THE LUVVERLY FEELINGS OF COCKNEY MATES
The following story comes from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
The text is taken from pp. 125-39 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971). This is the chapter that was most severely cut in the British edition. The footnote is the author’s.
Davidson says this story began in a May in the 1930s, and the Spanish Civil War, which began in July 1936, was ongoing. He left England at the end of 1937, not to return until 1941. It must therefore have been May 1937.
A NOTICE painted on the well-weathered wooden palings says: "Men and Boys Only": welcome words to such as me, with their simple preclusion of that simpering sexual flaunting of the bikini classes which has become the chief business of "mixed bathing" establishments; and with their promise of artless and unpretending youthful nudity.
This bathing-place is on one of the green-and-golden lakes of Hampstead Heath: that's how I remember it in the summer of the 'thirties, when the yellow gravel banks were alight with sunshine and the water, deep and earthy-bottomed, was like lucent brown candy.
The vast breathing oasis of the Heath spreads out to the north of London behind the hilltop suburb of Hampstead, where the eggheads live, like a limitless evergreen switchback—a verdant expanse of classic parkland composed of knoll and hillock, dell, woodland and lake and rippling pasture or lawn of springing turf. It is the Londoners' most beautiful refuge from reality; but, being given over to public enjoyment, its beauty is spoiled by the public's enjoyment of it. Where once Keats listened to the nightingale, one now hears the public's automobiles; and where all should be solitude and whispered intimacies of rusticity, the seeker after sylvan seclusion will today find it only at about seven a.m.—but even then he will probably encounter a number of earnest eggheads striding healthily through the mooring air.
But at the bathing-place, on the contrary, the lyric beauty of the surroundings, for me at any rate, is enriched by the flesh-and-blood beauty of its public: a public, more than half of it, of bathing boys big and small—the water is too deep for non-swimming infants; and since there is no entrance money to be paid, boys of all classes flock there on hot summer days: the poorest from the North London slums or the posh-voiced sons of the Hampstead eggheads. One can hear every inflection of London's marvellously graduated speech; from the suave superior vowels of the BBC middle class—"Oh, Rupert, do hurry up and come in: the water's absolutely super," the idiom as well as accent, alien to the cockney—to, now and then, the rhyming slang of the juvenile near-underworld. "Wasser matter, mate," I once heard a youngster say to another, "ain'tcher comin' in off the topboard wiv us?" "Don't feel like it," said the other, "I'm tired." "Tired?" exclaimed the first, "You bin pullin' yer 'ampton?"
It didn't take long to translate that. " 'Ampton" plainly stands for "Hampton," and Hampton Wick is a small town near London: "wick" rhymes with "prick." This was the first time I'd heard that phrase; "pulling your pudding" is an old and widespread figure of speech, but nowadays the almost universal term for masturbation among the working-classes is "wank": a word with a respectable long English history properly spelt "whank." Higher up the social ladder the vocabulary has euphemisms like "rub off," "rub up," "frig" and of course "toss off." I doubt whether "wank" has yet reached the public schools. English colloquialisms for "penis" also are apt to betoken the social level of their users. "Prick" might be called basic English: as old as the hills and used generally by the lower classes; "cock" and "dick" prevail through two or three layers of gentility upwards, and "thing," with an honorable literary and social past, is still found among the lower boys of some public schools; "old man," "weapon" and "tool" are all middle and upper class, the first two preferred by the heartier types like stockbrokers or in Army messes, while "tool" has something of an academic ring. In such a presbytery of the proprieties as the Athenaeum Club the penis would probably be referred to, if it were referred to at all, as "John Thomas" or, more discreetly, "J.T." (the first use of this euphemism noted by Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang occurred about 1840).
Another pleasant bit of rhyming slang I heard in the sun-bathing enclosure here was "Kick 'im up 'is 'arris"—said by one boy advising another what to do to a third. " 'Arris" was how I saw it in my mind—I felt that there must be a dropped h; but I was wrong. The solution, when I got it much later, was as charming as Euclid: "Aris"="Aristotle" which rhymes with "bottle"; "bottle"="bottle-and-glass" which rhymes with "arse." Q.E.D.
