TWO MORE ROWS: MICHAEL DAVIDSON IN LONDON 1941-6
The following is everything touching on Greek love in English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s account in his autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962) of his third lengthy period living mostly in London. He returned there early in the summer of 1941, on being expelled by the neutral Spanish from Morocco, where he had been four years. The first episode described here would seem from the context to have occurred in the following summer of 1942.
The World, the Flesh and Myself, Chapter 14
Then I blotted my copy-book again; or rather it was blotted by the police, making tactical use of that whimsical concatenation of circumstances called luck. I had a small flat in Doughty Street, handy to my Fleet Street office and to the precincts of my private life—Bloomsbury, Camden Town and beyond, Soho and Charlotte Street. I'd had in these months a few impermanent liaisons, and was ever on the lookout for more: one summer Saturday, idling on the sward of Highgate fields, I fell into a languid conversazione, suitable to the sensuous torpor of the day, with a pleasant, darkly handsome Jewish boy from E. London, aged 15. The green heath was covered with his gambolling companions; they were inmates of a school, enjoying a Hampstead outing. We chatted; and arranged to meet on the next Saturday afternoon to go swimming. Then we walked to Kentish Town tube station, where he and his schoolmates departed for Bethnal Green. That was all: plainly no 'offence' could have been committed; and an intention, a hope, the voluptuous imaginings of the mind, commit no breach of the law. With the pleasant curiosity of boys he had asked me about myself—my name, work and so on; and because I always trust people whose faces I like I told him.
A week later I kept the appointment at Old Street underground station. But instead of the boy, two 'bogeys' met me, in their emblematic mackintoshes and soft hats. 'Can I see your identity card?' they said; and after glancing at it: 'Well, I'm not satisfied. I must ask you to accompany us to the police-station.' In that tiled mortuary, which police stations are, there was a pause of back-room confabulation; then out they trooped and a uniformed sergeant formally charged me: 'Insulting Behaviour'—I had, the charge shamelessly averred, while under observation accosted three separate boys each of whom displayed resentment. 'That's a lie,' I said, 'and if you had me under observation, you know jolly well it's a lie.' They didn't reply; then one of the bogeys said: 'We know all about you, you know.' I saw what had happened: the Jewish boys had reported the encounter of one of them with me; he had told my name and the place of our appointment; the police, being informed, had looked up my 'previous', from there, it was easy.
I was bailed, of course, till Monday morning. Next day, Sunday, I failed to find a solicitor; and on Monday went down to Old Street police court. I meant to ask for a remand in order to be legally represented. I knew that magistrates will generally accept the sworn evidence of two detectives perjuring themselves in unison (as in the sad cases of those youths 'done' for 'suspect'); but I supposed that an agile cross-examination could have exposed contradictions between the two fictitious statements—in the descriptions, for instance, of the non-existent boys, what they were wearing, the colour of their hair. After I'd been locked in the communal cell with the other prisoners, the drunks, the prostitutes, the barrow-boys, I was greeted with friendliness by the senior of the two detectives who'd arrested me; he led me into a corner and spoke to me kindly. 'You'd like a bit of advice now, wouldn't you? You'd like to get this settled quietly, with no fuss, wouldn't you? If you was to plead guilty, the whole thing'd be over in a couple of minutes—'e can't do you for more than a guinea fine, not for Insulting 'e can't. Just plead guilty, pay your guinea, and you'll be outside in no time. I couldn't give you better advice than that, now could I?' Put like that, his advice sounded sensible; would fighting the case be worth the publicity, the worry, the expense, the prolonged humiliation? Wouldn't it be better to get it over quickly and quietly, at the expense of a small lie His manner was so kind, so solicitous, that I didn't for a moment doubt his word. I agreed; went into the dock; and pleaded guilty. The magistrate listened to the formal fiction of the detective, looked at me severely for an instant, and snapped: 'Fined one guinea'—just as the bogey had said.
