ISCHIA, ISLAND OF LAVISH BOYS
The following 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. 155-170 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), from which one quite serious cut and a few trivial ones had been made in the earlier British edition. The footnote is Davidson’s.
Unusually for him, Davidson has muddled the dates in his opening sentence, as is clear from the more detailed account of his comings and goings in his The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), where he says he “first knew” Ischia in 1951, returned there “for months” in the summer of 1953 and left it to take up abode in Rome, which he reached on Christmas Day 1953. The autumn of 1951 is corroborated by Robin Maugham, the here unnamed friend with the yacht, in his own autobiography, Escape From the Shadows (1972), p. 200, and is compatible with the release of the film also mentioned in the opening sentence, The Crimson Pirate, in September 1952.
I LIVED for a year or so on Ischia in 1952-53; but it was a few years earlier that I first set foot on the island: at the time when Burt Lancaster was making a film parodying romantic costumery, called The Crimson Pirate—I even sailed round in the pirate brigantine one day (the illusion only just survived the chugging of the engine) from the Port of Ischia to the little bay of Sant' Angelo, where some shooting was to be done.
At that time, at any rate to me, Ischia was certainly the more attractive of the two islands that float like lightships across the Bay of Naples—three islands if one adds little Procida, flat but rather dull, nestling beneath Ischia's great tilted cone. While Ischia lacks the slightly operatic profile which encourages the simile "leviathan" to leap to the pen of writers about Capri, its silhouette, some may feel, is a more dramatic one, reaching up two thousand feet into the sky; and a more exciting one too: for, unlike Capri, which is a deadweight of limestone, Mount Epomeo is a dozing volcano—it violently erupted less than a century ago. Ischians say that Epomeo is connected with Vesuvius, some twenty miles away on the mainland, by a kind of submarine flue; and assert that when one mountain explodes the other will keep quiet. The people of Ischia therefore are always hoping that Vesuvius will blow up. . . . Another reason, of course, why Ischia, for people who like quiet, was then more agreeable than Capri was that the tourist trade hadn't properly discovered it; while the piazzetta of Capri was crammed with theatrical celebrities, visitors to Ischia arrived there almost by mistake.
Ischia's harbor is itself a circular volcanic crater which time has filled up with the sea. Behind it the undistinguished town runs along a narrow hem of plain, hard against the dark-green background of the mountain slope.
I came, that first time, on a friend's yacht, and lived aboard for the week or so we were there. Half a dozen or more yachts were in the harbour but, although it was a brilliant September, there were few tourists.
Boys clustered round our gangplank, as boys always do in any port when foreign yachts arrive hoping for cigarettes or the odd coin or chance employment on errands; or, not seldom, on the lookout for remunerative sexual adventure—this last, however, in Italy, more often in those days than now, when poverty and unemployment are less acute. (In an aside, it may be said that if a prize were offered for the most expectant congregations of local youth round a gangplank, it would surely be won by Portoferraio on Elba: the whole adolescent population of that pleasant island seemed bent on collaboration of any sort asked.) At Ischia, those first few days, a rather plain boy of about fourteen, with gentle manners and a ready sensuality, made friends and even sailed with us as extra "crew" as far as Palermo, returning home from there by the mail-steamer. His name was Attilio—though he would have been miscast in the role of Attila. And then, at the foot of a mountain track, I maneuvred acquaintance with a comely bronze-haired boy of fifteen, who led me to a deserted cove of gigantic boulders, where crabs scuttled in the rocky pools and the short waves gurgled as they sucked at the pebbly beach. He was called Rosario; but he came of a family of anarchists and was the opposite of devout. In my remaining days, he visited me aboard the boat, coming daily round the mountain from his village the other side of it. The village, he told me, was Forio, pronounced with the accent on the i; I hadn't heard the name before and, at the time, thought nothing more of it. . . .
Back on the island three or four years later, I remembered that an old friend, an American novelist, was living there; and when I learned that his house was at Forio, the name took me back in a flash to the caressing feel of soft bronze curls and a clear burnished skin like pale varnish—Rosario's curls and skin: he must be about nineteen now, I thought. And I took the bus over to Forio, on the north-west tip of the island, with expectations no more aspiring than lunch with my friend and a possible encounter with Rosario for old times' sake. I stayed in Forio for nearly a year.
