three pairs of lovers with space

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS ON HIS BOYHOOD

 

Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was a prominent writer of English origin most famous for his outspoken hostility to religion. The following account of homosexuality involving boys at his two boarding-schools is drawn from his autobiography, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York, 2010).

 

III. Fragments from an Education

Christopher Hitchens

Introducing his boarding-school days:
The three great subjects of Beating, Bullying, and Buggery (the junior or cadet equivalent of Winston Churchills naval tryptych of “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash”) are familiar enough to me in their way, and I have often been closely questioned - usually by girls - about their influence on my formation. I was subjected to a certain amount and to a certain extent to the first two of the Big Bs but not (my italics) to the third. I should perhaps add that I was never big or strong or desperate enough to inflict any of the above procedures on anyone else. In fact, in the annals of British boarding-school trauma, I scarcely count even as walking wounded. This is because, at the very last moment, I was saved from having to go to Tonbridge. […]

On his mother’s change of mind over sending him to public school at Tonbridge when he was thirteen:
You would not, gentle reader, be scanning these pages had it been otherwise. Tonbridge was a synonym for those Spartan schools where the empire, the church, the cricket field, the war memorial, and the monarchy were, well, sovereign. The blue-eyed boy, small for his age and with rather feminine eyelashes, who is indifferent to sports and happiest in the library is ... buggered. Not to say beaten and bullied. All this Yvonne saw, or I suppose I should say she somehow intuited, at a glance. […]

On “Hugh Wortham, my huge and dominating headmaster” at Mount House School, Devon, a boarding-school he attended from 1957 to 1962, aged 8 to 13:

Mount House School in 1959

Heaven knows what he’d been through sexually: he himself didn’t stoop to“fiddling” with any of us but if you were occasionally favored, as I occasionally was, you would be given a copy of David Blaize or one of the Jeremy novels and asked if you’d care to read it“in your free time.” Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for this in those days, I now know quite a lot about E.F. Benson and Hugh Walpole and I sensed even then that this was the world of the smoldering and yearning and repressed adult homosexual, fixated on his own schooldays and probably most attracted to those who are themselves blithely unaware of the intensity of the attention. […]

Still on his prep school days at Mount House School:
Nonetheless, I was probably insufferable until one very observant master - a man named Eyre who was later sacked after a horrific lapse into pederasty - instilled in me a sense of proportion. […]

 

IV.  Cambridge

On his time at The Leys School, a boarding-school in Cambridge he attended from 1962 to 1967, aged 13 to 18, but recounted before events of autumn 1964:

Lytton Strachey once summarized the boarding-school hothouse dilemma very aptly:

Photo by Henry Grant

How odd the fate of pretty boys!
Who, if they dare to taste the joys
That so enchanted Classic minds,
Get whipped upon their neat behinds.
Yet should they fail to construe well
The lines that of those raptures tell
It’s very odd you must confess -
Their neat behinds get whipped no less.

There were two ways in which this hottest of all subjects could “come up” in an all-male school featuring communal showers, communal sleeping arrangements, communal lavatories, and the ever-present threat of an official thrashing on the rear. The first was unambiguously physical. Most boys decided quite early on that, since their penises would evidently give them no rest at all, they would repay the favor by giving their penises no respite in return. The night was loud with the boasts and the groans that resulted from this endless, and fairly evenly matched, single combat between chaps and their cocks. To even the dullest lad, furthermore, it would sometimes occur to think that self-abuse was slightly wasted on the self, and might be better relished in mixed company. Some were choosy about the company, and some less so, but I can only remember a very few boys who abstained from (or to put it more cruelly, were so unappetizing as to be left out of) this compensation for the general hellishness of male adolescence. It was quite possible to arrange a vigorous session of mutual relief without a word being spoken, even without eye contact.

