three pairs of lovers with space

CATANIA IN SICILY, 1958

 

The following was recounted by English journalist Michael Davidson in Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.

The text is taken from pp. 197-203 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which in this instance is the same as in the British edition.  As he says he is recounting what he witnessed “some eleven years” before writing, his description belongs to about 1958, or, depending on the interval between writing and publication, a little earlier. No help on this point is to be found in his broader autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), which breaks off in the middle of 1958 and does not mention Catania. 

 

Catania

WERE A trophy to be offered for competition among all the municipalities of the world for the most unabashed, ingenuous and confiding display, open to the public gaze, of juvenile eroticism, I believe it would be easily won by the city of Catania, on the eastern shore of Sicily. There, in a certain part of the city seaboard, a boy will as unblushingly jerk himself off as a horse will lift its tail and unburden its bowels. One knows, of course, that the healthy-minded people of Italy in general, and in southern Italy especially, have little comprehension of the conventional north-European pruderies—one knows that they don't blanch at the thought of crapping in public or feel faint when a gust on a windy beach blows up their shin and reveals everything beneath; nor are the young of Italy, as a rule, shy of showing the passer-by all they've got. But the boys at Catania must surely take the cake for the unashamed tirelessness of their interest in their sexual powers. In that part of the town which I'll shortly describe, a kind of marathon of masturbation seems to be in unflagging progress, as if the moment one youth has finished another takes up the flaming torch, in order to keep the thing going all round the clock. It's some eleven years since I was in Catania and all this may have changed: that angle of the shore between harbour and beach may, for all I know, have been built over with dance-halls and discotheques and all the refinements of the commercialised lido, and that long line of noble rocks below the harbour wall may have been turned into a neon-lighted promenade—but if these things have happened, then I'll bet the boys have found some other theatre for their pranks.

Michael Davidson at home in Sicily, 1971

One wonders what was the genetic source of this specially lubricious exuberance which Catania, more than elsewhere, seems to enjoy? The early Greeks and the much more recent Spaniards are the two foreign races which the longest politically dominated the town and thus most noticeably left their imprint, cultural and physical, upon the natives. Or what of the pre-historic Sikuls, who must be the ultimate ancestors of today's citizens—anyhow this side of the gods? Can the proximity of Mount Etna, against whose nethermost skirts Catania nestles, with her constant volcanic smoking and fuming and rumbling, her frequent eruptions of flame and vapour and glowing hot rock, and her periodical engulfment of every town within reach beneath the molten lava of her vomit—can Etna's constant and godlike menace have caused such nervous tension or psychological disturbance to those old superstitious Sikuls that the only relief they could find was in repeated sexual distraction?

If, walking down the Via Etnea, you stop for a moment and look back, you will see the immense greygreen backcloth of Etna's lowest slopes. But Etna herself you won't see: you're too close up against her base, and you'll know nothing of her everlasting breath-taking surge upwards, far beyond the mere magnitudes of Sicily's dizziest heights—for that you want to be twenty or a hundred miles away. From the Via Etnea it's like trying to look at a colossal statue of Antinous from beside its feet, and seeing nothing above the knees.

Sicilian Boy with a Vase, by Konrad Helbig, 1950s

At the bottom of this main street you pass the great baroque cathedral which replaced the great Norman pile destroyed in the earthquake of 1693, and also the famous elephant made of lava, a touristical lure prominent in all the travel agents' brochures. Beyond the railway arch, which takes you into the fish-market and past a tiny garden of near-tropical shrubs, leave for another time the turning to the right which leads to the mighty Castello Ursino built in the 13th century by stupor mundi, the "wonder of the world" (there are many things to be seen in Catania besides the segment of the seashore to which I'm now directing you); keep straight on along the broad and rather squalid thoroughfare which skirts on its left the boundary of the porto vecchio, the old harbour, and suddenly you will come to the open sea, and a broad littoral of clean fine sand shelving gently to the water and stretching infinitely into the southern distance with a range of tree-shadowed dunes along its landward edge. You have arrived.

To the left, at right angles to the road, there runs out into the sea for a quarter of a mile or so a massive reef of rock, reinforced here and there by huge cubes of concrete, forming a natural breakwater and the bedrock for the high southern wall enclosing the harbour basin. The rocky reef is of great importance: It's the real goal of your expedition, though the spacious expanse of beach between it and the nearest of the wooden structures used by fishermen and, after mid-June, the official bathing establishments, will generally reward some time spent idling upon it. For this stretch of sand is at most times totally unmarked by the print of human feet—except for those of the boys who in fine weather come there in pursuit of their own pleasures.

