three pairs of lovers with space

MICHAEL DAVIDSON’S EARLY SEXUAL EXPERIENCES: ENGLAND 1913-19

 

The following are all the passages of Greek love interest in  English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962) concerning the period between his leaving school in 1913 and his leaving England for South Africa at the end of 1919.

 

The World, the Flesh and Myself

4

In 1913, having just left school, the 16-year-old Davidson, was living at home in Hampshire …

[My mother] began to be socially, and perhaps morally too, perturbed because before long I was bringing working-class boys, younger than I, home to tea: she was never a snob; but she couldn't understand why I chose this sort of companion—and in those days, of course, differences of clothes, manners and so on, were tremendously sharper than they are today—rather than the 'nice' boys existing in the neighbourhood. Nor, really, could I; in the manner of the proverbial picture-goer, I only knew what I liked. There was a charming telegraph-boy I met in the Southampton swimming-baths; he very nearly took Manson's place in my heart,[1] and would have if the spurious romanticism of the war hadn't abruptly removed me from him.

Meanwhile, experiences of—but still more, reveries about—erotic pleasure were galloping ahead. I was about 16 when I first discovered almost by accident the tempestuous bliss of the orgasm; and increasingly I was yearning not only to share this bliss, but especially to perceive its enjoyment, so to speak, in another boy. About now, too, I was introduced to another mode of pleasure that's endured—I didn't acquire it, because it had always been there, in the underneath; I simply learned to relish it consciously, as one learns the flavour of garlic. An older boy, son of another doctor who lived in a doctors' row overlooking Southampton's main public park, taught me a number of tricks: one of them, to watch from his upstairs room the town children in the park, boys and girls, through a pair of field-glasses. We used to see some exciting sights; it was my practical initiation into the voyeur's pleasure: the acute joy of watching, unknown to the watched, some ecstatic privacy.

Aunt Annie had left me, besides some money and treasures to be mine at 21, £50 in cash for spending as I liked. My mother let me buy a motor-bicycle; and I began, nearly every hot day when I had pocket money, to ride it into Southampton and the public swimming baths. Mixed bathing hadn't then come in, and nobody worried much about nakedness; I went there to see as well as to bathe: to a constitutional worship of sun and water, there was added an obsessive awareness of phallic worship. One day—I can see him still: nice-looking and youngish—a 'horrible man' got talking to me, edging his conversation towards sexual things: Makes you feel like something, don't it, this 'ot weather? Like to come to my room? I bolted with embarrassment (and anyhow, with a physical horror of older people); it was a long time before I realized that this chap was already what I was later to become—as the judges put it, a 'menace to society'.

Early 20th century English postcard

Already a double life was contriving its impinging parallels. I'd discovered, on the borders of the Docks or backing on to the River Itchen, certain secluded voids, waterside terrains vagues, which the ragged boys, aged from seven to 17, used as bathing places. Fifty years ago, England's decent negligence about 'indecency' stood about where south Italy's remains today; and here the boys, free of by-laws and the interdictory itch of legislative spoil-sports, swam and played unselfconsciously starkers. And driving off towards Eastleigh on a hot summer morning of 1913, I'd be tormented by the magnet of this knowledge; till I turned the machine's head round and made for the water: to watch for hours these bathers. This happened so often that Drummond[2] wrote to my mother—saddened enough already by my various shortcomings. I've forgotten how I explained the truancy; probably I said I couldn't resist going for a bathe. This was a period when the magnet was irresistible: perhaps because awareness of this pleasure was so novel and violent. It accounted, too, for the first show of my innate laxity about money; for some reason one day, perhaps the hope of meeting some special boy, I was determined to go to the swimming baths; but had no pocket-money and, having been badgering my mother recently, didn't dare ask her for more. I went upstairs and smuggled out one of my suits, which I sold to an old-clothes'-man in Southampton for three or four shillings. This has stuck in my mind as one of the shabbiest things I've ever done; I suppose because I was cheating my mother.

 

5

The First World War having broken out, Davidson quickly joined up, aged 17, and served briefly in the Territorial Army in Chichester …

Best Friends by John George Brown, 1908

One other Chichester happening has remained notable: my first seduction, if that's the word—my first physical experiment with a younger boy. He was Steve, the boot-boy at the pub, about 14: ugly, unenthusiastic, and not very clean. Yet that spectacle, that tactile privity, that exalting intimacy, left me inwardly inspirited for days and weeks after; and for a long time I dwelt with an intense mental joy on the details of the experience (it was ages before one occurred again).

Soon Davidson got a commission with the Oxfordshire Light Infantry. Still in Hampshire …

Riding became a passion which, like most boyish enthusiasms, swamped all others even the growing, secret, urge towards boys.