There were two reasons: the natural beauty, and the amiability, of the place; and the lavishness of its boys—lavish, I mean, in numbers and lavish with their charms. It was at once obvious that in Forio there lived a tradition, one might almost call it Greek, of paidophilia—one was told, even of certain old baldheads, that they'd been, in their time, the boyfriend of this or that almost historical notability. It did seem, though, as I myself soon found out, that the boys were brought up, almost in the Hellenic fashion, to receive the attentions and benevolence of a grown man—or, at any rate, of a well-to-do foreign visitor.
At the base of the mountain, beneath the speckled bands above of olive and vine, the village rambled along the edge of an escarpment and ended in the little church of Our Lady of Succour, disarmingly crammed with childlike paintings of shipwreck and other marine disaster, the ex-voto offerings of fishermen. The church peered watchfully over the cliff into the waves swirling among a shambles of rock; and the village itself, propped up by a bastion of masonry falling a hundred feet or so to the beach, looked across at the massive seawall which encircled the fishing harbour, leaving open only a narrow entrance through which the daily steamer from Naples could creep to its anchorage. To tourists, one of the houses balanced above the beach was pointed out as the residence of two vicariously notorious widows, Rachele and Edda Mussolini, who after the collapse of fascism in Italy were obliged for a time to live on Ischia in a kind of political exile (ironically, Mussolini sent hundreds of his opponents to "obligatory sojourn," as the Italians put it, on nearly all the islands in Italian waters).
The inhabitants of Forio, except its shopkeepers and the people ministering to the Neapolitan holiday-making families who settled expansively down for a week or two every summer, besides essential craftsmen like stone-masons and cobblers, were engaged in catching or marketing fish—and the men who owned the fishing-boats and went to sea in them formed the aristocracy of the village. These men, with their wives and children, like all fishing people in Italy, seemed to a stranger an almost monkish confraternity—aloof, ungracious, curt, secretive, like an order of initiates (which they were), indifferent to anybody's interests but their own. They disdained "foreigners"; and thought very little of the wine-growers who lived and tended their vines up the mountain, men who had no understanding of the sea—and who, anyway, spoke a different dialect; and they were hardly on speaking terms with the people of Panza, a village three kilometres away who had their own dialect too. Fisherboys generally, bred to their fathers' code of stand-offishness, are hard to know; yet at Forio the paidophilist tradition seemed to flourish even in the enclosed fishing community, and while I was there I had four fisherboy friends—or rather three friends and an acquaintance (a slightly older brother of one of the friends).
In the summer the fine spread of sand below the village was taken over by the Neapolitans, whose enormous mothers and aunts sat like puffed-out broody hens in their drawers and chemises, exposing to the sun white mottled thighs like legs of outsize pork and unendingly eating peanuts; while their sons and nephews, with knowing naughty faces, like bronzes from Pompei, compared each others' sexual parts behind their elders' backs. Farther along to the west, the beach was the fishermen's: strangers strolling along it, if looked at at all, were scanned with an eyeful of displeasure by the family crews tinkering over their tipped-up boats or sewing at their nets: net-mending, they held their needles, as big as bodkins, in their mouths like dressmaker's pins, when their hands were occupied, and kept the net taut with their bare big toes. It was here that the high-prowed boats were beached, coming in from fishing; propelled through the harbour entrance in long, convulsive strokes by two, three, four, even six oarsmen, standing to their sweeps and rowing in absolute unison of movement—grandfather and grandson working as equal parts of one perfectly precise machine. The women came down the hill when, watching from their rooftops, they sighted the family boat; and stood at the water's edge while the stern anchor was thrown out and—the boat standing in the shallows—the boxes of fish were handed ashore. Without losing a moment the boys of each crew, a box balanced on their heads or carried between two of them, set off for the village, crying their fish through the streets, the woodwind resonance of their refrain echoing among the houses like alleluias in a church. It was on this beach, too, that I first saw Gianni, and first heard him singing as he sat athwart the nets; one leg thrust forward and barefooted, his toes pegging the mesh where he wanted it, while he crocheted away at the tear with a sure handling of his cord and long wooden hook. Of Gianni's looks—handsome his face is, as I see it now, though without much sign of the human heart—I remember most clearly the faultless shaping of his head: why, one asks continually, can a centimetre more or less, this way or that, in life as in art, make the difference between perfection and the commonplace? Gianni's head was perfection: the classic boyish skull; the black wavy cropped hair; the ears and nape whose perfect fittingness caught one's breath, like the exactly felicitous musical phrase. He used to come bounding down the sandy, stony hill, singing at the top of his voice—the song swooping down behind his swift movement like a bird's; he'd go on singing the same familiar Neapolitan airs while he worked on the net: the air filled with his voice, whose pitch was more a trumpet's than a bugle's: no longer a treble, it wasn't yet an alto; and the harbour resounded with its notes as does a barrack-square with calls-to-the-cookhouse-door.
