Hull's Lost Hero to be celebrated at last
Hull’s Lost Hero to be celebrated at last

At this years City of Culture Celebrations in Hull Dan Billany [1913-43] is at last to be given some of the recognition that he deserves as an acclaimed writer,working class hero who made his way to university having left school at 14 by means of evening classes, an innovative teacher and a war hero whose body was never found after fleeing from his prisoner of war camp in 1943. In addition to this Dan was an LGBT hero who, living in hostile times struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. It was a story shared –but unwritten about and hidden from view—and largely unacknowledged by many thousands of gay men who fought for the freedom of their country but had precious little freedom of their own. The difference with Dan was that he was a marvellous—if largely forgotten writer and in semi-autobiographical novels such as The Trap, and The Cage as well as in his diaries,poetry and private writings –we learn much of his efforts to come to terms with his sexuality,and face up to the [hostile] world as he knew it and which would have continued for decades even had he returned safely from Fontanallato.For Dan and his kind the war would not have ended in 1945.

“In This World As We Know It”

Dan's widely acclaimed war novel. 'The Trap
Dan’s widely acclaimed war novel. ‘The Trap

Dan’s writings in the 1930’s show both the hostile world in which LGBT people lived but also the struggles that he had in recognising and accepting his sexuality. In one of his highly popular detective novels comes- this passage.
“It was a kind of love which,in the world as we know it.could not be made public. Rather commit suicide. Many have”

And so they did

The anti-gay laws were often correctly labelled a blackmailers charter [An argument to be used with potent effect at partial legalisation in 1967. Here is Dan again
“Unhappy devil [the gay victim] Mrs Valentine [the blackmailer] had found a way to make the very honey of his life into poison to buy her brandy and run her Daimler”

And indeed most gay men lived their lives in fear

But Dan also struggled to accept his sexuality. He hints that it is a symptom of ‘arrested growth’—of a phase that he will grow out of .
In his thinly disguised autobiographical novel ‘The Trap’ we have this passage from the avowedly heterosexual hero about his first loves at school. This comes after his account of the first girl he thought he fell in love with

“I next fell in love when I was thirteen ,with the boy who shared my desk at school.His name was Joey—-Again this was an absorbing emotion.One of the great epochs of my life. He had very fair hair.clear blue eyes,a broad forehead, and was very good and kind .I remember plenty about my love for Joey,but it would not seem much in the writing and anyway I have an inner reluctance to drag out details which probably wouldnt be understood and wouldnt seem significant -even for me if I put them in black and white. As as example ,once during the hot weather,when Joey and I were walking home from school,he put his arm around my shoulders. It was a common enough gesture with him,in fact most schoolboys do it,without thinking; but I have remembered to this day the leaping of the heart,and all that incident is printed on my mind so that it will be clear when I am an old man.Well I said that you would not understand.”

But we do Dan. Dan himself for long thought it was something that he would ‘grow out ‘ —–a misconception exploited by religious extremists and advocates of conversion therapy. Even when he was to meet David Dowie–the love of his life-in an Italian prisoner of war camp-he at first refuses to recognise it for what it was . He even suggests to his sister back home in England-that David would be an ideal husband for her—–despite the fact that both she and he are already engaged to somebody else ! When he does realise the true nature of his feelings for David and declares them David is shocked and for a while even broke off their friendship. Dan was devastated and pleaded with David—-notably through a beautiful poem that at least their friendship be resumed. And so it was and they fled the camp together ,were sheltered by the brave Melitti family,Dan leaving his drafts for The Trap and The Cage [or For You The War is over] which were duly posted back to England and Published after the war to great acclaim.They were never seen again

On realisation of the true nature of his true nature Dan wrote this marvellous poem—as relevant today as an answer to those who claim that homosexuality is a matter of choice

“When nature carved my limbs was I consulted?
Do I control the movement of my blood?
Could I reject the nose so oft consulted?
{An article I would barter if I could?}
JUst So! I cannot be cancelled by decree
And love not you because you love not me?

Such ,of course, was to be the theme of The Cage [or For You The War is over which he co-wrote with his beloved David


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And what if Dan had survived and returned to England? Would hs war be over? Would he have obtained his freedom as a gay man?


Even in his diaries whilst in the POW camp Dan confesses that ‘he does not want to become a spinster’ and that he supposes that he will have to get married. Dan did not want to upset his family or start the wagging tongues going. Like many gay men of his time he might have married to seek to hide and deny his sexuality. That was what ‘gay marriage’ meant.Or had he stayed true to his true nature he could —–despite having fought to defend his country’s ‘freedom’ he could have been dismissed the armed services because of his sexuality right up until 2ooo, Had he become a civilian-returned to teaching for example-he would have been treated as a criminal in all circumstances until 1967 and in many until 2003. And he would not have been exonerated
The best we can hope for now is that Dan and David passed peacefully in each others arms on that freezing mountainside.

But at least we are beginning to recognise the cruelties and hypocrisies imposed on generations of gay men such as Dan.who defended our freedoms but would have had little of their own. Dan once wrote that he would die of shame if he ceased to be angered by the injustices of this world and seek to do something about them . We made a start with the wreath laying at the Cenotaph at Hull Pride 2015. But we have a long way to go yet
Let us make a start by celebrating Dans life and works at this years City of Culture events.

Colin Livett 13/2/17IMG_20150718_213509

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