It was astraddle my 18th birthday that my first 'adult' sexual encounters occurred: that I discovered that grown-ups could behave just as I felt like behaving. I knew by now exactly what I wanted; and though the young men I lived among, in spite of their endless talk about women, now and then paired off in bed for bodily larks, I knew that this was mainly a boyish hangover and quite different from my own yearning. And I still vaguely believed that I and Oscar Wilde—and, I suppose, that unlucky man at the Southampton swimming pool—were the only people since the age of Alkibiades to be born with this yearning. Now I learned from experience that there must be quite a lot of men, and even women, who wanted boys; and I was only too conscious of looking contemptibly a boy, with my undersized shoulders and cheek as smooth as eggshell—two years earlier I hadn't even reached puberty.

While at Gosport, I'd been an honorary member, like all Army officers stationed locally, of the Naval Club in Portsmouth—the Royal Navy run neck-and-neck with the French Army for munificence, as I found again in 1951 when I lived afloat with them in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea; and some evenings I'd go there to sip the weakest gin I could find: it made me feel grown-up. Very quickly I became aware of a podgy, twinkling Rear-Admiral with a furry beard like Cousin Mostyn's: a 'dug-out' in some Dockyard job. He was always there, and began beaming at me over the top of his newspaper or whisky; then he began smiling, and in a day or two asked me to have a drink. Before I knew where I was, I was asked to dine at his house; I felt terribly shy and puzzled, but didn't dare refuse so grand a person as an Admiral. I was puzzled again when at his neat little house full of nautical relics he didn't dump my hat and coat (he opened the door himself) somewhere near the hall, but toddled upstairs with them on his little short legs and hid them in some room. I was introduced to a meek, silent sister; and given a lot of whisky. We had a solemn little dinner, and the admiral made me as tight as a lord; I remember popping in a dutiful 'sir' whenever I could. It was time to depart: the little man bade me come upstairs to get my things—he'd put them in his bedroom. Once inside, he pushed me down on the bed and 'attempted to commit a certain offence'. As politely as I could, deferentially calling him 'sir', I said I was sorry; and managed to skip unsteadily out of the house. But I thought next day I'd behaved awfully badly, by failing to repay in the way he wanted his kindly hospitality; I felt I'd been so ungracious that I couldn't show my face in the Naval Club again. It wasn't prudery that caused this breach of manners; it was simply that I've always flinched from merely thinking erotically about people older than myself. I even feel a certain private embarrassment when my adult friends discuss their sexual doings.

Then, while I was at Bovington, there was the nice, valetudinary aesthete who lived in the Weymouth sea-front hotel where I used to have dinner. He picked me up in the 'palm court', among the wicker chairs: some kind of semi-invalid, though quite young; a wan, hushed person in a brown velvet dinner jacket, whose sitting-room upstairs was softly dim and lush with sombre hangings and little dark drawings by, I imagined, disciples of Beardsley. There was a baby-grand; and after we'd dined and he'd given me a whopping balloon of brandy, taking for himself some barley-water, he would murmur: 'Now I shall play you some purple music', and I'd swig the brandy while he improvised a pot-pourri of diaphanous melodies. Then he'd come and sit beside me, putting a hand on my knee. 'Won't you please be kind to me,' he'd whisper, so touchingly; but brutally, I'd move his hand away, and thank him for giving me dinner. How often, since, have I played that sad man's same role!

A few years after, when the war was over and I was in Zululand, I saw in an English newspaper that he'd died—and left £30,000 to his chauffeur: a chauffeur, I suppose, more obliging than I was a guest. I felt an awful pang, of course, about that £30,000; yet I couldn't ever have been a whore as so many of one's acquaintances are in effect: I've no more been constitutionally able to go to bed with a male old enough to make whoring worth while than I have with a woman.

My other two adventures of this period—one repulsive, though pathetically comic in retrospect, the second quite enchanting—were both connected with my Cousin Florence de Losada. …

It was at one of Cousin Florence's Lancaster Gate tea-parties that I met Mrs T. (for all I know Mrs T. may still be living—and rising 8o). She must have been over 30, and handsome in a Junoesque way; her husband, she told me, was in the Navy and away at sea. Somehow I got pinned down by her, and when I said goodbye to Cousin Florence she was doing so too; of course, when I called a cab, I had to offer to drop her. She was staying at the old Langham Hotel, now part of the B.B.C.; I found myself being asked to tea, and artlessly accepted—it hadn't occurred to me that the matronly consort of a Naval captain could be planning to seduce me.

I did my best, at that surprising tête-à-tête, to be polite, but humiliatingly failed; instead of rising to the occasion, I shrank, so to speak, into myself and recoiled from what was to me an impossible task. I don't think Mrs T.'s experiment had the slightest emotional effect on me; except to confirm in my mind by demonstration what I already knew instinctively: that for me the female—apart from the wholly incomparable estate of mother and sister—was only seemly in an aunt-like shape, or in some totally impersonal role like the vicar's wife's.

