three pairs of lovers with space

CONTEMPORARY PRESS REVIEWS OF MICHAEL DAVIDSON’S THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND MYSELF, 1962

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself was the autobiography of English journalist Michael Childers Davidson (1897-1975), who had retired in 1957. It was published by Arthur Barker of London on 28 September 1962 and put on sale for twenty-six shillings. Though it covered every aspect of his life, it began with the startling opening pronouncement “This is the life-history of a lover of boys. It’s a first-hand report, therefore, on that heresy which, in England especially, is reprobated above all others,” and it gave special prominence to this aspect of his life. Aside from his own later book, Some Boys (1969), it is the only memoir ever to win trade publication in Great Britain in which the author stated plainly that he had, as a man, had sex with boys under sixteen.[1] As such, the six varied press reviews it received are of interest to the history of Greek love in showing how the British literary world of the time reacted to such a fulsome confession of having partaken of it.

The reviews are presented in the order of their publication.

 

1.  The Guardian, London, 9 November 1962, p. 14

East of Eden, north of Bletchley by Christopher Wordsworth[2]

The World, The Flesh and Myself was one of five books reviewed by Wordsworth under this heading.

Christopher Wordsworth with his family, 1961

The World, the Flesh and Myself is an uncomfortable book by a courageous and unhappy man whose homosexuality once landed him in prison and always clouded his career as correspondent in Cyprus, Israel, Aden, and the Far East. “Look into your heart and writhe” might be the motto, but a note of defiance and animus in some of Mr Davidson’s judgments make us question their objectivity. Mr Garnett’s golden world becomes “the mad neurasthenic Bloomsbury of the twenties.” Fair enough; but when he says of the writer wife of a dead friend, “Elizabeth must have made a lot of money out of Ian’s love,” we hear “Miau!”; the description of Dylan, “gross, drunken, sprawling aggressively,” is puss arching her back at Fido. But he has lived long, seen much, known many, and writes honestly with many good anecdotes. Not one of the supply of Ganymedes with whom he consoled himself on his globe-trotting seems more than a pathetic toy, and we retain the sense of an uncommunicable plight and a mounting despair.

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2.  The Times Literary Supplement, issue 3169, 23 November 1962, p. 926

N.B. Book reviews in The Times Literary Supplement were then anonymous.

BOOKS RECEIVED

The World, The Flesh and Myself

Mr. Davidson, now 65, is one of the frankest of autobiographers, and, as he is also a writer of impressive skill and sensibility, he has produced an uncommonly readable book. He was a distinguished correspondent of the Observer and of other papers in troubled times in Malaya and Cyprus and elsewhere, and he jousted with leaders of the quality of Field-Marshals Harding and Templer –  of Cyprus especially he writes with understanding and intimate knowledge. His record of travel and adventure consistently holds attention, but his real theme is indicated in his opening words: “This is the life-history of a lover of boys. It’s a first-hand report, therefore, of that heresy which, in England especially, is reprobated above all others.” His odyssey, however, showed how other communities tolerated that heresy, and in England only did he fall foul of the criminal law. He was not a corrupter of children, and his comments on the law, though antipathetic, are sober enough and of such a kind as would nowadays be endorsed by many students of criminology and other responsible persons. All is set down with refreshing candour: upbringing, schooling, commissioned service in the Great War, and exotic journeying. At all times the self-appraisal is balanced and close, the style vivid and gripping.

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3.  Books and Bookmen, London, Vol. VIII, December 1962 issue, page 4

