mounting evidence. Mark knew his disgust was coloured with anger now, but men like this didn’t deserve his sympathy.

The report ended with a studio discussion with two women, two Christian women. One was a theologian, who claimed that the Church of England had changed now, the other was described as a Religious Commentator, not a difficult job, Mark thought. It soon turned out that the Religious Commentator had known Smyth in the 1980’s, known about the abuse Smyth was handing out and had done nothing about it.

Mark had turned the television’s volume down at that point. The report had turned into a studio discussion where these two Christian women were trying to justify the coverup, though not mentioning it was a coverup. God, Mark had heard those type of smiling weasel words far too many times before.

“What a cunt,” Kieran said, as he pushed himself forward on the sofa.

“You know I don’t like that word,” Mark replied.

“Yes, but he is a cunt,” Kieran stood up from the sofa as he spoke.

“A real cunt,” Mark said. “But his name, John Smyth, QC, rings a bell.”

“He was one of Mary Whitehouse’s attack dogs. It was at the very beginning of the piece,” Kieran said, as he walked into the kitchen. “I’m going to turn the oven on. We need something nice after all that shit.”

Mark pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and quickly opened it up. He tapped on the internet Icon and typed ‘John Smyth QC’ into Google. At the top of the search list, he found the man’s Wikipedia page, and, almost at the top of it, was the statement that Smyth was Mary Whitehouse’s barrister in prosecuting Gay News. Mark had actually seen the man in action. Mark felt a shudder of cold shock. He remembered Smyth’s cross-examination of the Gay News witnesses, how he claimed homosexuality was the same as paedophilia, and then demanded that they defend paedophilia. This vile bigot was also an abuser of young boys.

Mark fell back onto the sofa. Smyth was an abuser, who abused his position and the trust placed in him. The memories of that trial came flooding back to him. He’d worked so hard to become a barrister because of the prejudice and injustice he’d witnessed in that courtroom. But what else had he expected, he reasoned? Everyone involved in that prosecution had been rotten and corrupt. Why was he shocked that Smyth turned out to be an abuser? Still, that didn’t stop the strong taste of disgust rising up inside himself.

Copyright © 2021 Drew Payne; All Rights Reserved.
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What a great piece of writing. I was to young to remember this trial, but this gives a great insight to how gay's were treated in the 70's by the courts.

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This was so good. The facts of history can be very dry, but turning it into a story format with a sympathetic central character made the whole thing gripping. I remember Mary Whitehouse well when I was growing up. Both of my parents thought she was a repressed old bigot and in no way subscribed to her ideology, but a lot of people at that time did support her. It just goes to show how far we have come since those days.

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Thank you for bringing an episode of history unknown to me to life. I knew nothing of Mary Whitehouse, or of this trial - not on this side of the Atlantic. Yet there are self-appointed guardians of public morality everywhere, people who aggressively press their own personal bigotry and bias onto everyone else.

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16 hours ago, chris191070 said:

What a great piece of writing. I was to young to remember this trial, but this gives a great insight to how gay's were treated in the 70's by the courts.

@chris191070, thanks so much.

I was eleven when the trial took place (Oops, showing my age) but I don't remember anything of it, at the time. I found out about it in the 1980s but just that Gay News lost the case. It was when I started to research this story and I found out what a Kangaroo Court this trial turned into, it could have been a farse if it wasn't so homophobic. My research has shown me the really poor way gays were treated by the whole criminal justice system in the 1970s and 1980s, and before.

There’re so many stories I want to tell from what I have found.

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13 hours ago, Mawgrim said:

This was so good. The facts of history can be very dry, but turning it into a story format with a sympathetic central character made the whole thing gripping. I remember Mary Whitehouse well when I was growing up. Both of my parents thought she was a repressed old bigot and in no way subscribed to her ideology, but a lot of people at that time did support her. It just goes to show how far we have come since those days.

@Mawgrim, thank you.

It was a long time ago I learnt the power of re-telling huge events from the point-of-view of ordinary people, people caught up in the events rather than the "important people" behind them. I 'm interested in the people at the edge of history.

My parents did agree with Mary Whitehouse, especially my mother, and as a child I didn't question Whitehouse. I began to question her motives when she went after Doctor Who, my favourite TV program as a child. Then, when I was a teenager, she went after the TV program The Singing Detective. There was a scene were a young boy sees his mother committing adultery. She condemned it, calling it pornographic. The scene was horrible but no one would have got turned on by it. I realised she wasn't interested in "morals", she only wanted people to see things that agreed with her mindset, she was a deep bigot. The scales fell away from my eyes, so to speak.

With these stories (The ones I want to write for this collection) I want to show how far we've come. I feel it’s so important to remember that.

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20 hours ago, Parker Owens said:

Thank you for bringing an episode of history unknown to me to life. I knew nothing of Mary Whitehouse, or of this trial - not on this side of the Atlantic. Yet there are self-appointed guardians of public morality everywhere, people who aggressively press their own personal bigotry and bias onto everyone else.

@Parker Owens, thanks for your feedback.

I meant to add a postscript to this story with links to all the real people and events in it but I'd forgotten to prepare it. I sorted out it yesterday and its up now.

I am so glad you don't know of Mary Whitehouse, she was a nightmare and deserves to be forgotten by history. She was a breath-taking liar and yet so many people believed her. As a teenager, I remember hearing a sermon at church where she was called a messenger from God (!!).

I am fascinated by people like Mary Whitehouse, people who use religion and "morals" to gain power and push their political agenda, but emotionally they also make me so angry by their hypocrisy and bigotry.

With these stories I do plan to write about the big events of gay history but I also want to also write about the smaller ones, the events that have often got forgotten, that pushed forward our freedoms too. I also want to write more about Gay News and Mary Whitehouse, there's several other stories there.

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This story was interesting and aggravating. I really liked the format of telling the story from a  fictional character's point of view. Mark is a well thought out character, and I thought the way you wrote his growing disgust with the trial was wonderful! I could feel myself getting worked up right along with him! Being from the United States and being in college in the early 1970s, I knew nothing about this trial. I can remember peoples attitudes toward homosexuals at the time, and I was not surprised by many of the actions and reactions. I am looking forward to reading your future stories of this nature. Thanks. 

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14 hours ago, JeffreyL said:

This story was interesting and aggravating. I really liked the format of telling the story from a  fictional character's point of view. Mark is a well thought out character, and I thought the way you wrote his growing disgust with the trial was wonderful! I could feel myself getting worked up right along with him! Being from the United States and being in college in the early 1970s, I knew nothing about this trial. I can remember peoples attitudes toward homosexuals at the time, and I was not surprised by many of the actions and reactions. I am looking forward to reading your future stories of this nature. Thanks. 

@JeffreyL, thank you for this.

I chose a fictional character because it was easier and safer way to tell the story. If I'd told it from the point-of-view of a real character then there is all that terrible responsibility of getting them right, and what if I got their characterisation wrong. But also, I'm really interested in history told from the point-of-view of the people on the side-lines. I chose Mark because I wanted someone who would get increasingly disgusted by what was unfollowing in the courtroom. As I was researching this story I was shocked by what happened during this trial and how the judge did everything he could to make sure Mary Whitehouse won.

Thanks for your encouragement, I'm going to be writing more stories here but I need to write them first.

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