Near the sands where the nets lay spread, a breach like a gateway in the seawall gave on to the rocks and swirling gullies of the shore beyond. One morning, sunbathing here on the sand after a swim, I saw Gianni stand up from his net, thick working trousers rolled up to above the calf, and, still singing, walk over to the gap in the wall. He disappeared from view behind the mole, and the singing stopped: something was interesting him enough to quell even his voice. I could guess what he might be doing: the temptation to make sure was too great; I followed him round to the rocks behind the breakwater. It was a bright day with the sky of golden blue and a glistening cobalt sea; a fair north breeze was whipping the surf into clouds of white spray over the brown-black rocks. I found him standing on a broad black rock: a flesh-white silhouette against a curtain of blue sea, garlanded with spray; his trousers were coiled round his ankles and his shirt was pulled up to his neck and irresistibly attracting the eye like a magnet, his "fish" was standing dominantly up on its tail, as if everything else within sight were subordinate to this impudent adolescent feature. (Pesce—fish—is the popular Neapolitan word for penis—such an exactly descriptive appellation that one's surprised its use isn't more widespread. But I've met it only in and around Naples: most districts of Italy have their own local term, besides the general slang word cazzo: in Apulia, for example, the word is pizza—which in Naples is a speciality of the kitchen.) It was a fine fish, large as a good-sized mackerel; and rose from a groin of pearl-pale flesh, between unfurling tufts of dark down. Gianni was plainly proud of his fish he was looking down at it with affection, while with his right hand he pulled its resistant length downwards as far as it would go, and let it flick back again like a catapult against his belly. . . .
Suddenly he knew he was being silently watched, and looked nervously over his shoulder; but when he saw I was a foreigner he visibly relaxed—foreigners, all the boys knew, did this sort of thing themselves! So, having seen who it was, he went on with his game, glancing over now and again to give me a reassuringly jolly grin. And then I was following him as best I could over the rocks along the length of the seawall, he scampering over them like a goat while with both hands he held his trousers round his waist. He'd known every crevice of this shore from childhood: every rock and every boulder, every ledge and foothold: he was far ahead when, towards the end of the breakwater where the light-house marked the harbour entrance, he halted, waiting for me—poised and graceful even when holding up his trousers. When I caught up with him, he made for a gap between two rocks which seemed little different from any other, but which he picked out with the certainty of a dog seeking out a buried bone; and between these rocks he disappeared. Down the gap I followed. We were in a kind of grotto, invisible from above but below at once roomy and compact, as if scooped out by some giant bulldozer from the sea and roofed over with great boulders fitted one against the other like a piece of Cyclopean masonry. The waves growled and gulped beyond the seaward wall of the chamber; the flooring was of level rock standing in a few inches of crab-rippled water, and there was a snugly shaped boulder which might have been specially hewn to receive the forms of two persons who didn't mind being cramped. . . . Reclining upon it, with his cropped curly head and slightly satanic charm, his naked body pearly pale against the damp gloom of the rocks, in a silence eerie but for the drip and squelch of water, Gianni put me in mind of some urchin attendant upon Neptune—a boy-nereid, if there were such a creature, with seaweed twined in his hair and a fish between his legs. . . . I've said already that the expression of Gianni's features, handsome and swarthy, seemed heartless; and his heart, I soon discovered, worked without emotion: his flesh was full of bounding blood and clamorous sensuality, but the heart that made it all go was like a plastic one. The instant our moments of concord were over he changed from being the limp, clinging, swimming-eyed swooner he'd just been and became the man of business: Double it! he said curtly when I proffered a fairly generous gift: double it, was his motto: two cigarettes instead of one, a thousand lire instead of five-hundred. . . . I often saw Gianni after that, on the beach or in the village: he was an amusing person, and I got a great deal of pleasure out of looking at him. Nearly every day the harbour would fill with his singing, and I would hear him run down the hill to work on the nets. As the months went by and he grew older I noticed with an absurd regret that the pure trumpet clarity of his voice was beginning to roughen. I never went again to Wankers' Cave. . . .
