GAVIN LAMBERT ON HIS BOYHOOD
Gavin Lambert (1924-2005) was a British screenwriter, novelist and biographer, and a lifelong friend of film director Lindsay Anderson from their time together as schoolboys at Cheltenham College. Anderson’s most famous film, if…. (1968), a satire on English public school life notable for its depiction of Greek love there, was filmed at Cheltenham and much inspired by his memories of it.
Following Anderson’s death, Lambert wrote a biography of him, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (London, 2000), in which he also recorded his own experiences of Greek love as a boy at both preparatory school and public school. These are excerpted here.
Just before my eleventh birthday  I won a music scholarship to a preparatory school with a "musical" reputation as well as great snob value. It was situated in the grounds of Windsor Castle. ...
My parents couldn't know of course, that St. George's School was also extremely musical in the other sense. Three (that is, half) of the teaching staff were queer, two already had "pets" and the third, who taught music and had awarded the scholarship, chose me as his pet. If the headmaster and his wife didn't know what was going on, they were unimaginably naive. In view of what happened later, it seems more likely they followed the example of our neighbours the royal family, turned a blind eye and hoped for the best.
My teacher-lover made what happened between us seem completely natural, so he must have been experienced as well as handsome and kind. Nothing "wrong" about what we were doing, he explained, but "we have to be careful because some people won't understand." They understood in ancient Greece, he added, and blessed me with the kind of initiation that he held up as an ideal. It not only made me feel superior to the people who wouldn't or couldn't understand. Having to sneak out of the dormitory to my teacher's bedroom was exciting, and made him even more attractive.
And soon after falling in love with him, I fell in love with the movies. ... On Thursday afternoons, when there were no classes, my teacher gratified this new appetite for movies by taking me to see Claudette … [and then many other films over the succeeding eighteen months].
The next dissolve is to a letter my parents received during the Christmas holidays [of 1936]. It announced the appointment of a new headmaster at St. George’s, and when I returned there in January 1937 my teacher-lover, his two queer colleagues and one pet were also missing. The pet’s parents, it turned out, had somehow discovered what was going on and withdrawn him from the school. Under pressure he had informed on the other teachers, but claimed not to know the names of their pets. And like all the other boys questioned by the new headmaster, I claimed never to have heard, seen or done anything ’wrong’.
I lied with a clear conscience, and you might say out of love – as well as concealed anger at the new headmaster, who made me feel violated when he spoke of ‘violation’. He had an uncontrollable tendency to spit when he started getting down to details, asking me to swear in the name of God that my music teacher had never ‘touched’ me in any way, then specifying what those ways might have been (kissing; hugging; fondling my private parts; asking me to fondle his private parts). The past is said to be another country, but sixty years later that interrogation seems to have taken place on another planet. And it reflected the kind of attitude that could only have intensified the conflicts of someone (like Lindsay) who was already sexually troubled.
In my own case I felt its impact intuitively, of course, and not with the precision that hindsight formulates. But I know it taught me the price that could be paid for being sexually ‘different’, and reminded me never to forget that I had to live in a secret world. By this time I had discovered that my cousin Maurice’s death was suicide, and wondered about the cause. Had he been exposed and lost his job? I also imagined the poor frightened pet being forced out of the closet, reluctantly betraying two other teachers, heroically refusing to implicate his more vulnerable brothers. …
I also felt abandoned by my teacher-lover, by then emotionally far more important to me than my parents, who never suspected his existence. But I didn’t feel betrayed, only disappointed that he never wrote me a letter – until the other abandoned pet explained it would be too risky. For several years I had fantasies of a passionate reunion when we met again by chance. It never happened. Perhaps he was killed in the war. Just possibly he has survived to read this after turning ninety. In any case, he is still remembered, an unfaded photograph in the mind’s eye, as my first love, and the first love I lost.” (pp. 24-26)
[In the spring of 1939, Lambert, aged fourteen, began public school at Cheltenham, where he first met Anderson]
At Cheltenham we were divided into Toughs and Wets, boys who were good at games, and boys who were not. … Although I was no good at games, I could make Toughs laugh with wicked imitations of our pompous headmaster and the eccentric wife of our housemaster. (Lindsay recreated both characters in If …, but I don’t think the housemaster’s wife ever wandered around nude at night.) This talent for entertaining, as well as a Tough who considered me fair sexual game and played the role of protector, saved me from persecution as a Wet.
The school authorities emphatically warned against ‘unhealthy attachments’ between older and younger boys, but had no idea how often they occurred. And I don’t remember that any of us ‘Tarts’, as we were called, thought we were committing a criminal offense, or performing ‘unnatural’ acts. We saw ourselves as playing forbidden games, like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. All that mattered was not to get caught. As for the senior Toughs, who were allergic to introspection, they knew it was just a ‘phase’ that ‘normal’ adolescents went through and grew out of. Later, in fact, most of them became husbands and fathers; and so, probably, did most of their Tarts. Apart from myself, I remember only one other Tart at Cheltondale [sic] who was already adjusted to a homosexual future.
Blond, blue-eyed, and vacantly beautiful, Rammelkamp had a relaxed contempt for the authorities. ‘They just don’t know what they’re missing,’ he used to say. ‘Although, when you look at their awful wives, you’d think they should.’ Far more in demand among the Toughs than I, Rammelkamp was an object of gossip and curiosity among the other boys, who occasionally made fun of his name but not his sluttishness. We once compared notes on our sexual initiations, Rammelkamp’s at the age of ten with a workman when he was on a summer holiday with his parents in Cornwall, mine at the age of eleven with a teacher at my preparatory school, and agreed that we’d felt no shame or fear, only gratitude.” (pp. 10-11)
The headmaster often referred to himself as ‘progressive’, and announce, on the subject of sex, ‘I believe in utter frankness about these things.’ But he encouraged us to associate ‘these things’ with guilt and secrecy when he engaged a school doctor who gave classes in sex education. After projecting various anatomical slides and teaching us new words like ‘spermatazoa’ and ‘ovum’, the good doctor issued all the bad old warnings. Masturbation led to disease and madness, boys who ‘played with each other’ committed a crime against God and nature.
Brought up on this kind of reality, how could Lindsay and I not prefer the illusion of movies, … (p. 12)
[Wolfgang, a German refugee whom Lambert got to know towards the end of 1944,] also gave me a translation, in a beautiful edition (which I still have), of Plato’s Symposium. At Cheltenham it had been out-of-bounds to anyone who took classes in Latin or Greek, and they fobbed us off with the Republic. Reading the Symposium for the first time, I was especially moved by Agathon’s celebration of pansexuality: … It brought to mind my music teacher, and made me realize exactly what he meant by saying: ‘They understood in ancient Greece.’ (p. 37)