But the moment those words had been pronounced, up jumped that treacherous dick: 'May it please y'r honour . . .' he hurriedly began; and told the story of my 'previous'. (I think probably there was a legal flaw here; before fining me, and so closing the case, the magistrate should have asked, 'Anything known . . . ?'; instead he allowed the detective to reopen it.)
'Oh,' said the magistrate. 'Oh. I shall remand you in custody for eight days for a report.' And so I went to Brixton.
I bore no special grudge for my own sake against those perfidious, lying policemen—they're the victims of a police 'morality' which, fighting corruption, is itself corrupt; I was grateful to them: they gave me a close view of an interesting process I couldn't else have seen. But how often, I wonder, in British police courts is the same trick played on scared, vulnerable little men for the sake of adding another conviction to their 'previous'?
So it was the black maria again. Brixton was principally a 'remand prison': people were waiting for something to happen: waiting to come up at the Old Bailey, to be released on payment of a debt, to lose an appeal and be hanged. Because I was there for a 'report' I was put in the hospital: a spacious ward with real beds where we could talk and smoke and where fatherly old warders played cards with the 'patients'. We wore our own clothes and ate nursery food like rice-pudding. Among us were four murderers. I remember two: a half-witted cripple, arrested for killing a small girl—he was brought in, deformed and drooling, while I was there; and a youth of 20, sentenced to hang for battering the life out of an old man for the sake of a few pounds: a young man so harmlessly ordinary to look at, it was hard to envisage his doing anything more violent than kicking a football. I sat opposite him at breakfast on the day his appeal was heard; he ate a lot, and talked with a confidence that was harrowing. 'It's in the bag,' he said, 'it's in the bleeding bag.' Of course he didn't come back: for him, that evening, it was either freedom or the condemned cell. I didn't feel like asking which.
I had a restful week; reading a certain amount, watching and listening to my fellows. I was taken to some senior functionary for a lengthy interview: the basis, I suppose of the 'report'. With him I argued spiritedly about homosexuality, trying to lead him into an objective, academic discussion: dissimulating nothing but refusing to play the penitent. He, however, insisted on clinging to the attitude of the Inquisition: heresy was heresy, and spread heresy. I imagine that the 'report' marked me down as incorrigible; I never learned what it contained.
At the end of this curious week I was taken back to Old Street; still charged, of course, with that guinea's worth of 'insulting behaviour', and the magistrate, who seemed no longer interested in the 'report', could merely reimpose the original fine. When I paid it, like buying a ticket to freedom, the policeman who wrote it down in a book said: 'You better 'ave done with them foreign 'abits.' He didn't know his own country well.
I should like to have heard that magistrate's juridical explanation of his sending me to Brixton; charged as I was, his powers were limited by the tiny law of 'insulting behaviour'. I suppose, though, his private purpose was to inflict, by the device of the 'report', what extra-legal punishment he could manage—not for something I had done but for what I was.
The personage in Brixton with whom I discussed, or tried to discuss, homosexuality, made a big point of the harm done by people like me by spreading the practice right and left as if it were an infectious disease. This of course is nonsense—I speak from experience. Homosexuality isn't catching: people biologically and psychologically 'normal' recoil from it as homosexuals recoil from 'normal' physical contacts. It's a truism, I think, that most adolescents are bi-sexual; as they near maturity their intrinsic inclination gains strength and gradually ousts the other: the naturally normal settles into a course of normality and the naturally 'queer' into that which his nature whispers is for him normal; no outside influence can for long deflect either. I have through the years continued friends with a number of men I had known, and 'corrupted', as boys; those destined to be 'normal' successfully married and happily bred families, and looked back at our own relationship as something normal at the time but since outgrown; those essentially homosexual remained so.