* * *
The writer through whom I first came to Forio was one of a small group of Americans, British and Germans, mostly engaged professionally or playfully in one or other of the arts, who lived in or near the town; and through them the place had become known among foreign "intellectual" coteries and its fame spread into queer ones. But at that time the great invasion by cackling cohorts of international queerdom hadn't yet begun; although beach and piazza were already dotted and dotty enough with gay little swimming trunks of leopard-skin or pale blue satin; and Maria's bar shrilled with the cosmopolitan queens' speech.
These visitors, for the most part, were blond and pink-skinned; they'd come from the then puritanical North, either coupled off in quest of a cosy honeymoon in the sun or else bursting to let their hair down in the most egregiously un-Nordic behaviour. Those not already paired off, came seeking whom they could devour among the Forian youth. The summer thus brought to Forio two entirely separate "foreign" intrusions, between which there was no contact (except perhaps for casual sex): the sprawling yowling Neapolitan holiday-making families, and the shrieking, coquetting Euro-American queers: both made a lot of noise, each of their own kind. Between them, they filled up the three or four pensioni Forio possessed and the sprinkling of houses and apartments kept empty by their owners for the "season." I came before the main body of the seasonal arrivals, and within a week or two I'd found, with the help of two boys and of Maria herself (she was said to accomplish any sort of procuration asked for by a good customer), a charming little Arab-style house above the piazza, for a very moderate rent: "Arab" I call it, because it was built on the Saracen model still followed on the island though ten centuries and more had passed since it was introduced by the African invaders. It was engagingly pretty, with vaulted stone Arab ceilings washed, like the walls below it, in the soft cerulean known locally as "Forian blue"; but it wasn't really designed or fitted out for comfort: the lower floor was like a huge derelict dungeon, in a corner of which was the complicated charcoal cooking-stove; on the first floor were to be found, if one looked, a number of dusty, crumbling rooms, peopled by spiders and black-beetles, into which nobody would dream of going—and one large sparsely furnished room opening on to a pleasant balcony: a balcony which proved a great convenience when Franco became my squire and housekeeper. Through a kind of hatchway from the first-floor landing, the roof could be reached a perfect setting for photographing boys—an exciting and rather dangerous-looking labyrinth of gutters and parapets and concavities: all scrambling around the base of a tiny dome like a miniature St. Peter's and all seeming to peer perilously down to the street below.
Before I found this house, a number of boys had introduced themselves to me, because I was a foreign visitor and therefore must be expected to want to meet boys; some, of course, had been agreeable yet ephemeral; there'd been three more fisherboys besides Gianni, and two or three among the band of schoolboys who daily took the boat across to Procida, where there was a nautical school. But my interest in none of them went beyond curiosity: that satisfied, I didn't want to see them again. After all, it was they who came knocking at my door: not the other way about. But one of them, who anyhow was never more than a sort of camp-follower of the others (he was much too small to arouse even my sexual inquisitiveness), seemed to be always about—he came to my door, asking for errands to be run, shopping to be done and so on; and I found myself becoming rather unwillingly fond of him, as one can get fond of a stray dog that wags its tail. His name, very inappropriately, was Santino; he was cheeky, wicked, monkey-faced, ready for every sort of mischief, and looked no older than eleven. When I asked him why he didn't go to school and what his father had to say about his hanging around a foreigner, he replied "Oh, my father likes me to come to see you. He says 'What have you come home for? Go and do anything that foreigner wants—and then you can bring some money home.' " It was Santino's energy and terrier-like perseverance that discovered my new house and secured Maria's help. And it was Santino who brought Franco to me— without Santino's skilful agency I might have got no nearer to Franco than making eyes at him.
