three pairs of lovers with space

MICHAEL DAVIDSON

 

Michael Davidson (1897-1976) was an English boy-lover and journalist whose writings are far more important than those of any other individual for knowledge and understanding of the practice of Greek love around the world in the first two thirds of the twentieth century.

His life can be briefly summarised from his books as follows. Born into an upper-class family in Guernsey, he was educated at Lancing, where, aged nearly fifteen, he first fell in love with a boy. His first sexual experience was with one in 1914, just after signing up to serve in the First World War. He became a journalist in about 1923. His first long time abroad was from 1928 to 1933 in Geneva and Germany, where he became briefly an unmilitant communist and tried to stir interest in Britain in what he witnessed of the growing threat of National Socialism.  Back in London he was briefly imprisoned for a liaison, which drove him to spend 1937-41 abroad in Morocco. Thereafter, two further brushes with the law in England were, with hindsight, a good thing for him (and the reader!), as they finally convinced him England was not the place to live for one who could not help loving boys, and impelled him to become a foreign correspondent, which he remained from 1947 to 1958, living in a wide range of countries. Thereafter, he retired to Italy, where he began writing his first autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself, in 1960.

                   Michael Davidson

The writer Colin Spencer, who knew him in his old age, described him thus in his introduction to the 1985 republication of  The World, the Flesh and Myself: “To be in his company was to be more energetically alive in every way—the observations were more pertinent, the wit sharper, the fantasies wilder, while the criticisms could be devastating in their mordant, savage fun. Michael was in fact, a kind of gourmet of life. Not in the exterior way at all; he had no time for appearances, he looked like a tramp, lived off a pittance and would boil some potatoes and open a tin of stewed steak with a bottle of plonk for lunch. But he had a fastidious taste in the qualities of the mind and spirit, he read widely and loved going to the Reading Room of the British Museum. He spoke German, French and Italian and picked up a smattering of many other languages, which always helped in the endless and persistent search for the boy companion. That was the most urgent quest of all. In old age his camel-like head would be fixed in a grimace of such anguish and gloom if there was no current boy to mother and fuss over. But those times were rare. It always astonished me how Michael would land on some obscure, small island and within hours a dusky beauty with an ivory smile would be proudly walking at his side.”

The best introduction to Davidson as a lover of boys is, however, his own “Postscript” to Some Boys, reproduced at the end of this article.

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself

This first autobiography was published by Arthur Barker in October 1962. It was introduced by Spencer as imbibed with a “precise taste for the finer sensibilities of life in matters of spiritual integrity”, and described by Arthur Koestler, who named it in The Observer as one of the three best books of the year, as the "twofold story of a courageous and lovable person's struggle to come to terms with his Grecian heresy and of a brilliant journalist's fight against colonial jingoism".

The extracts on this website are taken from the GMP republication of the book in 1985, in which some names and thoughts cut from the original edition were restored from Davidson’s annotations. They concern his time in Berlin 1928-33, French Morocco in 1937-40 and 1947, Tangier in 1940-1 and 1947-8, Rangoon in 1949, and Tokyo in 1950-1.

 

Some Boys

Davidson’s second memoir,  Some Boys, was not a conventional autobiography.  Each of its chapters, which are not at all in chronological order, is a short story in its own right, concentrating on a boy or the boy-love scene in a particular city, each city simultaneously brought to life through the author’s cultural sensitivity and perceptive observation.

It was published by David Bruce & Watson in London in 1969. However, much to Davidson’s fury, it is said, certain passages were expurgated, namely the erotic description in the chapters “Lahore” and "London", and these were restored in the American edition published by the Oliver Layton Press in New York in 1971, and from which the extracts on this website were taken. The still expurgated British edition was also republished by the GMP in 1998 with some corruptions of the text of the postscript described below.