The World, The Flesh and Myself

THE SEAL IS SET on Michael Davidson’s book with his first few words: ‘This is the life-story of a lover of boys … a pederast.’
     Homosexual, voyeur, voluptuary, exhibitionist, convict, phallus-worshipper and self-confessed ‘menace to society,’ he exposes himself without a stitch of remorse. Throughout, his obsessive concern is to make sure his hidden life rises to the surface like ‘scum on a pond.’
     The crucial question is: How deep is the pond?
     In many ways, I regard this as the first of the post-Chatterley books; replete as it is with four-letter words, descriptions of sexual union and the unhealthy pallor of perversion.
     For that reason, the principles on which it must be assessed are far more important that the work itself.
     The jury were warned at the Lady Chatterley trial that vindication of Lawrence’s novel would result in a flood of imitative pseudo-pornography. Nonetheless, the jury gave a verdict in favour of Lawrence and enlightenment.
     The honesty and intelligence of their decision means that now, more than ever, the reader must be on his guard against the spurious, and particularly those who would have him believe that life begins at the navel and ends at the knees.
     Inevitably, a book of this kind places the conscientious reviewer in a difficult moral predicament.
     To peremptorily denounce it as immoral is to run the risk of being dismissed as a narrow-minded puritan; to hail it indiscriminately as the courageous testament of a social rebel is to join the equally blinkered ranks of the modish and fashionably ‘progressive.’
     Then there are the motives of the author and publisher to consider. What appears to be frank self-analysis may in fact be sheer exhibitionism; and publication may be prompted more by catchpenny sensationalism than by any desire to promote the understanding of a tragic human problem.
     As it happens, I believe most vehemently that there is no episode of human experience, however deplorable or unsavoury, which is an unfit subject for a book.
     Cold print is the supreme catharsis.
     If only to forestall the wrathful apoplexy of John Gordon at one extreme and the swooning adulation of the New Statesman at the other, I have tried to approach Mr. Davidson’s autobiography objectively. He has not made it easy. However diligently he sprinkles around words like ‘truth’ and ‘innocence,’ one can still detect the odour of corruption on every page.[3]    
He dwells lovingly on countless idyllic experiences with willing youths, and frequently stresses his ‘motherly’ feelings towards his partners. Yet a long period when he satisfied a hunger for ‘downright carnal experience’ is glossed over, and a saturnalian evening during which he and a friend poured red wine over the naked bodies of two 15-year-old pageboys is dismissed with a giggle.
     In neither case can be detected the qualities of truth, innocence or motherliness. This, then, is the man who has the temerity to describe Dylan Thomas, after a few fleeting encounters in a public house, as ‘gross and dirty.’
     It is when Michael Davidson — ex-farmer, soldier and undeniably talented correspondent of  The Observer — turns to the more normal events in his life that his book reveals its fatal flaw.
     After 65 incident-packed years, what has he got to recount? A dreary climb round his family tree, some conventional schoolboy anecdotes, an interminable amount of name-dropping, an unexceptional analysis of the Cyprus crisis, and a loose handful of stories any Fleet Street journalist could tell you for the price of a pint of beer.
     As it has warped his life, so Mr. Davidson’s obsession with little boys has warped his view of it. Without his sexual deviations, his book would be pointless. With them, it is a bore. Despite all his braggadocio, Mr. Davidson emerges in the end a pathetic and lonely figure. Boys have an inconsiderate habit of growing up, and then the pederast must start searching again, the more hopelessly and helplessly as he grows older.
     It is a race he can never win, and at 65, Mr. Davidson’s steps already appear to be faltering. Ironically, it is for this tragic insight alone that The World, The Flesh And Myself, with its catch-26s. title, is a unique book. Unhappily, it is for all the other reasons that it will no doubt enjoy a succés de scandale.                                              P.P.

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4.  The Observer, London, 9 December 1962

The World, The Flesh and Myself

John Davenport, drawn by Michael Ayrton, 1966

CANDOUR and forthrightness are rarely found in autobiographies. Mr. Davidson is the happy exception: he neither glories in nor grieves over himself and his objectivity is a delight. Setting out to disprove Trollope’s maxim that no autobiographer had ever told the truth about his “inner life,” he has succeeded without any fuss. He is fortunate in having had an external life of unusual interest: his odyssey is spatial as well as spiritual.
     THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND MYSELF begins provocatively: “This is the life history of a lover of boys.” The intention could be to shock, but nothing could be less shocking and more illuminating. The fact that Mr. Davidson has an unusually robust and sparkling prose style no doubt helps. For him the mortal sins are intellectual dishonesty and shams of all kinds.
     His book is of absorbing interest, not only as a psychological document, but as the work of an unusually acute observer of men, women and politicians all over the world. He describes himself as “a very ordinary person.” This is the only improper statement in an unusually uninhibited and entertaining book.

                                                                                                 JOHN DAVENPORT.[4]

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5.  Tribune, 21 December 1962