These British boys' physiognomies are as variegated as their accents; their faces spell the alphabet of the English ancestry which at its richest is as eclectic as the English language and at its poorest as stodgy as English cooking: no other nation, perhaps, shows such a marvellous diversity of physical styles. The "average" British boy, if there be one, has a homelier face than the fairy-tale Nordic type and has rarely the classic look of the South European; he's a mousy sort: apple-checked around puberty, and, like most fair-skinned boys—and girls for that matter—shows through adolescence that peculiar lustre which darker skins conceal. At his best he has the cheerful snub good looks of the illustrations to school-stories. But the British boy is very apt to run to nose; and at this bathing place, where in the sun-bathing enclosure nakedness is natural, there is plenty of chance to test the old theory that a long konk bespeaks a long cock (a theory that I have found is as often proved right as wrong). A great many boys in England, in fact, are ugly; one sees more plain faces than pretty or good-looking or handsome ones—France alone, I'd say, in Europe, has more ugly boys than England. Plainness, however, and even downright ugliness, is not the same thing as unattractiveness; charm, even sexual, is far from always a matter of feature or profile: charm is the impalpable radiance of an expression—the sweetness or puckishness of a smile, the spirit in the depths of the eye, the delights of a voice; charm, as we all know, can transmute the apparently unlovely into beauty; and human ugliness, so used to being slighted, can be exciting: "I like them ugly," Stuart Mason, the great bibliographer of Oscar Wilde, used to declare half a century ago. "They get so little opportunity. . . ."
* * *
It was a Thursday afternoon that I first saw Neddy and Ted, lying together limp and bemused by the sun; drops of water, left from their bathe and still unevaporated, glinted on their bare white skins like tiny bubbles of light. Thursday was early-closing day for shops in North London; and Neddy and Ted, I learned later, were both errand-boys in Hampstead: one for a greengrocer's, the other for a provision-store— they rode those cumbrous delivery bicycles which, once an engaging commonplace of London's streets, have now been ousted from traffic by the supermarket along with the other pleasant familiarities of the round-the-corner shop. Today there are few errand-boys.
Both were fourteen; they lived in the same street and had gone through school together; both were named Edward but never so called. Now they worked in shops in the same block, and after work wherever one went the other went too; they called for each other after they'd had their teas as naturally as they woke up in the morning. They were "mates" and knew each other's minds and bodies as well as they knew their own. When a London boy refers to another as "me mate," he's admitting to an intensity of loyalty and alliance he'd be shocked to think of in such "wet" terms. Neddy and Ted would have called anybody a cunt who told them they loved each other.
They were lying stretched on their backs, with their heads a few inches from my toes; so that I looked down on trickling hair and the arcs of eyelids closed against the sun, and the taut dome of ribs diving to the flats of stomachs. I could watch the clockwork of their hearts and the secure motion of their breathing. They were voluptuously unmoving on the hot concrete floor; absorbing the tingle of the sun with all the vehemence their skins were capable of—the delicious opposite of the sting of their first dip. Their wet swimming trunks were beside them in small dark slimy heaps, like bits out of the washtub. They'd dropped their towels across their middles—a douceur, one might call it to Jack the Keeper who, executor of the decency laws, fitfully appeared among the sunbathers to grumble to any whose nakedness wasn't even symbolically hidden: "Cover y'self up." One of the boys, the smaller and fairer, had tucked his towel under him and brought up between his legs a figleaf triangle—from the hypotenuse of which impudently poked a sprinkle of rust-red hair. His body had the skimmed-milk look of the very fair at the beginning of the bathing season: skin translucent almost, and painfully fragile—one felt one could see the bones beneath. His mate, who was bulkier and dark-haired, had skin faintly mottled, like milk that's been standing in the dust.