Another Sicilian Boy with a Vase by Konrad Helbig, 1950s

The road which passes this part of the shore is raised upon an embankment well above the dunes below that fringe of the beach itself; a low wall runs along its edge, on which one may comfortably lean while making a preliminary survey of any gambolers among the sands there may be. At the corner of the harbour wall, one may either walk expectantly along the path above the rocks (one never knows what one may find among them), a path flattened and polished by the happy feet of centuries of boyhood—rarely do people other than boys use it, for it leads nowhere—or one may scramble down over the boulders on to the beach itself, upon which, if the sun's already hot enough to be felt on the skin, there are pretty sure to be a few naked figures playing at the water's edge or stretched dreaming on the sand.

A word of warning here about season, to the visitor who comes to Catania for this special purpose. Before April, at the earliest, no nudity will be found here (though even in winter one may chance upon a stray reveller among the secrecies of those rocks); and from the beginning of June the odious rash, endemic nowadays on every discoverable beach, of striped umbrellas, transistor radios, and the sexual simperings of semi-clad female exhibitionists, begins to show—by midsummer's day the beach has become a full-blown "resort." But through April and May it is empty of adults, except for a handful of fishermen who are interested in nobody's business but their own; and in some years, though not in many, the April sun can be as powerful as June's. And it's the sun that brings the boys out anywhere in southern Italy, when the sea is near, the tingle of real heat on their skins will have their clothes off and themselves into the water even if it's a sham summer—I've seen boys swimming in Palermo harbour on New Year's Day.

    A Sicilian, by Konrad Helbig, 1950s

This was a very wide beach; in some parts, the water's edge was as much as three or four hundred yards from the road and the nearest areas of villadom: too far to excite the interest of policemen or old ladies or anyone who felt keenly about the public decencies; while the wooden structures, raised from the sand on piers, of the summer-season bathing establishments were empty and unattended and provided excellent theatres for all sorts of games. So no bathers bothered, during the month of May or in April when the sun was hot enough, about swimming costumes; and on a flaming day the surf would be twinkling with a galaxy of naked boys' bodies, and the sand dancing with them like a netful of jumping fish just landed. A favourite pastime, and perhaps a tradition, was the scooping out of the sand of a trough about the size of a coffin—long enough to allow its scooper to lie in it full-length and deep enough to keep him below the horizon of wanderers upon the beach, at least until they were right on top of him. Sometimes two friends would construct such a tomb of a width to contain them both, though tightly packed; sometimes they'd dig two side by side, so that while solitarily working away at themselves they were still within conversing distance of each other. On a really hot day, when the boys from the neighbouring tenements and slum streets around the old Swabian castle flocked to the sea like a drove of thirsty fauns making for a river, one would find two or three of them snuggling together inside almost any of the fishermen's boats which had been hauled ashore and temporarily left idle by its owner; while an expanse of rolling dunes, a range of Saharan hills in miniature, into which one part of the upper beach merged, generally concealed in its hollows a few youngsters of various ages from ten upwards intent upon some sort of mutual pleasure. The boys on this beach were nearly always entirely content with their own or each other's company—they weren't looking for help from strangers and they didn't at all encourage any intrusion.

             A Sicilian youth, by Konrad Helbig, 1950s

That line of rocks, however, below the harbour wall was rather different. Here also the boys came in hot weather, singly or in pairs or in gangs of three to a dozen, to bathe and sprawl naked on their favourite slabs of boulder, and to play with themselves luxuriously in the many small caverns and gullies among the rocks that seemed specially built for this purpose. But here there came too a few knowing youths who kept a lookout for any patrolling queers who might find their way to this out-of-the-way spot, and often their time wasn't wasted: an adventurous tourist might be roped in; and there were two or three Italian regulars. These speculative lads, missing no chance, would plant themselves in view of any likely looking man who appeared on the rocks and, with an air of careless indifference, would take off their clothes and arouse themselves into a most provocative sexual condition and simulate a state of intense desire; the man, if he didn't take offence, would fall helplessly into the trap, which would cost him more money than he expected before the day was out.