        Some Boys, GMP edition, 1998

CONTENTS
Marrakech 9
Geneva 19
Lahore 33
Tel Aviv 51
Rangoon 61
Naples 77
Tangier 87
Tokyo 97
Rome 109
London 125
Bali 141
Ischia 155
Saigon and Hanoi 171
Timbuctoo 181 [Perhaps the finest of all the chapters for amusing and evocative travel-writing, but, while it has profound observations about attitudes to sexual display, it has nothing about Greek love]
Catania 197
Dakar 205
Some Notes on the Effects of "Purdah" on Boys 217
Note on Nomenclature 239
Postscript 245 [which follows straight on from here]

 

Postscript (to Some Boys)

The text is taken from pp. 245-251 of the American edition. Whereas elsewhere the American edition differs from the republished GMP edition in being unexpurgated as well as in spelling, in this case there are only three differences. One is trivial, changing “paederastic” to “pederastic”, but the other two are a corruption of the text. Replacing the once esoteric paidophile and paidophilia  with paedophile  and paedophilia might seem similar, but is actually far-reaching in the misunderstanding it is likely to cause[1]. Finally, 21 replaces 18 in Davidson’s sentence “the new legal consenting age for boys will remain at 21 for a very long time”, which is unhistorical and puts it in apparent contradiction to what is said elsewhere.

AN ENGLISH country squire who lived in the reign of the first Elizabeth wrote a lot of bucolic poetry in the manner of Virgil which was so good that much of it at one time was attributed to Shakespeare himself. His name was Richard Barnfield and many of his verses showed him to be an unabashed lover of boys. One of his best-known poems contains a couplet which, poetically feeble though it seems when read out of context, utters a profession of faith that every true boy-lover will echo—and by "true" I mean the paidophile[1] who loves his boyfriend, finding his supreme pleasure in the boy's welfare and happiness. In these lines Barnfield said:

If it be sinne to love a lovely lad,
Oh then sinne I, for whom my soule is sad. . . .

The rather lame sound, to modern ears, of the second line is surely deceptive: What the poet's saying, plainly, is that if loving a boy is, in the world's view and the Church's view, technically a sin, then he's sorry to be offending these views and sorry to committing what's officially a "sin"—but he knows jolly well in his own heart that his love is sinning against no one and neither affronts morality nor harms his beloved. If he's branded as a sinner—well, that's just too bad, but he's going on sinning with a clear conscience.

The World, the Flesh and Myself, Quartet edition, London, 1977

I've no apology to make for the matter of this book—I'm not now concerned with the manner of it. In Britain the sexual love of boys is one of the most grievous "sins" on the criminal and social score-sheet and, measured by the yardstick of prison sentences, has become more sinful than ever since homosexual behaviour between "consenting adults" was made legal by Parliament: legislative puritans rarely make concessions without requiring their quid pro quo, and their price for passing the homosexual bill was a statutory jump from a maximum of two years imprisonment to ten for "indecent assault" on minors, consenting or not—a minor being somebody under 21. Not many years ago a British Judge, speaking from the Bench and therefore ex cathedra, pronounced the homosexual "corruption" of boys to be "worse than murder"—thus, off his own bat, contradicting Parliament, the authority that made the laws it was his job to administer: at that time Parliament still punished murder with hanging and "indecent assault" with up to two years in jail. Using the language and reasoning of the Middle Ages, this Judge declared: "The murderer only destroys the body; the corrupter of youth destroys the soul." Shortly after the "consenting adult" bill became law, the police in a British provincial town pounced on a small group of young homosexuals and prosecuted them—they were under 21 and therefore "minors"; one of these "criminals," aged 19, committed suicide before the actual trial began. And I heard recently—again since adult homosexuality was legalized—of a man found guilty of "indecent assault" who was imprisoned for four years for a first offence; before the "consenting adult" Act a first offender was generally placed on probation or at the most sentenced to four months.

Such is the temper in Britain, or at any rate the official temper and consequently the police temper; probably more widely, outside the incorruptible core of conformists to whom any kind of heresy is like a red rag to a bull, there's a less indignant attitude, a less obfuscated notion, especially now that "permissiveness" in nearly every other sphere of sexual eccentricity has become as commonplace as last week's Chelsea fashions. More and more permissive, no doubt, society generally will become; more and more tolerant and understanding, as in so many countries beyond Britain's insular shores, of other people's private emotional idiosyncrasies; more and more aware that the adolescent's sexual and emotional growth is as natural and individual as his physical growth and as impossible to arrest or even control as his innate taste and aptitudes. Yet the puritans and the prejudiced will never waver in their zeal to protect the sexual innocence of "our boys": the age of consent for girls in Britain is 16; the new legal consenting age for boys will remain at 21 for a very long time. One cannot foresee in Britain the time when the paidophile will cease to be legally an outlaw and socially an outcast.

