Issue 3 . Winter 1997
Arena Three: Trailingblazing Lesbian Magazine
It always amazes me how quickly and thoroughly our history gets buried. Eight years ago, when Brighton Ourstory Project first started digging into people's memories, we were mildly excited to discover that there had been a lesbian organisation called Minorities Research Group (MRG) in the 1960s which put out a monthly magazine called Arena Three. No callow youth, even in 1989, I was shocked to realise that I had not only been alive but identifying as a lesbian for most of Arena Three's nine-year life span. That I didn't know about it at the time isn't too surprising, I suppose - we took the Daily Mirror in our house, not the New Statesman or the Daily telegraph which carried tiny advertisements in their classified columns. As a small but perfectly formed butch dykelet at the time, I also showed no interest in 19 magazine which apparently ran an article on the group in March 1969, resulting in hundreds of letters from young women to Esme Langley, the powerhouse behind MRG/Arena Three.
It was with great excitement that I learned recently of a little store of original Arena Threes that had been squirreled away for the last twenty-five years, carefully filed and tied with red ribbon. Their owner has lent them to BOP to copy for our archive. I haven't had time to take more than a superficial look through but they make fascinating reading and cover a far wider spectrum than I would have imagined. There is a complete run from March 1968 to March 1972, the last issue.
Editorials often have a political or awareness-raising theme with press articles coming in for a real pasting:
(Lorna Gulston, Arena Three, April 1968)
This was in response to an article in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement about the introduction of a male homosexual character in the radio soap opera, Mrs Dales Diary!
The edition of May 1968 notes that, "Since last year's reform of the law on male homosexuality, there has been a predictable surge of activity on the 'social' front in Britain. New projects for clubs, groups and homosexual societies are flowering with the spring, all over the country." A note from JH of the Hampshire group of MRG describes the novelty of going to a large dance organised by a local homosexual male group. "We numbered about 120 men to 30 women. The evening was enjoyed so much because we had the freedomwhich we wouldn't have had at a so-called 'normal' dance."
Rather be a leper
Readers' letters are a regular feature and include such debates as whether lesbians should call themselves by that name or by the term, "female homosexual" (some contributors use the word "gay" but this is rare). One woman's assertion that she would "rather be a leper than a homosexual", if she had any choice, brought a storm of protest in the following issue.
DG & RV write amusingly about a police raid on Barnes Common in 1969, watched by themselves and a pub full of young men who were "definitely all queer". The delight is the local paper's report: "a large-scale police hunt carried out recently in the area of Barnes pond and the surrounding common lead to the conclusion that there was no truth in reports of the presence of numbers of homosexuals in this area."
Hungry for information about a subject little known even to its own, the pages of Arena Three carry many references into lesbianism and appeals for readers to contribute to studies. One such was Charlotte Wolff's psychological profile, Love Between Women, published in 1971 (although one couple interviewed by her felt that they hadn't been listened to - she had concentrated too much on the problems of lesbian life).
No missives from Brighton
Short stories by readers and members of the editorial staff are a mainstay of each issue, as are book, film and theatre reviews, including a searing critique of Vera Brittain's Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity?. I'm still a little stunned by how much there was going on to be reviewed. Had I been a subscriber in 1971, I would certainly have wanted to go and see the Royal Ballet's The Grand Tour - "The dancers will be on demi-pointe as the haute-monde celebrities: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward..."
Why didn't I know about this organisation from my various lesbian friends at school (including staff!), I wonder? Scanning all the letters pages, I have found no missives from lesbians in Brighton - from all over England and Scotland, from all over Europe, from America, Australia, even Brazil and Papua New Guinea, but not from Brighton - maybe Arena Three was buried alive here.
We are very grateful to Carol Baker for lending us her precious copies of Arena Three and to Val Downes for telling us about them.