- December 1, 2011
It came as a great shock to hear of the recent and unexpected death of writer and journalist Peter Burton.
I first heard of Peter almost 20 years ago when I moved to Brighton. As a newcomer to the town I would regularly pick up a copy of a free listings magazine called The Punter.
The Punter was the listings magazine for Brighton and Hove and had been started by our Managing Director Bill Smith with Tony Miller and Fiona McTernan, and in those days was edited by Kathryn Holliday.
Peter wrote features for The Punter and a regular restaurant column, a job which I was later to take over from him. But he was already a well respected journalist who had first written for Spartacus, a gay magazine published from Brighton that later went on to become the international gay travel guide.
The godfather of gay journalism
In 1973 he started to write for Gay News and by 1976, as well as acting as the paper’s literary editor, he was PA to the editor Denis Lemon.
It was in that year that Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association brought her private prosecution of blasphemous libel against Denis Lemon and Gay News after Gay News had published the poem ‘The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name’ by James Kirkup.
The jury found in favour of Whitehouse and Lemon was fined and received a suspended prison sentence. They were different times with different issues and Peter Burton was at the forefront of those issues writing about them and campaigning. Denis Lemon later went on to describe Peter Burton as the godfather of gay journalism and it was a role that he maintained until his very untimely end.
A writer’s inspiration
Very recently, Latest MD Bill Smith has been looking through archive copies of The Punter and was surprised to see how much Peter had contributed in those early days. ‘As well as writing a regular restaurant column Peter was writing about gay issues here in Brighton and Hove and started our regular ‘Out’ section of the magazine. It was great re-visiting his work and being reminded what a great journalist he really was’.
Peter wrote several books of his own but for many he will be remembered as an inspiration to writers, championing writing from young gay men and women, as well as from older writers who discovered a talent later in life, and over the years he edited many collections of new works.
In recent years he took on the role of literary consultant for the local Clifton Montpelier Powis Festival and at the time of his death he was already working on the next festival programme.
I went to interview Peter a few years ago about his involvement with that festival and about his career and his passion for books. That passion was evident from the moment you arrived at his home on the edges of Kemp Town. The rooms were lined with shelves and the shelves lined with books but between the shelves were stacks of books that towered and divided the spaces even further into a labyrinthine biobliophile’s heaven.
I gingerly eased my way through to the tiny kitchen at the rear of his home, which appeared to be in a perilous state of disrepair, and there he made me a cup of earl grey tea. I chose earl grey because the milk on the table looked a bit iffy. We chatted for several hours about books and about life in general. To be honest, I think we both forgot what the brief might have been, but it was certainly one of the most fascinating and educational afternoons I have ever spent.
Peter’s unexpected death will leave an enormous hole in the city’s literary scene, in its gay scene and in the lives of his friends. For those whose lives he touched, of whom there are many, he will be greatly missed but his influence will be felt even by those who may never have met or indeed heard of him.
Peter William Burton, journalist, publisher and author, born 29 April 1945; died 7 November 2011.