three pairs of lovers with space

MICHAEL DAVIDSON AT LANCING 1908-13

 

The following are all the passages of Greek love interest concerning the schooldays at Lancing College in Sussex of the English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976). They are taken from Chapter 4 of his autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962).

 

The World, the Flesh and Myself

THE CHRISTMAS TERM Of 1908 was my first at Lancing; a few months before I reached 12. Looking back now, I see those four or five years—I left when I was 16—as one sees sometimes a stained glass window from inside a 19th-century English church: the lifeless, sullied glass between the stucco of its mock-gothic mullion and jambs, turbid and dingy, dust-encrusted—yet pierced in a few chinks of faulty leading by dazzling, joyous beams of spangled sunshine, single and interrelated: filaments of stark happiness. That's how Lancing seems: dull and purposeless and silly (those lunatic icy baths on winter mornings!)—yet the precious source of some ecstatic bouts of emotional ebullience; for it was there I began to live emotionally, and to discover that the mind was capable of vast pleasures.

Lancing College Chapel

I suppose dozens of my contemporaries were killed in the 1914 war: those godlike athletes I feared, the angel-faced choirboys I was before long entranced by, the long-nosed bookworms I liked, those golden boys at the bathing place in whom I was soon seeing a new, mystical beauty—extinguished, still almost in their pubescence, in defence of things like the free marketing of marsala.

Chapel, in fact, I loved: adoring the slender soaring of the fluted pillars; inspired, tipsy, with the heady splendour of the plain-song—and it was in that chapel that I first heard music; watching, with a queer mystical happiness, the faces of certain of the boys; enjoying, in the same way I enjoyed, say, 'The Ancient Mariner', the more moving liturgical moments. But this joy in chapel wasn't religious; it was emotional, 'aesthetic'; perhaps, too, sexual.

Lancing College Chapel

I was bored by and despised the platitudinous burbling in the pulpit—except when the great Adam Fox was preaching: there was in him an exciting intelligence which even a boy could sense and, holy as I'm sure he was and is (in his canon's stall at Westminster), a spark of Swiftian satire. Yet I don't believe Lancing's religiosity defeated my mother's purpose and turned me unreligious: I rather think I was born without the capacity for religion: without the mystical gift which, surely, is the reality in religious experience. Or else I believe—and I say it in all sincerity and without blasphemous obliquity—that mysticism, for me, is a kind of distillation of sexuality; that religion, in me, seems an atavistic recrudescence of a worship of the ancients (which, however, lives to a degree in all of us, even in bishops); that the deity, for me, is the principle, the mysterious 'Let there Be', of generation; and that, for me, its symbol is the phallus. I don't mean that I've consciously got a pet religion of my own; I'm merely trying a rough rationalization of my governing instinct. And I don't mean that what I'm seeking to describe has anything to do, beyond an unquestionable origin in it, with physical sexual sensation, with what's called lust, with carnal gratification; that's important too, heaven knows: but in another compartment. I'm talking about a fierce and transcending joy of the mind; a kind of spiritual gloating over a unique aspect of beauty; an experience of apprehension that I can only describe as mystical. The moralists will execrate, the pundits doubtless pooh-pooh me. But here I'm stating, as far as I'm able, the truth about myself: my highest, most intense, pleasure or happiness is of the mind; and comes from seeing, being with, touching, looking into the mind of, a boy who, emotionally, mentally, rather than bodily, is simpatico; and from visually absorbing the multiple delights of his nakedness. Any sexual acts which may, and generally do, accompany, follow or precede this mental joy are adjuncts—prologue or epilogue to the essential monograph of the mind. It was at Lancing that I first had this experience, which I call love.

One of those shining shafts of Lancing memory comes from the cloisters round the Lower Quad: a beloved highway of imitation gothic, stonily echoing; with wide embrasures, spacious and continent, looking on to the green soft sward of the Lower Quad. …

The Lancing College cloisters

In those cloisters—hence the memory—a wonderful ritual took place on fine evenings after chapel, after tea, and for 40 minutes or so before herding into the different 'house-rooms' for Evening School—the equivalent of 'prep': a kind of ogling strolling in Vauxhall Gardens, a flirtatious promenade along the Sunny Side of Piccadilly. 'Coming round,' one asked one's chosen friend—but strictly, on pain of the most frightful sanctions, one of one's own age and status; and arm-in-arm, always arm-in-arm, one went round and round the cloisters, meeting one's acquaintances, discreetly descrying the bloods, and above all making eyes at the tarts, the 'tweetles', the pretty boys. I wonder if this exhilarating rite is still performed? It was genuinely beautiful: the antique graciousness of the cloisters, the O.T.C. band practising on the quad (the obbligato, one fancied, to a garden party: I hated the brassiness of the bugles and their silly boy scout tunes, but loved the side-drums, which seemed to go straight back through Waterloo and the Peninsula to Blenheim and Malplaquet), the awareness of friendship implicit in our linked arms and in the entwined twos and threes parading by, and that delectable, romantical surmise—one had but the foggiest notion of its meaning—as one caught and held the fluttering eye of a passing 'tweetle'.[1]

Then one made the round again, yearning ahead for a second go at those sidelong eyes.