"Neddy," he said suddenly, "I wish we 'ad a fag. It wouldn't 'alf be smashing then."
("We," he had said, not "I": the fag, if there were one, would be shared.) This of course was my opportunity: I had merely to pull out my cigarettes, and the way would be open. . . . But somehow I didn't; I was happily bemused by the beauty of these two supine boy bodies, so touchingly unconscious of their beauty; by the sylvan peace of the trees overhead and the brilliance of the sky; by the dazzle and dapple on the concrete of this precocious summer in May. I was quite happy simply looking at these two boys—I felt I couldn't look at them long enough. Later, I thought to myself, later . . . there's plenty of time. . . .
It was early in May, and a weekday; the place wasn't crowded and was pleasantly quiet, as if it were engrossed in its own thoughts. Apart from the background shouting and splashing from the lake outside, which one felt rather than heard, the only sounds came from opposite corners of the enclosure, occupied as usual by pietists of two rather incompatible heliolatrous sects: the eggheads and the weight-lifters. The eggheads were a bony, bearded group of spindly men who, for the most part, sat in cramped and ossified postures like those of the mummies of Pompei: altering these attitudes every ten minutes or so in order to expose a fresh segment of their flesh to the sun: while they murmured together (at the time of which I'm writing) of Pound or the Woolfs or Auden or the Spanish war, and chuckled discreetly over their little intellectual jokes. The eggheads kept to themselves and harmed nobody. The weightlifters and their allies the boxers, mostly retired, were rather different: they were an extroverted lot of men who liked to have an audience. If one didn't watch their feats of strength of one's own accord, they glared challengingly— almost menacingly; one kept one's freedom only by avoiding their eye. They spoke in a kind of movie-dialect of cockney-American; and manifested their prodigious muscles while hissing loudly through their noses. They kept in their corner a boxful of weightlifting equipment; and there was a good deal of clanking and gasping as they hoisted up and down huge lumps of lead or iron bars. The weightlifters' obsession with muscular enlargement didn't seem to be a matter of rivalry; they'd no desire, as far as I could see, to grow bigger biceps than the others or lift heavier lumps. It was their own muscles, their own bodies, they were interested in and nobody else's: they contemplated their own limbs and watched their own flesh with the absorbed attention that a woman gives to her face in the looking-glass. I don't know what the psychologists say about the body-builders and muscle-fetishists; I feel they have a corner in an exclusive sort of kinkiness: aggressively extrovert in manner, they are yet turned in on themselves, fascinated by their own proportions, bewitched by a kind of butch narcissism. They may believe that women fall for this mighty muscularity; I can't help thinking, though, that the body-builders may be terrific masturbators before the mirror.
The other sunbathers were solitary and unobtrusive; there were, of course, one or two queers: one can always tell them by following their eyes. Schoolboys clattered in from outside in ones and twos or a flurry of half a dozen, tore their clothes off and rushed out to the water, and rushed back like a cloud of dripping sparrows, pulling off their wet trunks and gyrating their arms like flails, in the way boys have, to dry themselves, and all shouting at once.
" 'Oo's comin' in again?—ain't 'alf good! . . ."
"Like bleedin' ice, it is. . . ."
"Lets 'ave a dry on your towel, Jim. . . ."
"Blimey Bill, your bollocks is shrivelled up like a bit of cold tripe. . . ."
"Look at Bill's knackers—like a bit o' cold tripe. . . ."
" 'Oo's got any fags? . . ."
"I'll sell you a dog-end for a penny. . . ."
* * *
The gentle murmur of the eggheads seemed as mellow as the humming of bees and, through the haze of my enjoyment, the clank-clank of the weightlifters came vaguely like the remote shunting of trains in a happy night. The sun had dried the two boys' heads now, and I realized with a silly little excitement (why is it that the unusual often has charm for its own sake?) that the smaller one's hair was coloured a shade of freckled auburn—a red roan one might call it, throwing off sparks where the sun hit it: beneath this fiery crown were the cheeky yet touching features of a bronze satyr in a Sicilian museum—or, for that matter, a flesh-and-blood satyr in any Sicilian street: a delightful face, pale of course instead of swarthy, that was at once rueful and decadent and impish. The eyes, I found later, were pale brown with streaks of gold.