Personal testimony

Eric Lambert

I MUST start by querying the blurb. It says of Michael Davidson’s autobiography: “Trollope said that no autobiographer had even told the truth about his “inner life’ and that none ever would. This is an attempt to prove Trollope wrong.” The attempt fails, brave though it is. One can best quote Mark Twain in the introduction to his own biography: “When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life—a book which is to be read while he is still alive—he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind; all his attempts to do it fail; he recognises that he is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being.”
     Davidson begins his book thus: “This is the life history of a lover of boys.” By the end of this life history Davidson’s accounts of his various “romances”, one of which put him in gaol, have become a little wearisome. He might well have left the reader content with his excellent analysis of one man’s pederasty. However, this book is by no stretch of imagination the self-justification of a sexual deviationist Michael Davidson has led an interesting and a varied existence; he shows himself as a man of considerable sensibility, and on occasions, despite a confessed cowardice, of considerable courage.
     As correspondent both in Malaya and Cyprus, he was not afraid to clash with authority, rather than compromise with what be believed to be the true facts. For this one must applaud him, even though he is inclined to be tedious with repeated protestations about his “integrity”. You begin to suspect he has something to hide. Which, of course, every autobiographer has. Half the fun is in trying to guess what that something is.
     My own purely personal guess is that Davidson’s self-confessed waywardness is of the kind which will succumb if the pressures are strong enough. However, the honesty of his reporting under difficult circumstances in Malaya and Cyprus stand greatly to his credit, as does his refusal to be hypocritical about his pederasty. Whether or not it never did any harm, as he claims, is a matter of opinion, which he implicitly realises.
     This book, ranging from Hitler’s Berlin to Israel, from Tangier to Timbuctoo, from Korea to Canton, often absorbing and consistently well written, is the work of a man who has always given full rein to his appetites, and failed to reach anything like his full potential. For instance, despite numerous publishers’ commissions, this is the first book he has ever completed. Writing is a lonely business, and loneliness is quite clearly the thing which he most fears.

                                                                                                                         ERIC LAMBERT[5]

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6.  The Observer, 23 December 1962, p. 7

BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Personal selections by some contributors, regular and irregular, to “The Observer’s” book pages.

Arthur Koestler in 1961 (National Portrait Gallery)

ARTHUR KOESTLER[6]

[after naming two other books …] Michael Davidson’s auto-biography, The World, The Flesh and Myself (Arthur Barker), starts with the sentence: “This is the life-history of a lover of boys.” It is, in fact, the two-fold 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 from Zululand to Cyprus.

 

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Addendum: James Cameron

James Cameron

The following is not a press review, but a private letter[7] written to Davidson before his book or any of its reviews were published. It is presented here since the author, Mark James Walter Cameron CBE (1911-85), was not only another journalist, but a particularly distinguished one renowned for his integrity, in whose memory the annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture is given. He and Davidson had become friends over many years knowing one another as fellow-journalists.

 

[1] If one includes diaries, there is one other such book, Joe Orton’s The Orton Diaries (1986). However this was published long after the author’s death, his sexual interest in boys was not exclusive, and the book was primarily of public interest because he was a famous playwright. The proviso “under sixteen” is only needed here because T. C. Worsley described one incident of sex in Germany with a “boy” sounding late-teen in Flanelled Fool, and Robin Maugham described sex abroad with boys of sixteen in Search for Nirvana (1975).

[2] About Christopher Wordsworth (1914-98) and his review, John Davenport had this to say in his third letter to Davidson, written on  26 November 1962: “The Wordsworth review is surprising. I know him well – a madly neurotic man who has been living as a poacher in the Welsh hills for years with a succession of other people’s wives, the last one being Sarah Amberley, B. Russell’s daughter in law. He is in his forties & quite indifferent to the snobberies of the London lit. scene. It’s all very strange, as he is a brilliantly intelligent & sympathetic man; although off-balance, of course. The Wordsworths are all melancholics or medical missionaries.” (Michael Davidson, Sicilian Vespers and other writings, London: Arcadian Dreams, 2021, p. 287.)

[3] In his preface to the 1985 GMP edition of The World, The Flesh and Myself, Davidson’s great friend and literary executor, Colin Spencer, who particularly appreciated his sense of humour, recalled that “Michael was also much delighted with a correspondence in Books and Bookmen which said that the ‘odour of corruption is on every page.’ ”

[4] John Lancelot Agard Bramhall Davenport (1908-66), a highly regarded critic and book reviewer (and incidentally an exclusive heterosexual) had just got to know Davidson, having introduced himself in a letter of 6 November 1962 as an admirer of his book (“so beautifully written, so absolutely straight”) just after reading it. He had already by then asked the B.B.C. to let him review it. He found them “inclined to edge”, hence he ended up reviewing it a month later for The Observer. His correspondence with Davidson continued and soon evolved into a close friendship, which lasted until his death. (His letters to Davidson in Michael Davidson, Sicilian Vespers and other writings, London: Arcadian Dreams, 2021, p. 282-96).

[5] Eric Frank Lambert (1918-66) was a formerly communist Australian writer.

[6] Arthur Koestler (1905-83), who had been internationally famous since the publication of his novel Darkness at Noon in 1940, had, together with his wife Mamaine, become friends with Davidson while they were living in Tel Aviv in 1948 and both reporting on the Arab-Israeli war.

[7] Preserved in the Michael Davidson archive in the present editor’s custody.

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