MICHAEL DAVIDSON IN LONDON AND OXFORD, 1922-28
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 1922, by when he had returned to London from South Africa, and 1928, when he left England for Berlin.
IN LONDON, IN 1922, came a tiny occurrence, silly in itself, which gave another a warning of what my heresy must bring; or rather, which made me a stage more sensible of that tumour of furtive 'guilt' that my unconformity with society was ineluctably planting in my soul—guilt, though, I've never correlated with ethics, but with the anathema of one's fellow beings. This incident also, such is the paradox of fortuity, jumped me obliquely into the trade of journalism, to which I was plainly predestined by my limited abilities and in which, so far as I've stayed anywhere, I stayed.
Until supplanted by Lansbury's 'Lido', a strip of the Serpentine in Hyde Park had been insulated by tradition and a surprisingly unprudish Board of Works for the bathing of 'males only'. There was a wonderful lot of juvenile nudity there: screened from strollers behind by a fenced rampart, and from boaters ahead by a delimitation across the water. Baron Corvo of course knew it: 'Through the foliage, exquisitely lush and vivid, he could see the arches of the bridge. . . . Before him was the green grass, the gravel path, the silver water, and the microscopically clear expanse of the other side, verdant, brilliantly bright. . . . Miscellaneous males of all ages from seven to seventy, came hurrying . . . shed dun-colours; and slipped pink into the water. . . .' That's how I saw it; and I was, like Corvo, fond of going there on a summer's day.
On this day, which was to leave a permanent bruise of private shame, I had taken my bathing-drawers and, aware of the notice 'bathers only', was sitting on the grass wondering how chilly the breeze blowing from the Marble Arch might be—besides, I had lent my slip to a boy who was shyer than most about going in with nothing on. All at once the delicious scene was harshly shivered: I was being astonishingly spoken to by a policeman, being ordered to 'go along' with him out of the bathing enclave; I was in the hands of the Law. By not instantly undressing and plunging into the water, by dallying on the bank fully clad, I'd broken a Parks Regulation—that was all; yet walking away under police escort, I felt that each of those staring eyes was boring into my secret mind, that every man and boy discerned that I was 'like that', that I was being arrested for thinking illegal thoughts. I became parched with shame and humiliation—all my privacies, I thought, were lying bare.
This was rubbish, existing only in my own mind; yet it left me through life with a pursuing anxiety: a furtive, backward-glancing, collar-turned-up sensation of being watched by a special branch of Orwell's Thought Police. Later, real involvements with the Law led logically to the physical and worldly disruption of imprisonment, but made no 'spiritual' imprint; they soon became interesting, but not very important, museum memories. Yet that 40-year-old illusion, that sharp, subjective throe of 'guilt', has endured for good. It was my first encounter with the police; and it coincided like a sock on the jaw with reveries which until then I hadn't connected with 'shame'—thoughts that to me were joyous and clean but seemed, with the jarring incursion of the policeman (who was merely saying 'move along please'), to become infected with a kind of social scabies. Of course, it didn't modify my thoughts; it only complicated them.
That day, I felt chased by devils—London seemed impure. I telegraphed to my sister in Norfolk that I was coming down: I knew I should feel safe with her.
Following a long description of his sister, Nancy, …
I poured out to her my agony on the banks of the Serpentine; and the unarguable fact of my bondage to boys with its rider of sexual allergy to women. I don't suppose I knew, then, the word 'homosexual'. Nancy took this avowal with that perfection of tolerance and understanding which perhaps is synonymous with saintliness and certainly was with her nature. Her chief advice—after conjuring me to make any relationships positive with love and some sort of mental contribution, rather than leave them mere sensual negations—was: 'Well, Mike old boy, do be careful.'
In 1923, Davidson was working in Norwich, for the first time as a journalist, and, thanks to being much with his sister and her husband "Chris" Southward, feeling himself "getting some education."
An important inspiriter of this mental development was Walter Greatorex, senior music master at Gresham's School and a principal worshipper at The Beeches. One day when I was staying in Holt with Chris, Walter—familiar with my freshly impassioned interest in poetry—said to me: 'There's a boy you'd like to meet—writes very good verse I think. His name's Auden.' So in Walter's rooms I, twenty-six years old, was introduced to Wystan Auden, then 16; and there began a poetical relationship which for two years or so absorbed me.