Franco, for some time, had been a tantalizing decoration in the background of the boys I knew: a boy whose very stand-offishness made him the more desirable; he was given to blushing, and sheepish grins, and, I was told, stubbornly refused to be mixed up with foreigners. He was of fishing descent; but there was no longer a family boat, and his father now did odd jobs ashore. So did Franco, in principle; he preferred, however, comfortable repose to physical exertion and (as I found later) had an insatiable appetite for the sensual pleasures, if he could enjoy them without making too much effort himself: his theory, I think, was the excellent one that there are few things in life more worthwhile doing than nothing. Now and then I would see him, probably together with Santino, pushing a handcart up from the jetty where packing-cases, barrels and sacks had been unloaded from the Naples boat. But the earnings from one of these excursions gave him a day or two of doing nothing—he ate at home and only needed to buy cigarettes—until it was time for another trip with the handcart. Franco was tall and yet moved as gently as a cat; he had big, strong shoulders but those hips, you felt, you could hold in your hands; fair Nordic hair tumbled over a clear English face. He was obviously a Norman: one of the heirs, such as one often sees in southern Italy, of those marauding barons who a thousand years ago turned from murder and brigandage to the most splendid kingship. It was doubtless from some of the later, more effete strains of Norman blood that Franco drew his love of indolence and lazy ease, and, if he could have achieved it, or knew about such things, of sybaritic luxury. But when he found I was looking at him, he blushed and dropped his eyelids like a bashful girl; or even stood up and moved aloofly away—he knew what I was after but wasn't playing. . . .
I've said that Franco's face was "English"; yet that wasn't what distinguished it—it was those infinitesimal fragments of millimetres which, filling the curve of the jaw here, fining down a nostril there, can transform mediocrity into the superlative. One cannot define the human face or analyse human beauty; one simply knows instinctively when those millimetre touches of transcendent style create a face that haunts and compels.
But Franco's response when I made my tentative advances, was to look bashful, or turn his eyes away in dismissal, or get up and crushingly walk off. Even when I offered him a cigarette, he pretended he didn't want to smoke—a sacrifice almost unthinkable to any Italian boy. He met me every time with a snub—and, of course, putting myself in his shoes, I entirely understood his attitude. And then Santino arranged it: Santino, with his mischievous, monkey-nosed charm. Probably it happened on the spur of the moment, which is the way boys do thing, rather than by design; but however it was, they appeared together one morning at my house: where, for ten minutes, Franco sat blushing and tongue-tied, smirking and cracking his knuckles. Then I sent them both out to buy pasta and beefsteak and watermelon; and when they came back set them to cooking us all a meal. Next day they came again; and a habit was formed—without anybody's mentioning anything, they were coming daily, as a matter of course, to do the shopping and to eat. Franco wouldn't allow Santino out of his sight—he seemed still appalled by the idea of being left alone with me; but he enjoyed, in an indolent and perhaps feminine way, doing the cookery and giving Santino the jobs that needed exertion—and he enjoyed going shopping, the feel of money in his hand and the power of spending it. Franco always brought back the exact change, and was obviously charging the proper prices—while Santino, whenever he'd done some marketing, had always added a bit on for himself: reciting his list of inflated prices with an engaging smile of innocent deceit.
I used to watch Franco's face while he was happily busy in the kitchen, unconcerned and unselfconscious—fanning the charcoal into a glow beneath the steak being grilled, or breaking up the pasta to go with the beans. His eyes had the grey-blue tincture of the sea off the Normandy coast, the eyebrows so fair as to be almost invisible; and, what's so common among boys of the North but rare in the South, he seemed to be without lashes. Somehow this enhanced his look of defencelessness: there's many a faint-hearted boy who shelters behind a pair of lush eyelashes. Franco's vulnerability seemed to me more a childish need: some lack was delineated in the softness of the line of his jaw and cheek and in the silky gold at the back of his neck—it was the helplessness of an egg without a shell. He needed, I thought, mothering. Surely, too, this indolence, this weary languor—what most people would call downright laziness—must really be less a fault of character than of metabolism: a sloth that yelled for protein. So I made up my mind to give him some mothering: he should have all the beefsteak he could eat, even if he refused to have affection too. . . .