But the other encounter to which Cousin Florence provided some sort of a bridge was utterly delightful. He was nicknamed Biffy; [Note: Ismael bin Ibrahim][3] and had a wonderful smoky gold skin and the gentle Malaysian beauty of the South China Sea. He was little more than my own age; but as slight and fine as a child and with the sensuous, roguish face of a boy wine-seller in Pompeiian bronze. I thought I'd never seen anybody so exciting. He was then a crown prince, and remained one for four decades. Today he's a ruling Sultan. I briefly worshipped him, before I went to the Front and after; my last sight of him, in those boyish days, was in the Vincent Square hospital when I first came back wounded. I was wearing my dramatic orange-and-black silk dressing-gown—I still treasure the memory of it—which made me feel like an oriental potentate myself; Biffy had come to see me as soon as he heard I was there; and we managed a few minutes of charming dalliance before a string of aunts walked in, ushered by my gay and lovely V.A.D. nurse, Hope Havelock-Allan, as sweet as she was competent and beautiful.

More than 30 years later, in 1949, I telephoned to Biffy's palace on neutral ground, whither he escaped now and then, for unofficial diversions, from the courtly rigours of his Jovian father's State. An A.D.C., after consultation, asked me for drinks. Alas, I didn't find the Biffy whose delicate image I'd carried so agreeably in my mind's eye through all the years: not even recognizably the same person. . . .

 

6

Having been wounded at Passchendaele in 1917, Davidson was sent to convalesce in London, where he joined a Piccadilly club called the Isthmian.

The Isthmian (years ago defunct) was a jolly place devoted, it seems to me now, almost wholly to drinking; at least, that's all I can remember doing there. I remember a dear, calm youth called Brodie in the Black Watch; Humphrey Yorke, like a kind aunt, and his portly elder brother Alfred, later called I think Hardwicke; and a beautiful, heartless boy called Dicky D——, in the Life Guards; he took me to Sandown races and then jumped me into bed in the club-bedroom he was staying in.

I never saw him again.

When I left hospital, arm out of its sling, I began deliberately pursuing my secret wants. I didn't look for boys 'on the game'—I hardly knew there were any; remembering the delights of boyhood bathing places, I started to explore London's swimming baths—I'd slip away after lunch, making some suave excuse to Bertie or whomever it might be, and spend the afternoon till the evening's drinking appointment at some borough pool. Because I had to wear uniform, I couldn't go to the '2nd class' baths in the poorer districts which I haunted in later years; but to the 'first class' in Westminster or Victoria where I wouldn't look so out of place. Because, I suppose, my sexual objective has never been primarily physical gratification, I've never liked 'prostitutes'—people, I mean, for whom the primary objective is payment. Of course, every sexual transaction contains an clement of 'prostitution'; a girl expects a present or a seat at the pictures; a bride—even at St Margaret's—wants position or security; a young man, from his patron, male or female, hopes for a new suit; a boy needs cigarette-money or a new inner-tube for his bicycle. 'Love', whatever its form, requires a tit-for-tat—it's a kind of natural law. But for sexua1 pleasure, for emotional happiness, the 'love' must come first, the honararium second in the scale of preference. No fortuitous 'pick-up' could ever attract me unless genuine sexual interest were his first motive—or unless there were a touching need of 'mothering' the frequent combination of both hankerings in the farouche boys of Berlin was one of that city's enthralling features in 1930-33.

At that stage of my development, in 1917 I was less interested in doing than in seeing—or perhaps less daring than I became, and so largely contented myself with seeing. I discovered some swimming baths which amply supplied the needs of the voyeur I was becoming: generations of 'dirty old men', apparently, had systematically bored peep-holes through the wooden partitions between every dressing-box— observation-pasts which, to my knowledge, remained unaltered by the City Council for the next 30 years at least. Mixed bathing, then, was still municipally considered indecorous; most baths were as a matter of course labelled 'men and boys only', and generally there were more boys than men. What a complete reversal in the social conscience has occurred in these 40 years—in the last ten or 20, indeed; and especially since the doctrinal inundation of the Montagu Case: the public awareness of homosexuality has become so general, the fear of a sexual fifth-column so publicized—a sort of English spectre of Alfred Krupp or Prince Eulenberg—that nowadays the bikini type of bisexual exhibitionism is almost desperately encouraged and the old 'men and boys only' has been given the savour of decadence.