Sentencing, early in 1962, a bunch of men for homosexual crimes, Mr Justice Stable called homosexuality a 'moral leprosy' and declared that the prisoners' statements proved that it could be spread like a disease. With due respect to the Judge, I don't suppose the 'statements' of men desperately seeking to whitewash their conduct can be scientifically worth much—'l was led astray', and the like. What the Judge could have said with truth is that the company and influence of other homosexuals can provide an opportunity for gratification which might not otherwise exist: the practice of homosexuality obviously can be spread, but not the condition—which is as subjective and 'uncatchable' as a bronchial chest, a taste for onions or an unquenchable urge to compose music. The argument of the prejudiced that homosexuality is 'spread' like influenza must usefully seem to justify their prejudice.
This private disaster wasn't heard of outside the police court; but the mortification of the outcast, and a sense of fitness, made me resign from the Express.
[In 1943 …]
An advertisement in The Times took me to Wigmore Street and a job. The Times Book Club, for the Red Cross and St John, was conducting a countrywide collection of unwanted books for people in the fighting services. I did this work for three weeks; until in those polite gardens of Bournemouth where people play clock-golf I became infatuated with a boy. He was spending a summer holiday with an aunt; but lived in a remote West Country town. I determined to live there too; and wrote to the editor of the local newspaper. The name of Fleet Street is potent; and so were my powers of persuasion when, by prompt invitation, I dashed westward for an interview, staying with the kindly parents of my new friend. The evening paper hired me as a sub-editor; within that whirlwind week I had gained a new love, a new job, a novel environment, and a new home: I was taken as a lodger into my boy's home.
The National Union of Journalists allowed me to rejoin; I was back on the journalistic road. I stayed there about six months; then, the infatuation on both sides wearing thin, as infatuations do, and the parochial affairs of a small town palling, I felt the cal1 of larger events and got myself a sub's job with Reuters in London [in 1944].
That was my office life at Reuters: eight hours a day, at a factory-bench. It was fun; and invaluable. Outside the office I'd not been friendless; and for two years or more an interest of prime importance had been an Irish boy named Paddy. [Note: Terry] By the autumn of 1946, he was sixteen. Paddy's was one of my most interesting friendships; and different from most in that, although composed of mutual homosexual affection, it dispensed with homosexual act. Paddy was shy of passion, and shrank from physical contact that went beyond affection; so I, aware of this disinclination, never in all that time of close intimacy 'touched' him. It seems comic that what might be called my 'third row', like my second, should have arisen from an affair which, in the light of the criminal law if not in my own mind, was innocent: poor Paddy, that winter of 1946, landed himself (unknown to me) in an approved school; and my concern for his welfare caused (unknown to him) my wretched 'previous' to raise its head again.
Paddy lived in a King's Cross slum; and was a natural delinquent. Nothing—except engrossment in occupations that pleased him, like painting and acting—could have kept him out of trouble: he had an honest mind, but couldn't help stealing; he loved exercising his lively talent, but wouldn't keep an errand boy's job for two days. (His character, in fact, was like mine.) He came to see me most mornings: painted or read till lunch-time, or performed imaginative adventure-dramas which he ad libbed as he went along; after lunch, we would go swimming or to the cinema until it was my time for Fleet Street. For a while I lived beside the Regents Canal in Paddington, in 'Little Venice', and had Lucien Freud for a neighbour. Lucien and Paddy got on well together: between them they covered the bare walls of my room with murals—I remember Lucien's slapping on a life-size horse, and Paddy's absorbed working at the baroque figures of knights and barbaric potentates he devised. Paddy's wistful nature wasn't a serene one; but in those days he was happy—as happy as ever I saw him; and so was I. I liked Lucien Freud immensely: a solitary person then; quiet and gentle, soft-footed as a cat; wiry and fragile to look at, and very young; as delicate in his movements as in his painting, wanting only to work and avoid bores. He was going to do a small picture for me—I gave him, I recall, a cheque on account for thirty shillings! But I left the terrace by the canal, and soon after left England. I never knew Lucien in his social days.