It’s very important to understand that ninety percent of these enthusiastic participants would have punched you in the throat if you suggested there was anything homosexual (or “queer”) about what they were doing. (When I later read Gore Vidal’s distinction between homosexual persons and homosexual acts, I saw the point at once.) The unstated excuse was that this was what one did until the so-far unattainable girls became available. And there were related etiquettes to be observed: a senior boy might well have some sort of “pash” on a much junior one, but any action taken by him would be very strongly deplored. (You couldn’t actually treat a boy like a girl, in other words.) Yet the very word “pash” somehow gives the game away. In a minority of “cases” - another word for it, often represented by the = sign between two names written up as graffiti - things were infinitely more serious, as well as more ridiculous, because what appeared to be involved was, of all ludicrous things, the emotions. The routines of the day, from stolen glimpses across the chapel in the morning to a longing glance across the quadrangle as the bells tolled for “lights-out,” could be utterly consumed by the presence of “him.” One such episode came close to ruining my life, or so I thought and believed at the time.

I had one advantage and one disadvantage in this ongoing monastic sex drama, and the problem was that the advantage and the disadvantage were the same. I was a late developer physically, was quite girlish in my prepubescent years and then later, if I do say so myself, not all that bad-looking once boyishness had, so to speak, “kicked in.” This meant that I didn’t lack for partners when it came to the everyday (well, not every day) business of sheer physical relief. But it also meant that I could become the recipient of attention from older males, attention that could sometimes be very sudden and quite frightening. This perhaps made me additionally vulnerable to the fantasy of the “romantic” idyll.

Mr. Chipping's classroom in the version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (based on The Leys School) filmed in 1968

Mr. Chips’s[1] feminist-socialist wife had phrased it in a no-nonsense way by saying that official disapproval of public-school homosexuality was the equivalent of condemning a boy for being there in the first place. She was chiefly right about the sheer physical aspect. I knowingly run the risk of absurdity if I offer the spiritual or the transcendent in opposition to this, but actually it was my first exposure to love as well as to sex, and it helped teach me as vividly as anything could have done that religion was cruel and stupid. One was indeed punishable for one’s very nature: “Created sick: commanded to be sound.” The details aren’t very important, but until this moment I have doubted if I would ever be able to set them down. “He” was a sort of strawberry blond, very slightly bow-legged, with a wicked smile that seemed to promise both innocence and experience. He was in another “house.” He was my age. He was quite right-wing (which I swiftly decided to forgive) but also a “rebel”  in the sense of being a cavalier elitist. His family had some connection with the louche Simon Raven, whose “Fielding Gray” novels of schoolboy infatuation and later versions of decadence furnished, for me at any rate, a sort of cheap-rate anteroom to the grander sequences of Anthony Powell. The marvelous boy was more urbane than I was, and much more knowing, if slightly less academic. His name was Guy, and I still sometimes twitch a little when I run into someone else who’s called that - even in America, where in a way it is every boy’s name.

Were poems exchanged? Were there white-hot and snatched kisses? Did we sometimes pine for the holidays to end, so that (unlike everybody else) we actually yearned to be back at school? Yes, yes, and yes. Did we sleep together? Well, dear reader, the “straight” answer is no, we didn’t. The heated yet chaste embrace was exactly what marked us off from the grim and turgid and randy manipulations in which the common herd - not excluding ourselves in our lower moments with lesser beings - partook. I won’t deny that there was some fondling. However, when we were actually caught it must have looked bad, since we had finally managed - no small achievement in a place where any sort of privacy was rendered near-unlawful - to find somewhere to be alone. The senior boy who made the discovery was a thick-necked sportocrat with the unimprovable name of Peter Raper: he had had his own bulging eye on my Guy for some time and this was his revenge.

