Claude Cahun

By Jeremy Miles

I SPENT a lot of time last year shut in a room with a 112-year-old cross-dressing French lesbian.

Lucy Schwob - for that was her name, except when she chose to operate under the more masculine nom-de-plume of Claude Cahun - proved extraordinarily good posthumous company.

As a journalist I have always enjoyed a good yarn. So when, in a sudden moment of madness, I decided to study for a post-graduate degree in Art History with the Open University, I was drawn towards the fascinating but little-known story of Cahun. I chose her life and work as the focus of my dissertation.

Writer, actress, photographer, political activist and wartime Resistance fighter, she produced an extraordinary body of work during the first half of the 20th century, including a collection of ground-breaking self-portraits that played with accepted notions of gender and identity.

Unfortunately her home at the time, Paris, was not a healthy place to be.

As a Jewish woman who dressed in men's clothes, used a sexually ambiguous name and enjoyed an open lesbian relationship with her own step-sister she didn't exactly tick the right boxes with the Nazi regime that was waiting in the wings.

Together with her sister/ lover Suzanne Malherbe (who used the name of Marcel Moore), she escaped to the Channel Islands only to find that the German troops were close behind.

Imprisoned for wartime Resistance activities, the two women were sentenced to death but saved when liberation arrived ahead of the firing squad. Cahun's health was broken, much of her work had been destroyed and the photographs that still existed were forgotten.

She died in 1954 and it wasn't until the 1980s that her work was rediscovered. Feminists cited her as a pioneering lesbian icon and claimed that she had been deliberately airbrushed from the history of art by the patriarchal power base that controls the canon.

Plenty of material there to argue with... For months I led a wildly schizophrenic existence spending hours wrestling with dense academic texts: exploring the nuances of Andre Breton's Surrealist manifesto, the philosophy of Michel Foucault, the theories of Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes and then suddenly my other life as entertainments editor on the Daily Echo would kick in. I would find myself interviewing Freddie Starr at the end of Bournemouth Pier or talking to Les Dennis about getting his kit off on Extras.

It therefore seemed somehow appropriate that last week, when I finally went to London to collect my Masters certificate at a ceremony at the Barbican, that I had to turn down the offer of an interview with Wee Jimmy Krankie - another cross-dressing woman - to be there.

It's not usual to collect a degree - even a Masters - at the age of 57, and my ageing mum and dad (who were far more excited than I was) made me promise I'd go to a proper ceremony and invite them too.

It all coincided with the impending arrival of my father's 80th birthday so I said I'd take them to the theatre. What did he want to see? Cabaret!

So, more cross-dressing and the frankly gruesome sight of Julian Clary in fishnet tights. Hey ho!

Alas, it seems a theme has developed. Earlier this week a cheery chappy called Malcolm arrived to fix a problem with our drains. Within 15 minutes he was telling me all about a Blackpool drag show called Funny Girls while, a couple of weeks ago, the esteemed editor of this paper was bending my ear about the delights of the Lady Boys of Bangkok who, I hasten to add, are a bunch of entertainers heading for Bournemouth later this year.

© Jeremy Miles 2022