Auden, as I remember him then, was tall and gangling, with fair hair limp across a pale forehead and clumsy limbs apt to go adrift; and an odd, cogitative face that was frighteningly unboyish. He seemed too engrossed in thought to be boyish; it was the face of a mind far older than its age and already had that look of puritan sternness which signifies contempt for all intellectual time-wasting. He was very like what he is today—already Stravinsky's 'big blond intellectual bloodhound'—but fairer and less rugged. His face wasn't, of course, yet rutted with those singular corrugations which seem like the seismic result of terrific intellectual commotion; but the tenderness of its boyhood was oddly combined with an extraordinary grown-up austerity.
I was bewitched at the first meeting; not by a physical attractiveness, which I didn't find (beyond the general one of adolescence), but by the blinding discovery, as in a revelation, that here was wonderfully joined that divine freak called genius with the magical age of sixteen. The maturity of even his smallest remarks, a kind of inspired wisdom which, in his company, one couldn't help being aware of, was alarming; and I knew instantly that, though ten years older, I was shamefully his inferior in intellect and learning. But he went to my romantic head like one's second Pernod; I saw that I had found my boy Keats or Chatterton, on whom I would lavish all I could muster of literary maternalism. I was in love; but I think I deliberately chose to be in love.
This passion was conducted mainly by post. [...]
It must have been a strange, and rather touching, correspondence. Mine were love letters as well as literary ones; though I did my best to filter the love out of them, so afraid was I of offending his detestation of the sentimental. His were calm, mature, rigidly unemotional.
He knew, of course—better than I, having the entire psychological pentateuch at his finger-tips—the nature of my feelings for him. I think he rather enjoyed them—he could study me, so to speak, clinically; he once told me, as if stating an interesting scientific fact, that I was the first adult homosexual he had met. But his understanding of my devotion was never more than tacit; and once, when I was fool enough to post him some wretched verses I'd written to him, he never referred to their existence. He was kind enough to ignore their poetic dreadfulness and stern enough to keep silent on the sentiment they conveyed (he knew of course that sentiment far better than my feeble and misguided effusion could tell it).
We met when it could be managed; but before long, our friendship had to 'go underground'. The school authorities naturally forbade it; and then I got a letter from Mrs Auden, formally asking me to see no more of her son. But he wouldn't have this: contemptuous of convention, intolerant of authority—though deferring to both when reason justified—he circumvented them when they couldn't be flouted. He came to stay with me in Norwich, where he had my bedroom while I chastely slept downstairs. I would sometimes cross Norfolk by train to meet him, when some scholastic whim sent him, say, to King's Lynn; from these assignations, carefully organized by post, we would go for 'long didactic walks', to use John Pudney's perfectly descriptive phrase.
In 1924, Davidson moved from Norwich back to London.
When I came to London I found a room at the top of Gower Street. It cost £1 a week, one third of my income, but the house had one great advantage—the primary one sought, but so uneasily found, by every homosexual: it was what the Germans call sturmfrei—it was free of snoopers. It was the first abode of my own in the bottomless well of wickedness which I expected London to be; and the prolonged chastity of the Auden period, with the change from the Quaker innocence of Norwich to London's ineffable promise, had their quick reaction. The high-flying 'spiritual' emotionalism of the last year or two was replaced almost overnight by an insatiable hunger for downright carnal experience—a craving to know the physical secrets of as many boys as possible (this was the important delight, as it always has been: my own sensual enjoyment being of much smaller moment).
In that decade after the war 'picking up' was easy: the Embankment and the furtive arches of Charing Cross were peopled with wanderers of every age, and under the colonnades of Covent Garden rows of homeless boys slept. In my restless search—the eternal search, I suppose, for Corvo's 'divine friend, much desired'—I even discovered a kind of hutment, put together with corrugated sheets in an alley by Savoy Hill, where the boys sheltered at night; and sometimes I'd creep in there, to spend fevered, flea-bitten hours. Once, for the excitement, I paid a shilling for a bed in a common lodging-house across the river in the Borough.