Suddenly he turned his head sideways to the other. "Ted," I heard him whisper. "Oy Ted, wake up. I got the 'orn." And sure enough, when I looked, I saw that the triangle of towel had become a bivouac tent, and caught a glimpse of a rampant red thing, neatly circumcised. Then he reached down and bunched the towel over it. "Oy, Ted, d'you 'ear? What about it?"
Ted's eyes opened but he didn't answer; he seemed to be pondering over Neddy's remark. After a minute he muttered; "Now you got me started"; and it was his turn to pile his towel into a prudent heap. There was a brief whispering—and in a moment I knew what it was about.
With one mind they stood up, clenching their towels astutely round their telltale bodies; and made for the door that led to the lake. I knew they would turn right, and follow the concrete path among the lakeside trees to a small copse that stood by itself and contained the structure labelled "gents"—a primitive yard with a gutter at the base of the wall and two wooden cubicles that could be bolted from the inside. I gave them a couple of minutes and then quietly followed. I knew exactly what I was going to see; and was on fire to see it – with all the hundred eyes I possess for such sights.
As I expected, they were in one of the cubicles together, with the door bolted. Creeping barefoot on the concrete, I shut myself silently in the other. Through a crack in the boarding I knew perfectly well – it’d served me well before now - a thread of daylight ran down the partition: a tiny crack which in two or three tactically chosen spots had been widened with the point of a penknife—by earlier generations, I suppose, of dirty old men. Peeping one-eyed through these spyholes, I could watch just what Neddy and Ted were doing. The lowest hole brought my eye level with Ted’s mottled-marble thighs which, he reclining backwards on the lavatory seat, were stretched out taut in front of him, toes pointed in the air like a dancer’s and every muscle tumid and straining. Neddy stood astride Teddy’s knees, leaning forward from the hips, so that his flashed satyr’s face was poised over Ted’s belly. His right hand was rather waveringly rubbing Ted’s cock while with his left he was doing his best to work on his own. The whole of the little edifice seemed to be gently oscillating like the housing of a small marine engine; there was a regular thump as Neddy's knuckles softly hit Ted's belly, and a rhythmic creaking from the lavatory seat. The muscles of Ted's thighs, toes and feet, stretched stiff into the air, were vibrating with a kind of tremor; his mouth was slightly open, and his eyes seemed to be watching without seeing the dust dancing in a streak of sunlight. I could see both their faces clearly by looking up slantwise through the crack. There was a look of screwed-up petulance in Neddy's expression, as if he were finding his work unrewarding: it is as impossible to perform a double masturbation properly as it is to write two letters at the same time using both hands. Masturbation can be done well or badly: one mustn’t spoil the job by trying to distribute one’s concentration.
"Turn it in, Ted," I heard him whisper. "Do yer own, can't you? I want me own bleedin' wank." Without a sign, and without any change in his wrapt expression, Ted’s hand took over from Neddy’s; it was routine he was used to. Neddy’s right hand now took the place of his left; he started rubbing very quickly, using thumb and first two fingers, and looking down at his penis as if it were something he’d never seen before. It was small, circumcised, and delicately shaped, standing up strongly from below a tiny bunch of red-gold hair; it was like some rare and daintily tinted mushroom. Ted’s prick was a very different sort: large, long and thick, and planted in a thick, wiry dark bush: it was one of those whose skin won’t go back. I felt there was a coarseness about its design – the difference between it and Neddy’s was the difference between a heavy kitchen spoon and a piece of Queen Anne silver.