And then one afternoon, while I was writing beside the big window that opened on to my balcony, my mind was suddenly alert to a sort of non-sound: I looked up, and there was Franco standing on the balcony with a small disarming smile. He'd swarmed up from the street below with the soundlessness of a squirrel. I was so taken aback that, instead of bursting into excited welcome, I could only say: "Why didn't you knock at the door?" He answered, with a weary shrug: "It's less trouble this way—less of a bore than banging away at the knocker and waiting." Then he walked into the room and eyed the bed and the only other chair. "I think I'll lie on your bed, if I may," he announced. "I'm tired—I want to stretch out; and it's so hot and dusty out of doors. But I think I'll take a shower first—" and he began to strip his clothes off, throwing them on to the floor beside the bed. Then, quite naked, he sauntered off to the staircase and down to the ground floor lobby where I'd made the boys fix up a makeshift shower . . . . I could only gape at the gleaming white body, and with its patina of golden down, and at the sweet rueful face; and gape at the astonishing, the impossible fact that he'd come and the comical manner of his coming, and gape at this new and baffling manifestation of the incomprehensibility of boys generally and of Franco in particular. . . .
After that, he showed up each afternoon, offering no explanation and I asking for none: he might have been coming to my house all his life, for all the sign he made. I'd be sitting working beside the window or on the balcony when I'd hear his strident errand-boy whistling far down the long street from the piazza—a whistling that became a habit every day, something to watch out for, a landmark in time, like the ringing of the angelus: it was nearly always half part two when I heard the whistle—he had an almost animal instinct for the hour and then my ears would follow his whistle up the long street and I'd see him come into view over the hill crest below the house: a loose, easy-going figure, lithe yet lazy, dressed in torn white shirt and stained blue cotton trousers—one sandal, probably, broken and hanging on by a toe. Softly as a lizard he'd run up the wall, using handholds I couldn't see, and swing himself over the balcony with languorous ability. (I protested that he was setting a bad example: that thieves would climb into the house and steal my typewriter. He replied that nobody on Ischia could climb as he could and no other boy would dare to try to reach my balcony.) I found myself waiting and watching for him—and of relishing, already in the early morning, the coming pleasure of watching for him in the afternoon. The sound of his whistling became a thing of beauty in itself: I haven't ceased to hear it yet.
He lay on the bed as if lying down were a luxurious act of subsidence, his body, with all his bones and muscles united solely for this pleasure, seemed to be trying to sink ever more deeply into the sensuous laxity of the bed. He was at his happiest when surrendering himself utterly to both physical sensation and physical comfort, ecstatically yielding to the delights of the two together to the exclusion of all other consciousness: he delighted above all in the sensation of touch, of feeling, of being touched; motionless, except for little reflex movements of pleasure, he would want me to stroke and caress the whole surface of his body, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes—he would moan with pleasure, and sigh, and make little incredulous gestures with a hand, as if protesting that such heights of sensual joy couldn't exist.
. . . And now and then he'd murmur small phrases of endearment, like a child dreaming: ti voglio bene, ti voglio bene. . . . Franco told me, after some weeks of this, that for years he had daily masturbated at least twice, often three times; but that since these afternoon entries by way of the balcony, he'd been content with once—and that without his having to exert himself at all. Franco didn't easily find words in which to express just what was in his mind; but I made out that he found an emotional satisfaction in the partnership of our joint eroticisms—he'd always felt, he said, as if there were something missing from the pleasure of his solitary "saw" (far' la sega—the Neapolitan colloquialism for masturbation).
This went on for nearly a year. Every day I listened for his whistle; every day he swung himself silently over the balcony. . . . I never understood Franco, but I became enormously fond of him: as one is fond of a sweet, loyal creature that depends upon one. I never discovered what caused that abrupt and total reversal of his attitude towards me—what turned contemptuous hostility to a touching and even devoted submission.
But the end had to come: work took me away from Ischia, and I have never seen Forio again. When I think of the place, I get a flood of memories; but clearer than all is the sound of Franco's whistling coming up from the piazza.
 “Little Saint”