But the human race is too wide, human history too long and ancient, human nature too eclectic and human experience too veteran and too variegated, to be directed by the decisions of the British or any other Parliament or to obey what a consensus of tradition and convention and prejudice lays down as orthodox. A huge segment of humanity will always be heretic in a multitude of manners; the individual, thank God, is individual—that's what makes humanity interesting; how dull we should all be if the human race were an infinite reiteration of Sir Cyril Black![2]

The World, the Flesh and Myself, GMP edition, 1985

A human act doesn't become a "sin" just because Parliament or St. Paul has said it is: only the conscience of the man who commits the act can decide in the light of what he believes whether it's morally right or wrong. The laws of social convenience, of course, are another matter—such as the laws for protection of property against theft or of the person against violence; but most of the sexual laws (except for those which regulate the family and safeguard progeny), the laws that is which seek to control legally the individual's profoundest emotional being, derive from nothing but some antique tradition, born mostly in the early Church, or from prejudices sprung from some frustration or convention or morbid and unhealthy fear. They have no social function.

My own conscience tells me, and has always told me, that love for a boy, provided that his welfare and happiness are paramount in the desires of the lover, cannot be a sin either against the boy or against society. Not that I should ever advocate or encourage paidophilia, if there were a choice to be made: were I able to deflect the emotional course of an incipient paidophile, I would vehemently counsel the direction of normality—not, certainly, for moral reasons but on grounds of social and even emotional convenience and for the sake of a greater likelihood of enduring sexual contentment. Ineffable happiness can be the reward on both sides of a generous love between man and boy; but by its own nature it is doomed to be ephemeral—although often succeeded by a lasting friendship, the magic of love must pass with the magic of boyhood. I repeat: although, after a mainly happy lifetime, I don't for a moment wish that I'd been born sexually different from what I was, I would always try to dissuade, were it possible to alter an individual nature, a youth from obeying an inclination toward boys—if he could bring himself to disobey it; not because I believe his love would necessarily do harm to a boy (of course, there are expressions of this kind of love, as of any other, that can be harmful) but because his only chances of emotional serenity are almost certain to be wrecked by it. I don't believe a man's love can harm a boy morally or emotionally, so long as it's a tender gentle love whose principal concern is the boy's happiness and well-being; a love, that is, where the lover's principal pleasure is the advancement of the boy's happiness. What on earth or in heaven, in these circumstances, can some simple and passionate embrace matter?

Encouraged by dogmatic pronouncements from the magisterial bench, and by the lurid stories of depravity which the popular newspapers delight to tell in tones of outraged virtue, most people among the uninformed and the intolerant believe the boy-lover to be a specially nasty kind of sex-maniac who satisfies his unspeakable lusts by violence, deceit and "corruption" and whose aim in life is buggery. Long experience of paidophilia and acquaintance with a large number of paidophiles have convinced me, on the contrary, that active buggery, and even the desire for it, are rare among true boy-lovers (though frequent among the pseudo-queers, like the Arabs)[3] and that very, very rarely is an adolescent boy inclined to accept a passive part in it. The true paidophile, even in his treatment of casual, fly-by-night "trade," is gentle, caressing and solicitous: he won't do, nor try to do, anything that the boy doesn't himself want to do.

The general public are also constantly told by the spokesmen of the "establishment"—judges, police-employed psychologists, prison-doctors, and the like—to believe that homosexual experience creates a taste for homosexuality among the young—that it's "catching" like the measles (these magistrates and others conveniently forget their own schoolboy experiences). The truth obviously is that a homosexual environment, or association with paidophiles, provides the opportunity for homosexual adventure which must often be eagerly grasped by young people who are by nature homosexually inclined—an opportunity that surely may be beneficial where lack of it can only mean the morbid smothering of a constitutional desire, but which can never change a sexual nature that is constitutionally antipathetic to homosexuality. Anyone who's seen something of adolescent sexuality knows that seduction into homosexual practices of a young "normal" isn't going to divert him subsequently from his need for normal sex. (That seduction by bribery may sow the seeds of prostitution is obviously true; but this is a problem within the much wider context of sexual commercialism generally. No one, surely, will want to deny that every time a man offers payment to a boy or young girl for any sort of sexual service, he's helping to equate sex with money in that young mind and nobody will want to doubt that this is harmful—because it degrades the emotions of sex.)