He had agreed that Paddy possessed talent; whom I persuaded to enroll at a school of art. But he didn't stay there long; he liked the work but didn't like, I suppose, being told how it ought to be done. Paddy couldn't stay anywhere long. But when he spent his days with me in these unexciting, humdrum ways he was content, and kept out of trouble; I suppose I could give him the things he needed, affection, intelligence and sensitivity, an audience for his imagination. I know that Paddy drew satisfaction, mental and emotional, from our companionship; and that, because of this satisfaction, he felt no need to go out committing little crimes. That, to me, was worth knowing. I loved his companionship, with his brightly coloured mind and charming looks—soft, curling fair hair and the Irish oval of his pale face; the great greenish wistful eyes set strangely wide apart, like a leopard's—an individual face.
I blamed myself for losing Paddy, and for the corollary; though it was bound to happen. I took a fiat in Brighton, sleeping Monday to Thursday in an office bedroom beneath Reuters' roof; and saw less of Paddy—there was nowhere for him to spend his days. And then for weeks I didn't see him at all, nor hear of him; until one day a letter came, addressed to me at Reuters—from an 'approved school' in Surrey. He was 'in' for stealing, he said: he'd explain when we met. He asked me to visit him—we could meet for tea in the village.
Had I been sensible, bound to my 'previous', I'd have ignored that letter; but the Old Bailey itself couldn't have stopped my answering that appeal. Besides, I argued, Paddy and I had broken no law. I typed a breezy reply; enclosed a half-crown postal order and (confident that letters in and out of such a place would be censored) said I would visit him if he was sure he could get leave to meet me for tea. Back and forth our letters went, tacitly approved, I presumed, by their unmolested passage through the institutional censorship. After two or three weeks, I felt confident enough to propose a day for meeting, and asked for an immediate reply. None came; a week later I wrote again, suggesting another day. Still no reply; and then, blinded by worry to the red light of danger which Paddy's silence of course was, I sent a telegram announcing the time of my train's arrival next day. This was an act of madness; but I was made mad by the unaccountable arrest of Paddy's smooth flow of letters. At Banstead station I was met by two detectives, fat and blustering. 'We know all about you,' they said. 'We got your record.' They could do nothing else; at first they pretended that Paddy had given them 'evidence' of offences, but dropped this bluff when they saw I knew they were lying. There was nothing more they could do; I caught the next train to London, sickened by thoughts of what Paddy may have gone through while he was being questioned about me. I never saw him again; nor heard of him.
I didn't blame the heads of this approved school for investigating me: it was their duty. It did look. though, as if, having done so, they wanted me to put my foot in a snare. The irony of the incident was that the man whom they snared was probably the one person whose influence on Paddy was good.
This 'third row', diminutive as it was, grew in significance the more I looked at it: plainly, unless I became a different person, I should be back in prison before long. But I couldn't change into a different character; therefore, I must change my domicile—get out of England. Yet, with eyes open to the dangers of England, I still couldn't learn caution: I did openly what it was reckless to do at all, because what I did seemed the natural, and therefore the innocent, thing to do. One of the crazy things I did—the risk run makes me shudder when I look back—was to whisk up in the Reuter lift, when I was living in one of the rooms on the Eighth Floor, a 14-year-old Negro half-caste, a friend of mine at the time. It was lunacy to take any boy up there—past the door-keepers, into the busy lifts; it was madness to sweep in with a companion so exotically conspicuous as this dusky 'Charlie Mouth'.
Somebody told me that David Astor, then The Observer's Foreign Editor, was looking for foreign correspondents. This sounded like a visionary's dream; yet, confident that so distinguished a paper wouldn't give me a second look, I wrote to Astor: I couldn't resist having a dab at perfection. I sent him copies of my Chatham House address and the Daily Express serial; and diffidently proposed returning to Morocco as an Observer 'stringer'. He sent for me— [and accepted Davidson’s proposal, leading to his becoming at the end of 1946 a foreign correspondent for the rest of his career].