CamFest Speaker Spotlight: Dr Diarmuid Hester

Radical cultural historian and activist Diarmuid Hester will be in conversation with the poet and Booker Prize judge Mary Jean Chan in an online event based on his new book, Nothing ever just disappears: Seven hidden histories, on how the gay imagination deals with place and displacement through time and place. March 18th, 8-9pm. 

A rainbow umbrella surrounded by black umbrellas. Eoneren via Getty Images

A rainbow umbrella surrounded by black umbrellas. Eoneren via Getty Images

A rainbow umbrella surrounded by black umbrellas. Eoneren via Getty Images

What inspired Nothing ever just disappears? 
I was initially interested in traditional queer spaces - bars and clubs that are sites of community-building, solidarity, and history for LGBTQ+ people. I’d followed what’s been called the ‘closure epidemic’ in London: over a 10-year period until 2017, research showed a massive 58% of queer night venues shut down, largely due to gentrification and redevelopment, which made me think about the significance of those disappearing places. That ultimately led me to the larger question of a queer sense of place, and how queer lives, and histories, and identities are sited or emplaced. 

Does it matter more in times of backlash?
We seem to be at a significant juncture where hard-won rights have been rolled back across the world and more LGBTQ+ communities have come under attack from those who are afraid of difference and hate it. Under these circumstances, as a queer person it can be difficult to feel that you have a place in what seems like increasingly homophobic environments.

My book offers some hope, by looking at the lives of people such as the artist and AIDS activist Derek Jarman, the black entertainer Josephine Baker, and the gender-bending surrealist Claude Cahun. Through their stories I show that even under the most inhospitable of conditions, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have always made a place for themselves in this world. 

How does it differ from/build on your first book Wrong?
Wrong is a critical biography of the gay American writer, Dennis Cooper, and although it was published by a university press, I wrote it with a broad readership in mind. I wanted a fan of Cooper’s books to be able to pick it up and enjoy it and mull over some of its radical ideas; anecdotally at least it seems I managed to pull it off. Nothing Ever Just Disappears continues in a similar vein, using the biographies of artists and writers to introduce complex histories and radical concepts.

Like Wrong, it also eschews jargon in favour of an open appeal to readers beyond the university. Although it’s absolutely not a memoir, there’s more of me in Nothing Ever Just Disappears – I think personal reflection has an important but largely unacknowledged role to play in scholarship. Mary Jean and I talk about it in our festival conversation. 

Has place been important for your own writing?
I wrote much of Nothing Ever Just Disappears in offices loaned to me by two friends and colleagues at the University of Cambridge: Rebecca Barr and Robert Macfarlane. There was always something strongly symbolic about writing the stories of precarious queer places in locations that were only provisionally mine.

It also spoke to the importance of solidarity with the progressive efforts of others: Rebecca is one of the hardest-working feminists I know, whose research is anti-sexist and anti-colonial, and for decades Rob has been a passionate advocate for environmental rights. To write my book, a new cultural his­tory of the marginalised and minoritised, in places provided by Rebecca and Rob felt absolutely fitting. 

Your film explores places which have inspired the gay imagination in Cambridge. Can you give an example of one of these spaces and why it matters?
The book tries to get to grips with what Cambridge feels like as a city; how urban space is arranged and administered in the old centre in and around the colleges of Kings, Caius, Trinity, etc. Really, I wanted to know if understanding the peculiar organisation of the city might yield an insight into E.M. Forster, who lived here for many years and wrote so sensitively about particular places in novels such as Howards End.

Once unflatteringly named the ‘Closet Queen of the Century’, Forster never came out and was extremely compartmentalised in his emotional and sexual life; that disposition seemed to map onto the strict management of public and private space in the city. We took that as a cue for the film, which, alongside my discussion with Mary Jean, attempts to convey an impression of Cambridge and its spaces that’s sensual and almost psychogeographic. 

You describe yourself as a radical cultural historian, writer and activist. What does that mean to you?
I call myself a radical cultural historian because, in the first instance, I mainly research radical cultures and politics. Wrong was underpinned by research into the history of anarchism in the United States since the 1800s, and Nothing Ever Just Disappears is full of radical figures - from the postbox-burning English suffragette Christopher St John to the anti-capitalist New York filmmaker Jack Smith.

But I’m also interested in the potential of cultural history to bring about radical change. Creating counter-narratives that abrade histories sanctioned by the dominant majority helps us to imagine the past differently, and shifts our perceptions of what’s achievable in the present. By uncovering the marginalised stories of those who have come before, and bringing to light the worlds that they created (however fleetingly), we can see that another way is possible. 

You co-founded Club Urania. How did that come about? 
I arrived in Cambridge in 2017 and there weren’t any spaces for the arty queer crowd (or many LGBTQ+ spaces at all actually). I tried to set up a club on my own, but it was only in 2021, when I became friends with Ema Boswood at Cambridge Junction, that things started to come together.

We met Celia Willoughby, Roeland Van Der Heiden and Rosie Cooper who were also interested in creating a performance and music club, and we partnered with the Junction and Wysing Arts Centre to create Club Urania. And here we are, two years, hundreds of outrageous acts, and thousands of happy queers later. Our next event will be a day festival of queer culture called Queer Utopias, based at Wysing Arts Centre just outside Cambridge, on 18th May. 

Are you working on your next project and if so, what is it?
At the moment I’m writing an introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition of E.M. Forster’s The Life to Come and Other Stories, which is out in June. 

The Cambridge Festival is a unique festival of events brought to you by the University of Cambridge. With over 350 events from exhibitions, walks, talks, workshops, performances, hands-on activities, films and more!

Sign up to our mailing list here or keep up to date by following us on social media.
Instagram: Camunifestivals | Facebook: CambridgeFestival | X: Cambridge_Fest | LinkedIn: cambridge-festival