Lancing College by J.H. Powell, early 20th century

In fact, there seemed to be precious little practised sexuality in my time: I remember seeing only two performances in all four years: little exhibited masturbations, one in the dormitory one 'bath night' when I and the exhibitor were alone for our weekly hot tub (but bath nights could be a trap for the sexy: [Davidson’s house master] Uncle George Smyth often slinked through in silent shoes on the watch for just that); the other in the 'Groves'—that barbarous and bad-smelling enclosure of the 1910s for the school's communal excretions. There was a modicum of talk about 'rubbing up', as the phrase there went, which indicated that people did it; had I at that time had more appetite, I should probably have discovered more evidence than I saw without looking for it. But of emotional, sentimental sexuality there was plenty: dozens of people had 'cases', an attachment for some Underschool urchin; dozens of smaller boys were 'tarts'—willing to make voluptuous eyes or accept furtive gifts of chocolate—or were some grandee's 'tweetle'. Nowhere, nor since, I think, have I seen exchanged so many meaning glances (of which the glancers barely knew the meaning) as 'round the cloisters' during those enchanted evening ambulations of so years ago. It was the fashion; and I was alone, as far as I know, in seeing with absolute clarity, before even my first explosion of love had blown me sky-high, that it wasn't just fashion for me: that here was the unchanging direction I was to follow. It seemed, for me, the normal direction; and quite natural that I should follow it.

Public school life depicted in The Gem of 22 May 1909

It was 'round the cloisters' that I first saw Manson. …

Manson[2], my boyhood love, had been given, unjustly I expect, by the cloister connoisseurs the label of 'tart'; it was inevitable, with those great languishing eyes beneath their sable lashes, and the lovely Gainsborough face. No doubt the way he dreadfully greased his hair and smarmed it backwards into a clinging scalp enhanced the tartish look; I longed for it to be rumpled, unoiled, like a satyr's—yet adored the entrancing occiput its flat glossiness revealed. I suppose he was 13, I was nearing 15.[3] It began in the cloisters; but it was in chapel that the sudden tidal wave of worship hit me and knocked me head-over-heels. I haven't the slightest idea why: I suppose it was some angle at which I caught his face, some light and shade upon it, some tilt of his head—all I know is that my spirit soared with those fluted pillars into the gothic height, and I walked out of chapel feeling as I didn't know human beings could feel. He had become my 'tweetle'; and for eighteen months or so he obsessed me: the thought that he was in the same world, the incessant awareness of his propinquity, somewhere, doing something; the image of his face and head and eyes and smile; the craving to touch him, to be with him; and later, after seeing him in the swimming bath, the sight of his nakedness. But I don't think, in all the length of this passion, I spoke to him more than twice.

We were in different houses, he in the News, I in the Olds; in different grades of school society (bureaucracy hadn't then thought up the term 'age-group'); and the Lancing law against the slightest consorting—even by glance—between people of disparate ages was as rigorous as any Hindu caste barrier. So this tremendous passion, this typhonic devotion, had to be conducted by signal: the signal, of course, of the eyes; a furtive wave across the breadth of a football-field during, say, a house-match; my ecstatic whistling of the first antiphon of our private catch tune when at last, after patient watching from the mullioned window of my 'pit' (instead of doing my reading), he came across the Upper Quad, and dutifully responded with the second bar ('pit' being the Lancing name for study). I can't think how much time I lost over lurking, waiting, prowling, in the hope of a glimpse of Manson; what an economy it would have been if I could have met him openly and licitly—and, then, how quickly probably the infatuation would have been over!

Public school life depicted in The Gem of 13 January 1912

Sometimes, I managed to send him a note, saying perhaps: 'Groves, tonight, 21 minutes past 7.' Nowhere less romantical than the Groves could be imagined, with that permanent urinary-carbolic stink; but no other common ground, fairly secluded, could be legally reached by both of us. (The Groves were the central depository for ordure of anybody, of any House and any age: the stand-up part was both sides of a zinc-faced wall, open to sky; the sit-down, two rows of door-less cubicles with buckets full-up by evening. It was icy-cold there in winter, and high as old horse in summer; I never crapped again in so humiliating a place until, in the Korean War, I had to use the American Army's.) Then, in Evening School, after quakingly watching the clock, I'd put my hand up at 7.20 sharp: 'Please sir, may I go to the Groves,' I'd write on a special board my name and destination and the time; when I got back I'd have to put the hour of return. I think three minutes was allowed for the Groves—so there wasn't much time. Then I'd rush off with the beating heart of a lover—but without the slightest notion of what I wanted to do, if I found Manson there. I never did find him; perhaps our house-clocks were different, perhaps he didn't bother.