The World, the Flesh and Myself, GMP edition, 1997

I've never heard that any of these publicists of the "contagiousness" of homosexuality has put forward some proof in support of his assertion—it remains a theory; whereas the pederastic practitioner finds ample proof in his own physical experiences and emotional relationships that no amount of homosexual play will or can deflect an amatorially normal boy from his heterosexual destiny. To such a boy a physical affair with another male is merely a substitute, an emotional pretence in the image of the "real thing"; or else it's a variation on the theme of masturbation. Naturally, as has been suggested above, there's any amount of proof to show that the greater the homosexual opportunity the more frequent is homosexual practice—this is the same thing as saying that the longer the pubs are open the more beer will be drunk; but it's a statement that has no bearing on the argument whether the heterosexual temperament can or can't be perverted on to a homosexual course.

I've known many boys in my time, and have loved a number of them. I don't believe I've done any real harm to any of them, and certainly none at all to those I loved; to most of those last, indeed, I know I did good—and not only material good; from some of them in later life I received their own testimony. Obviously, all my relationships with boys haven't been blameless—I must, I'm afraid, have disappointed or helplessly deceived or in some way emotionally wounded several: often some sad, pleading face gazes pitiably at me from some far-off scene in the past; and besides, I'm ashamed to say, in the minds of many others over the decades I must have helped to bedevil the idea of sexual pleasure with that commercial gain. This is evil.

But perhaps the greatest harm I've done has been where I'd hoped to do most good and where love often was truest. This has happened not by my own volition but because of the worldly brutalities—the crass compulsions of displacement which, when one's life is a peripatetic one, can with the abruptness of a typhoon pick one out of a haven of happiness and buffet one a thousand miles into another world. That's where I've done harm; I've given comfort and prosperity and contentment and hope to a boy who entrusted me with his security—and then, by neither my wish nor my fault, have betrayed that trust. Now and then, in one part of the globe or another, I've lifted a boy up to a level of security he'd never dreamed of, and then been forced by the cruel dictates of circumstances to leave him to topple off again. These are the episodes I look back upon with shame and sorrow, and with anger at myself.

I've done my best to leave a boy happier than I found him. Of course sometimes I've failed; of course often I've been beastly—selfish, thoughtless, perhaps unwittingly cruel. What harm I've done has been the fault of my own character or of the wilfulness of life—never of love itself and its little accessory embraces.

 

[1] It is important to understand that by “paidophile”, Davidson understood something quite different to the current word “paedophile”. This then extremely rare word was proposed by Davidson in his preceding chapter, “Note on Nomenclature”, as a replacement for pederasty, which had become tainted for him through unfair association with pedication. The Greeks used paiderasteia and, much more rarely, paidophilos, to mean  the same thing, the love of adolescent boys (only), and that is the sense in which Davidson, whose sexual interests were limited to boys of 12 to 16, meant them. It was only in the early 1970s that the psychiatric term paedophilia, meaning attraction to pre-pubescent children of either gender gained popular currency for political reasons, displacing Davidson's use of the word and contradicting its Greek derivation. The unfamiliar spelling “paidophile” flags some warning of a difference to the modern reader, for which reason it was deeply misleading of the 1998 GMP edition to have replaced it.

[2] Black was an evangelical Conservative Member of Parliament notorious at the time of Davidson’s writing for his campaigns against other people’s fun.

[3] Presumably the implication is that people like the Arabs (to whom Davidson could have added, so far as the historical record extends, all pre-19th century practitioners of homosexuality) were not acting as true homosexuals when pedicating boys, but simulating heterosexual coitus, in contrast to “paidophiles” like the author who were exclusive and therefore “real” homosexuals and had no taste for pedicating boys. See issue nine of Destroyer magazine (Berlin, June 2009), pp. 8-9, for an amusing and perceptive, albeit inevitably simplistic, division of boy-lovers into four types, in which Davidson is upheld as a typical example of “the aesthete” who thinks “buggery is for the masses”, in contrast to “the straight”, for whom “the sex is dominant and penetrative”.