Monday 24 June 2024

Gay mystery on liner, 50s-style fiction

PRIDE MONTH. Here’s some authentic fiction for those wanting to lite-ish holiday reading about queer maritime history in the 1950s. 

It’s about the time when passenger ships were increasingly becoming the main workplace where a working-class man could be out and camp; tourists were just starting to cruise; and emigration to Australia was waning. 

Try Stuart Lauder’s un-deservedly long-lost 1962 literary novel, Winger’s Landfall . The picture shows him six years earlier.  

Old copies of the book can be found in on-line bookshops. Mine’s foxed but still has this great dust-jacket.

 WHO WROTE IT?  I've done some genealogical sleuthing and found that Stuart (other name David Stuart Leslie) (1921-99), was the writer of at least 19 published novels. He was the British son of doctor. 

He grew up in Australia, went home to London with his widowed mum on P&O's Narkunda, then headed back to Oz to serve in the RAF in WW2. He was indeed a ship’s steward. 

Googling newspapers I've twice found reports of groups'  petty crime that someone of his name were tried for. But they don't seem to fit.


THE PLOT. Insightful and sensitive but puzzling, Winger’s Landfall is about a butch-ish gay steward’s voyage on the Cyclamen from Sydney to Tilbury. His ports of call include Colombo.

It’s seemingly set just after the seminal 1957 Wolfenden Report, which ten years later led to liberalizing consensual same-same sex: the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

The publication of a Panther paperback edition
in 1966 suggests the hardback sold well
 and that a gay market existed.

Hero Harry Spears, 29, is an experienced seafarer, no fan of queens’ frippery, and a determined avenger trying to track down what might be a queer paedophile crime against his vanished half-brother. 

We're unsure about his sexuality initially. But the on-board gaydar quickly spots him, and he also has furtive liaisons wth the young and secretive Prince.  

Below stairs on the Cyclamen is a bleak dog-eat-dog ‘community’. Afloat and ashore, women are objectified. They are life’s second most important consumable commodities, after booze and its numbing effects.

THE CAST. There’s a substantial gay cast, including elegant Diamond Lil/Derek, an officer’s beloved, and the vessel's uber-queen he dethroned, ‘Patience Strong’; Marilyn, an amorous bell-boy; and senior hotel staff, all of whom seem to enjoy immunity from any employer homophobia.

THE SHIPPING LINE. This permissiveness exists despite ‘homosexuality’ still being illegal then. I’ve got a hunch the employers were based on P&O. 

The giant transport operators were then one of the most- gay-tolerant companies (but not because it was ethically pro-Pride. It was just keen to keep some of its on-board domestic labour white.)

I don’t say this novel is fun. Stand by for racism about Goan and Lascar shipmates. This is a book that implicitly proves the long-standing need for DEI.

 Why is this book a rare classic?

Because other fiction and non-fiction books about hotel-side life in the merchant navy, by former stewards,  don’t mention the extensive and out queer culture among stewards 1950s-1980s. 

 •           The most famous is Coming Sir, The autobiography of a waiter (1937). Despite the cheeky title, writer Dave Marlowe (real name Arthur H Timmins) doesn’t refer to gay life. That's not least because his focus is the late 1920s and 30s, before that culture became so prevalent and performative.  He also wrote a novel, Gangway Down (1939) which I've yet to find.

           The next most famous memoir,  Ken Attiwill’s Steward (1932) is also gay-free memoir of stewarding 

           My late friend, steward Ron Whitworth, self-published  A Voyage Round My Oyster in 2008. But it’s not only long out of print, it’s also non-transparent. When he was writing it I repeatedly begged him to be frank but he kept insisting, ‘No, people will be able to read between the lines.’  


1. However, you can read the fuller story and see the pictures in a social history Prof Paul Baker and I wrote, Hello Sailor! Gay life on the Ocean Wave (2003 and 2018). Hello Sailor!

This was based on many stories gay seafarers told us. That's why I know that Winger's Landfall is the most authentic queer maritime novel of all time.

2. See also the only queer discussion I've ever found, of Winger's Landfall .  It puts the book, and two other works by Lauder, in the context and queer spaces of the 1950s. 

Catch the fascinating online Leeds Ph.D thesis of Simon DR Ofield: An investigation of the resources available for interpreting visual cultural production related to male homosexuality in Britain; 1940 to the present.  (1998). Get it free at

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