But I did meet him one Sunday afternoon, when we had to go for 'walks' within delimited bounds, carrying under our arms those ridiculous straw-hats, which it was bad form to put on one's head, and weren't used at all on week-day, How I made the arrangements I can't remember: the tryst was at The Ring, a charming roundel of trees a mile or so over the Downs, between the '16 acre' above the college and Chanctonbury; I took Webster to keep cave, and my weekly 'tizzy's' worth of chocolates from the Grubber in a paper-bag. He came: I suppose for the sake of the chocolate: and while Tom watched from the clump's verge, Manson and I sat tongue-tied and stupid. Perhaps we talked for a minute or two about cricket; and then trudged separately back. We met once again, on the Lower Field when nobody was about; the dead tree-trunk may still be lying there with engraved on it ECMCD—the cryptogram of our espoused initials.

In the holidays, and even after I'd left, I sent him letters: in which, I hoped, the burning fires of my love glowed through formal words intended for parents' eyes. Day after day I watched for the postman, and felt the frightful anguish of disappointment; not more than twice in eighteen months he wrote—something like:

'Dear Davidson, hope you're having jolly hols. I went to the military tournament, yours ever E. C. Manson.' These letters, precious and sacred as the Host, I'd kiss in the locked lavatory, and put under my pillow at night. No names, surely, could be thought of more heavy-handed than Ernest Claude: to me they were pure poetry, and my new motor-bicycle was christened Ernest while my retriever mongrel, publicly called Curly, became secretly Claude.

Hope Comforting Love in Bondage by Sidney Meteyard, 1901

This, of course, was 'calf-love', a 'childish infatuation': the thing for which grown-ups tease, and perhaps permanently wound, their burning offspring. But I can't see that, in intensity and volume, this schoolboy love, this pubescent emotion, was any less of a thing than others succeeding it in the later, mature years (or rather, the years of the 'eternal adolescent'); just as I can't see that these last were different, in strength and truth—though I admit I'm in no position to judge; but then, nor is anybody else— from 'normal' people's loves. Love is love; and a daffodil's a daffodil, in a suburban backyard or a Sussex coomb. But adult mockery of calf-love (at any rate in my day) wasn't so obtuse: I believe it springs from a jealousy, a selfish misgiving lest, if certain lofty secrecies aren't tantalizingly hidden from the young and emancipating pleasures denied them, some power over them will be lost; just as the ruling coteries of nations, especially dubious dictatorships, hasten to restrict sexual liberty knowing that it fosters an appetite for other liberty (remember the duchess who asked her lover: 'Is it really true that the lower classes do this too?'; and the judicial concern, in the 'Lady Chatterley' trial at the Old Bailey, lest ordinary working people should spend 3s 6d on the Penguin edition). It was, I suspect, the moment that I first saw Manson naked in the swimming bath that I first perceived the fierce joy, the mental exaltation, that surged up from looking at naked boys: a fascination I've never ceased to feel and have always sought to experience. In those days it was boys a year or two younger than I; since, myself halted for good, so to speak, in emotional adolescence, it's been adolescents.

Into sexual knowledge we had—properly, I believe—to delve ourselves: I can think of few things more damaging than 'instruction' from such a clot as poor Little Lukey. This cleric, 'preparing' me for Confirmation, did have a go: rather like Dr Fraser years before, he suddenly popped the question, did I 'abuse myself'? Truthfully, and squirming with shame, I said No. Did I know about it? Yes, I answered; and then he trapped me into the only offence of sneaking I committed there. Who'd shown me? he snapped, in that cold, tight-lipped way; and before I could think, I'd said S—. For long after I quailed under the burden of my beastliness, and was terrified lest S— should get into a row: he was so nice, and impressively salacious. Another three or four years, and he was dead in France.

at 15 I'd made up my mind that 'art' meant the intoxicating sensual 'wickedness' of Wilde and Beardsley (plus Anna Lea Merritt's 'Love Locked Out' and the annual Academy bathing-boys of H. S. Tuke).

Davidson's account of his involvement in Greek love is continued in Michael Davidson's Early Sexual Experiences: England 1913-19.

 

[1] [An author's footnote released in the 1985 edition:]  A 'tweetle', strictly, was an older boy's 'favourite': c.f. 'winger' in the Royal Navy; or 'batty' in the 1916 trenches—see David Jones's In Parenthesis.

[2] [An author's footnote released in the 1985 edition:] Ernest Claude Millard, son of a stockbroker (no connection with C. S. Millard, q.v.).

[3] According to The Lancing Register. The fourth edition, revised and continued 1901-1954 (Hove, 1955), “Michael Childers Davidson” was born on 24 February 1897 and “Ernest Claude Millard”, i.e. “Manson”, on 29 December 1897, so Millard was actually only ten months younger than Davidson.  Presumably he looked young for his age.