I became, as the years went by, an authority on the swimming-baths of London; I could have compiled a guide-book to them. They were as much the habitual playgrounds of youthful voluptuousness as any Roman or Greek bagni can have been; and very recently, notwithstanding the restringent vigilance of today's ubiquitous authority, I've seen overt juvenile orgies that would have surprised any of our prevalent fetichists of moral welfare. What might surprise him more, is the argument—not perhaps outrageous when solemnly considered—that such behaviour among the young is, in a sense, moral welfare; though doubtless not the etymon from which acquiescent social discipline derives. The exalting freedom of nudity, solitary or in company, releases naturally—not perversely—other freedoms, of the mind, the spirit and the body. A smooth, untimid, eruption of these freedoms, as natural as an errand-boy's whistling, surely must lead to moral health (if that's what moral means); their constriction, to deformities of the spirit. Of course, they can lead too by derivation to pretensions to further freedoms, inconvenient to whatever brand of 'law and order' obtains. That's why, no doubt, in disciplinary religion, nudity is often the chief bugbear of prudery; and in some conventual orphanages washing below the belt is put on a par with going to the W.C., while in Israel one sees the ringletted sons of Talmudic Jews wearing long black stockings like old-fashioned nursemaids', with their short knickers: they're not allowed to see their own knees.

Now and then there would be a brief, bewitching encounter in one of the dressing-boxes; but generally the delight was reticent and contemplative; and I'd go back exhilarated and mentally flushed to the evening's drinking appointment. I remember one gathering in the Duke Street pied-à-terre that Bertie fleetingly had: one of his young woman friends, intuitively percipient, suddenly said: 'There's something fishy about Michael—I think he's a woman-hater. I believe he likes little boys!' Of course. I roared with laughter; my double life had taken shape.

The war now over, Davidson decided to stay on in the army as a Regular, and his mother had moved to a little flat in Queen’s Gate, Kensington.

Of course there was a room for me; generally I reached home hours after she had gone to bed, and breakfast became a torment of dissimulation—the commanding need to disguise from her worried eyes the symptoms of morning-after malaise. By 1919, I was conversant with the processes of 'picking up': as easy as winking at that time when a multitude of yearning faces, young and old, used—in Holbrook Jackson's words about Francis Thompson—to 'haunt the Embankment, the cavernous arches of Charing Cross, and the black and dusty colonnades of Covent Garden . . .'; and one shameful night which still, 40 years later, puts me in a cold sweat when I think of it, I smuggled a boy into Queen's Gate while my mother was asleep and smuggled him out with the dawn. The criminality of that folly, of course, lay in the hair's breadth of chance that might have given my mother an odious sorrow and a confirmation, squalidly shocking, of that dread, scarcely comprehended, which I'm sure had been hovering in her mind almost since my boyhood. I recall the questioning heartache, the image of a prayer in her eyes, when one morning I crassly took home a ragged Glasgow boy I had found singing for money in the Brompton Road—I wanted to give him an old pair of shoes, I explained. Yet never did she utter any word of that anxiety; I think it was an adoring faith which forbade her accept such fears about a child of hers. Now and then, through the years, she would say: 'Darling Micky, I do wish you'd find some nice girl and settle down'; …

 

Sometime in 1919, Davidson changed his mind about a career in the army.

And above all I think, I was secretly wondering how my stealthy pleasure could be made to tally with the tight-laced curriculum of the regular Army; somehow I felt that the extrovert atmosphere of a regimental Mess wouldn't be the best for the pursuit of boys.

 

He arranged to go to South Africa instead …

Somehow, I can't remember just why, this beefy proposition is linked in my mind with a gay meal, more than 40 years eaten, at Claridge's; at which I was fascinated by my neighbour: a child, so she seemed to be, as tiny and exquisite as a petal, fragile and delicate and airy like a soap-bubble, dainty as an ivory doll, and yet friable like a puffball. This gossamer creature was a professional dancer who had recently become Viscountess Uffington; her stage name had been Olivette, so of course I christened her Uffilette. What made her memorable to me was my sudden sight of her in epicene shape: Gracious! I remember thinking, what a boy she could have been! It was the first time that I was consciously aroused by a girl— not because of, but in spite of her femininity. I don't know whether lovely little Uffilette, as entrancingly neuter, to me, as a Balinese dancer, ever became a Countess of Craven.

The story of Michael Davidson’s Greek love-life is continued in Michael Davidson in South Africa, 1920-ca.1921.

 

[1] The story of Davidson’s love for Manson, a younger boy at his public school, is recounted in Michael Davidson at Lancing 1908-13.

[2] Dugald Drummond, described by Davidson as Locomotive Superintendent at the railway engine works at Eastleigh he was going to daily.

[3] Of the several Malay crown princes, this can only have been that of Johor, who was born in October 1894, sent to boarding school in England, succeeded his father as ruling Sultan in 1959 and died in 1981.