The Leys School

The usual “thing” would have been public disgrace followed by expulsion. But “things” were made both more cruel and more arbitrary, and also less so. Various of my teachers persuaded the headmaster that I was a good prospect for passing the entrance exam for Oxford: a statistic on which the school annually prided (and sold) itself. The same could be said of Guy, though he didn’t eventually make it. Accordingly, having been coldly exposed to public shame, we were allowed to “stay on” but forbidden to speak to each other. At the time, I vaguely but quite worriedly thought that this might have the effect of killing me. Yet there was something so stupid, as well as so intricate, in the official sadism that I managed to surmount most of its effects. (After all, this was a time when not only was all homosexual conduct illegal in the rest of society, but all contact with members of the female sex was punishable by beating within the rules of my school! You could not win. “Perversion,” so often invoked from the pulpit and the podium, was the very word that I personally employed for this sick mentality on the part of the authorities.) Of the reaction of my parents I remember almost nothing. The luckless Commander was summoned and we had a whey-faced interview in some “study” or another until I realized that he was far more embarrassed than I was. (And this was a man whose regular standby of stoicism was to intone, unvaryingly, “Worse things happen in big ships.”) My mother wisely said nothing and wrote nothing. At the end of the term I didn’t go home but went rock-climbing in North Wales with a school group where there was considerable free and emotionless sex among the tents and cooking fires. When I finally did get back, not having advertised my arrival time in advance, I was lucky to find my mother alone in the kitchen. She brilliantly rose and greeted me as if I’d been expected for some brittle and glamorous cocktail party of the sort that she always planned and never quite gave.

Looking back on this, I once again have the feeling that it all happened to somebody else. And yet I can be sure it was to me. Hoping to profit by a “lesson” or two, even from the most dismal and sordid moments, I could nominate perhaps more than a couple. The first is that, though I am generally glad not to be gay, I learned early on that most debates on this question are vapid or worse, since what we are discussing is not a form of sex, or not only a form of sex, but a form of love. As such, it must command respect. Then, and from having been the object of homosexual attention and predatory jealousy - this went on happening to me until I was almost out of university - I believe that the whole experience gave me some sympathy for women. I mean by that to say that I know what it’s like to be the recipient of unwanted or even coercive approaches, or to be approached surreptitiously under the guise of friendship. (Assaulted once by a truck driver when I was hitchhiking, and quite lucky to have broken away from him unharmed, I can never listen to any excuses about how the victims of such attacks in some way “invite” it.) I always take it for granted that sexual moralizing by public figures is a sign of hypocrisy or worse, and most usually a desire to perform the very act that is most being condemned.[2]

I understand in retrospect that this was my first introduction to a conflict that dominates all our lives: the endless, irreconcilable conflict between the values of Athens and Jerusalem. On the one hand, very approximately, is the world not of hedonism but of tolerance of the recognition that sex and love have their ironic and perverse dimensions. On the other is the stone-faced demand for continence, sacrifice, and conformity, and the devising of ever-crueller punishments for deviance, all invoked as if this very fanaticism did not give its whole game away. Repression is the problem in the first place. So, even at the cost of some intense momentary pain, I suppose that I might as well have learned this sooner rather than later.[3]

 

[1] Earlier, Hitchens observed that the famous fictitious Mr. Chips was created by a old boy of his school and based on a master there, and noted: ”This book, like the several movies that bear its name, has become a synonym for old-school-tie values and general mushy sentiment about the dear old days. In fact, Mr. Chipping’s lovely wife, Kathie, is a socialist and a feminist who wins all hearts; she forces him to be honest about homosexual play among the boys; he ends up sympathizing with railway strikers, opposing the British Empire in the Boer War and insisting on decent respect for Germans after 1914.”

[2] From King Lear: “Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! Why dost thou lash that whore? . . . Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind, for which thou whip’st her.” This is why, whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite. [Author’s note]

[3] It was Guy, now dead for some time but in his later years an amazingly successful seducer of girls, who first insisted that I read the Greek-classical novels of Mary Renault. If this was all he had done for me, I would still be hoarsely grateful to him. While other boys plowed their way across the puerile yet toilsome pages of Narnia, or sank themselves into the costive innards of Middle Earth, I was following the thread of Ariadne and the tracks of Alexander. The King Must Die; The Bull from the Sea : Athens has seldom trumped Jerusalem with greater style or panache. [Author’s note]