From now on I lost count of detail. I can remember a general consciousness of vibration, of beat and rhythm and a mounting sense of infatuation; I seemed to become blinkered from real things in a dementia of wanting to see all of these two boys all at once; their entranced and swooning eyes, their mouths hot and quick-breathing, the movement of their hands and the responding phallic shapes and angles and shades of color: I yearned to feel with them through their fingers, through every sensory nerve and tissue they possessed, the same feelings that they were feeling. . . .
Neddy was the first to come: some beads of watery clarity, which he gazed down upon with a puzzled and slightly woebegone look – woebegone, perhaps, because it was all over. . . . Ted’s was a breathtakingly powerful ejaculation: in volume, duration, and throwing force – I think that never, before or since, have I seen such exuberance. I learned afterwards that this capability was his special pride and had made him a celebrity at school. Within a week I was to watch him shoot right up the chimney of my sitting-room fireplace.
* * *
Why, I ask myself, why should this spectacle, this peepshow, or any like it, give me through my eyes a pleasure more intense than any other I can think of? Why should the secret witnessing of one or two boys masturbating bring mental and emotional sensations of a quality drawn otherwise only from aesthetic experience? Why, why? It seems so silly. This strange pleasure isn't just the voyeur's prurient enjoyment, the mere satisfying of one's natural sexual interest; sexual it is, of course—yet it is a pleasure of the spirit: the fierce, rarefied joy that surges through one's being from the words of a writer of genius. It's the pleasure one feels in the presence of beauty. But why it should be so, I can't explain. That word "secret," perhaps—"the secret witnessing"—may contain a clue to part of the mystery: a boy entranced by approaching orgasm, believing himself alone and absolutely secure from others' eyes, drops all pretence and defence from his expression; he is for these few moments utterly free of those unconscious inhibitions which through his waking life mask his face and eyes, always on the defensive: the secret watcher, the Peeping Tom if you like, catching the boy thus with his guard off, feels that he's looking into the boy's mind and heart and soul—that he's somehow joined to him in an unattainable intimacy of the spirit.
* * *
We came out of the cubicles at the same moment; from the way they looked at me I knew they were wondering what I had heard or guessed—they couldn't know that I'd seen. . . . Ted started whistling loudly, and Neddy said, a little self-consciously "We going to the pictures tonight, Ted? There's a good one up at the Regent. . .?" "I ain't got no money," Ted answered.
Back in the enclosure, they began to dress in a dawdling way: their clothes on the long bench round the palings were only a yard or two from mine. They went on talking about the pictures; and then started whispering together, and throwing glances now and then at me.
"I would for a shilling," I heard Neddy say. A shilling! A pathetic little sum: the average "present" expected thirty or forty years ago by a London boy who more for fun than anything was willing to join you in a bit of sex, was half-a-crown—" 'alf-a-dollar" they called it, and that was just its worth. (You could get a movie-seat, then, for 15¢ and cigarettes cost 10¢ for ten.)
I took them into Hampstead for a tea of eggs-an'-chips and creamy cakes; and gave them more than enough money for the film. Next Thursday, which would be their half-day again, they would come to my flat for tea—and, they told me, "games".
After that, for several months, they came every Thursday; and our routine was always the same. My bath was a big one, with both width and depth; and as soon as they came, I had to fill it with steaming hot water: so deep that when they both were in, the water almost swilled over the edges. They'd have their clothes off in no time: then for the next hour or so they would lie and wallow and giggle and squeal, while their bodies turned the colour of cooked lobster and they "swam" and "played submarines"—submerging all of their bodies except their floppy wet "periscopes"—or amused themselves with small obscene pranks and the demonstration and comparison of each other's bodies. When they'd had enough of this, and were drying their steaming skins, I would be getting their tea ready. It was always the same: scrambled eggs on toast—three eggs each—followed by chocolate éclairs. This they always ate with no clothes on at all: it was one of the rules they had laid down themselves. I can remember so well the pattern that the cane-seats of the chairs impressed upon their soft scarlet bums; and Neddy's small bony arms sawing away at his scrambled eggs on toast.