In those middle years of the 1920s I was pursuing a course of blatant wildness: the unceasing search for the 'divine friend, much desired', which, as every paederast must know, imposes a hunger for fresh experiences that's sated only when the 'right' person has been found. This brought me precarious moments. I'd made friends with two page-boys at the old Monico, and provoked the jealousy of a third (there's no jealousy so bitter as a 15-year-old boy's). I used often to go into the Monico for a drink and a word with Dick or Taffy; and one evening found Cecil Gray sitting there in his wide black hat, sombrely nodding over a large whisky-and-soda. Scarcely had I joined him with a drink, when the uniformed doorman came menacingly up: I was to leave the bar and not show myself in it again—the page-boy I'd offended had 'narked'. Gray was charmingly unabashed. 'Well, my dear man,' he said in his queer high-pitched croon, 'if you go in for this eccentricity, you must accept its inconveniences.' The shock of this occurrence was painful and frightening; but I'd come a long way in experience since that moment of panic on the Serpentine shore a few years before. I was getting used to the perils of my temperament. Dick and Taffy, I vividly remember, were the companions of a specially saturnalian evening when a certain friend and I took them to a Bloomsbury basement room and poured red wine over their white, bare bodies. …
In 1927, Davidson got a job working for the Clarendon Press in Oxford …
My principal memories of Oxford are summer ones: of Long Bridges, sylvan and sunlit, the 'town' bathing place along the tow-path from Folly Bridge, where bare wet bodies dived and darted and Robert Dundas of Christ Church, that massive and renowned don, lay on the grass like a contemplative walrus and appraised the scampering urchins around him.
Dundas was one of those Oxford 'characters' famous for foibles and idiosyncracies; and famous for his curt, downright remarks uttered in the jerky, high-pitched contralto that was made to be mimicked. One day, when Wystan Auden was up at the House, Dundas sent for him. 'Oh, Auden—' the great man snapped. 'I wanted to tell you—I can't be your tutor any longer. You see, I'm in love with you—. Good morning!' Once, when I was with him at Long Bridges, lying beside parallel bars that had just been installed, he roused himself from his Olympian lethargy to say: 'I presented this gymnastic apparatus to the municipality.; and added curtly, gazing up from ground level at the naked acrobatics going on above: 'Very good investment, don't you think?'
For as long as civic memory went back, men and boys at the 'town' bathing places, like members of the University at Parson's Pleasure, had worn nothing at all; it was an Oxford tradition—a tradition which old Dundas (he must then have been in his late 50s.) was mightily concerned to preserve. At Long Bridges he was down like a ton of bricks on the slightest little playful masturbatory frolic among the boys; and when, on the green sward of that lovely tree-encircled backwater, I appeared with my camera and told him I had discovered a 'new vice'—taking photographs with the camera apparently pointing in one direction, while in fact the lense was eyeing another—he went back to his rooms and wrote me a four-sheet letter of close, small handwriting beginning, 'I'm very worried about your "new vice" ': full of grave concern lest the smallest ammunition should be supplied to the reformist assailants of this tradition in the City Council— who, it seemed, were led by the principal drapers and haberdashers of the town. There can have been no other town in England where it was practically impossible to sell a bathing-slip or 'costume', and to remedy the absence of this market, the aldermanic gents' outfitters were raising the cry of 'decency'. They won, and Dundas lost; and by the time I revisited Oxford in 1941, summoned there by the branch of the War Office that was planning an assault on the coast of Morocco, the verdant candour of Long Bridges had been defiled by rows of bathing-boxes and the place given over to the sexual swagger and simpering prurience of mixed bathing. Presumably 'swim-wear', male and female, sold briskly.
I'd been at the Clarendon Press a few months when I threw the job up and went to Berlin.
Davidson’s Greek love adventures there can be read in Michael Davidson in Berlin, 1928-33.
 Davidson and Auden had different memories of whether the former had ever shown any sexual interest in the latter. Writing about his boyhood friendship with Davidson for an article in The New Yorker of 3 April 1965, Auden said:
"Why he should have taken a shine to me I cannot imagine, since I was a very plain boy. He made advances, which I rejected, not on moral grounds but because I thought him unattractive."
The publication of this evidently provoked a remonstrative letter from Davidson, as Auden wrote to him:
"I was delighted and touched to get your letter of June 15th this morning. Sorry about the historical inaccuracies. I still seem to recall that some ‘suggestion’ was tactfully made (I was, after all, no innocent), but if I have invented this, it is because I have reproached myself ever since for being such a pig." (Letter of 18 July 1965 in the Michael Davidson Archive in the present editor’s custody).
 An interesting reminiscence about Davidson at this time was provided in a 1975 letter to his friend Colin Spencer from one Leslie Bearock who in about 1926-27, being then in charge of the reading department of Sun Engraving, had given Davidson employment “in charge of the periodical ‘T. P.’s Weekly’”:
“He fell in love with a comp apprentice, Ron Figg, a very ill favoured youth that subsequently became a six-foot inspector of gendarmerie in Palestine during the British mandate. Michael bought him presents that included a six-chambered revolver.” (Michael Davidson archives in the present editor's custody).
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