   Sicilian boys by Konrad Helbig, 1950s

But most of the boys who played in the sunshine on these brown and tawny rocks paid attention to nobody but themselves or their friends. They came simply to amuse themselves in the pleasantest and most natural way known to them, when it was too hot for the cinema and anyhow they had no money. Sunday morning, I found was an especially busy time on the rocks: they trooped down saunteringly in dozens— mostly boys of fifteen or sixteen, who had finished with school and were working through the week: they came for their weekly swim, and their Sunday morning wank in the serene and carefree conditions of uninhibited nakedness which this shore allowed. Most of them seemed to have a favourite spot to which their languid, contented footsteps led them as if from long habit—some special gully between two high boulders: a vaulted cavern that chance or geology had built beneath the roof of the rocks; or a long, flat, sloping boulder, suitably tilted for the sun and a view of any splashing friends in the sea; and one party of four, I remember, seemed almost to have taken the lease of a capacious ledge which, shielded from prying eyes above by a high and unscaleable reredos of rock, offered a perfect board from which to dive or platform on which to recline: the four lessees of this delightful perch (their squatting rights seemed to be recognized by the other regulars of the rocks) came every Sunday morning and always together—they were plainly what British boys call "mates." They all four looked about fourteen or fifteen; to reach their ledge they squeezed down through a gap between two boulders and followed a tortuous kind of gallery below—no stray wanderer above would spot this secret passage (I one day was specially privileged). Between them they brought two or three long loaves stuffed with tomato (or, when they were lucky, with mortadella), and a bottle or two of some fizzy drink; and, after a quick swim, they would lie together on the flat warm stone, drying in the fierce sun and idly commencing the earliest processes of their Sunday morning masturbation; now and then pausing to compare notes or to ask each other what progress was being made. . . .

I made no friends while I was in Catania: only two or three acquaintances, whose specious cordiality generally was intertwined with financial requirements that weren't fun at all. It didn't strike me as a good town for friends; but it was a wonderful place for sights to see. . . .

But all this happened a decade or more ago. Everything may be different now: the very geography of that shore and harbour wall may have changed. Yet the boys of Catania won't have changed, apart from the imperceptible gliding of the generations one into the other. Boys, I think, never change.[1]

 

[1] If only …  The reader is strongly recommended to read in full the superbly well-expressed rejoinder to this of Karl Andersson in his editorial entitled “The Boy is Dead!” to issue nine (June 2009) of his magazine Destroyer: Journal of Apollonian Beauty and Dionysian Homosexuality, much of which is devoted to what Davidson wrote about Catania and its ramifications.

Destroyer IX, a quarter of which is devoted to Davidson's chapter on Catania, lavishly illustrated with photos like that on this cover

To quote from Andersson:

 “All species adapt. A butterfly that lives in a grey environment will eventually turn grey itself. That is what has happened with boys in the West. After society spent the last decades teaching boys that they had been “molested” or at least “offended” by what was formerly referred to as simply “fooling around” or not even that, the boys finally gave up. They adopted the Newspeak and started to actually feel offended – society had transformed its youth from beautiful butterflies to grey moths.

The Boy doesn’t exist anymore. What used to be a boy is now an overgrown child, still belonging to the female hemisphere of man. He is constantly suspicious and ready to squeal to mama whenever he feels the tiniest bit offended. …

There’s an ancient element in the boy’s gaze [in a photograph of a Neapolitan boy from the 1970s]  that doesn’t exist anymore, and which our minds therefore cannot parse. We are left with a nagging feeling of not “getting it” – something is missing.

The Boy is missing.

This is the gaze boys used to have before they were turned into children. The gaze exudes self-confidence, pride and desire – all qualities that we assign to men, not children. And the Boy who used to fill the magic void in between is gone.

Humanity’s most dazzling expression has been put a lid on; when puberty sets in at about 13, we ask of the boy to stay in place for some five years before he can be a full sexual being, meaning a full human being. By banning the traits that make him a boy, society has denied the Boy the right to exist.

Now five years – between 13 and 18 approximately – of a lifetime might seem as an acceptable loss. But those years represent almost a hundred percent of what makes us human. It is “the wow years” that have been cramped – humanity has been stripped of its crown feathers.

The extinct species called The Boy emerges every now and then; in distant mountain villages, in primitive tribes – and in Naples in the 70s, when the city for a few years turned into a lush butter!y valley where the boys proudly spread their beautiful wings in front of their enchanted admirers.”