When the first cigarettes after tea had been smoked halfway to the end, I knew exactly what would come next. Neddy's little cheeky face would look up at me and he'd throw me his impish grin. "Hey, Ted," he'd say, "let's git up on the bed. Mick's going to give us our luvverly feelings—ain't you, Mick?" This was always the name of the third act of our Thursday entertainment—the Luvverly Feelings; the first two being the Bath and the Scrambled Eggs. Neddy would stretch out on his back on one side of the big bed, his white, delicate limbs, relaxed and limp, looking touchingly fragile and his arms spread out expectantly like the arms of a crucifix; the hollows of his glabrous armpits were like small cups of marble. Ted's place was along the other edge of the bed; and from my position between them I would administer the luvverly feelings: with the tips of my fingers I would stroke and titillate and fondle every part of their bodies, moving downwards from their arms and breasts and over their bellies, or upwards along their thighs, until my hands reached the topmost fringe of their pubic hair or the supine silky folds of their scrotums: then my fingers, moving with the gossamer delicacy which the boys—and especially Neddy— had insisted they should attain would explore all those secret nooks of the flesh and areas of exquisite sensation which are lumped together under the shamefaced official cover of "private parts." And so the luvverly feelings came to the inevitable entrancement of their end – with Ted demonstrating once more his astonishing ballistical prepotency. The boys were always delightfully happy and natural after the luvverly feelings. They were uncomplicated boys; though they were united by the immense affection that each felt for the other, and though from infancy they had grown up together into sexual knowledge and action, they showed no sign of the slightest deviation from the emotionally normal—there was nothing queer about them. They healthily regarded their bodies as a means of getting amusement and pleasure of a kind which they didn't in their minds connect with shame or guilt; when they felt like doing something sexual, they did it—as naturally as they ate when they were hungry. The wanking experiments they had performed together; their first girls whom, they would boastfully announce each week, they were going to have at any moment now; even the unconventional innovations of our luvverly feelings—all, in their view, were part of a special segment of life which brought them enjoyment all along the scale from fun to their whole being's bliss. They couldn't see anything "dirty" about it.
As the weeks went by, they began to talk of bringing their "bits of skirt," when they'd found them, to my place; and they'd loudly gloat over the things they would do to the girls. "Just you wait, Mick," Neddy would say, with his impish satyric grin. "You just watch me tell me bird to Get Up Them Stairs!" Or Neddy would say "Eh Ted: when we gets our birds up 'ere, Mick'll give 'is luvverly feelings to all four of us—won't you Mick?" "No, 'e won't," Ted would reply firmly. "I'm going to give me own bird me own luvverly feelings."
Some three months after these Thursday entertainments began the boys announced that they'd picked up a couple of girls outside a Hampstead cinema, and could they bring them to tea the following Thursday, I answered "Of course." Though I realised this meant running an even greater risk than usual, I didn't want to snub them or to hinder the natural development of their emotional lives—and I thought I could probably prevent things reaching a dangerous point. For the rest of that afternoon they were boasting of the things they'd do next week when the girls were there. "Oh boy! Once I get me bird flat on that bed, . . ."—and Neddy finished the sentence with a bewitchingly wicked leer.
Next week I got in extra eggs and éclairs; though until the last minute I didn't believe any girls would come. But punctually to the minute Neddy and Ted arrived, blushingly ushering two plump and shiny girls, giggling and simpering, called Glad and Doreen. They were shy, gauche girls, smelling rather unpleasantly of cheap scent, but they had nice manners and were obviously determined to behave like perfect ladies.
But the boys' behavior was even more demure: not a word or gesture that wasn't strictly party-manners; and the four of them spent the time playing ludo.* Shortly after this I began to see less and less of them, as their entry into the world of girls took them wider afield. The interlude of the luvverly feelings was over.
*A board-game played with counters.