MICHAEL DAVIDSON IN SOUTH AFRICA, 1920-ca.1921
The following is everything touching on Greek love in English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s account in his autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962) of his stay in South Africa. He arrived there in January 1920, aged twenty-two, for his first experiment in living abroad (apart from his service in the Great War). It is not clear how long he lived there, but it sounds as though it was hardly beyond 1920 and the following chapter opens in 1922, with him already back in London.
The World, the Flesh and Myself, Chapter 7
Arriving at Durban in South Africa in 1920, …
I hadn't much money left by the time I got to Durban. The steward's bill in the City of Dunkirk had been large, and a fortnight's hold-up in Capetown, where the stevedores were on strike, had cost a lot— although I had passed the hours of sunshine watching the Cape Coloured boys basking their abandoned, gamboge bodies on the tarry rafters of a disused wharf, the evenings had been spent without pecuniary thought for the morrow.
So Davidson got himself “hired as apprentice-assistant by the leading farmer of Zululand”, a K. N. Young. After a while, he went off on a great Game Drive with Zulus.
Then came the awful chill of my return: Mrs Young had found my poor little pornography. In a panic of humiliation, I went off to Durban; and there followed my first attempt at a menage with a boy—my first blundering hope of playing both lover and mother.
* * *
He was 16, and Welsh: I've often thought it was the beautiful name of Mervyn [Note: Theron Hughes, whose Welsh parents had settled in Durban.] that gave the conclusive fillip into infatuation. I was still conceited enough to feel it was more aesthctical to fall in love with somebody called Belisarius than with one called Bert. The sorcery of Zululand's splendid innocence hadn't worn off: I wanted Arcadia, an idyll of unending tenderness; and thought that 'we'—I and a boy, any boy—had merely to live together in sunlit candour for life to flourish and happiness to be infinite. I hadn't yet learned, of course, what every paidophile has to learn—that the lifetime of his loves, if he gets any, endures no longer than his boy's beardlessncss; they pay the penalty of a butterfly's freedom and, as a child out of last year's clothes, grow out of themselves. Not rarely, they ease into friendship; but that fierce and mystic delusion which is the sexual lunacy cannot span more than three or four years at most: suddenly, overnight like an overblown flower, it is dead; the unique and magic boy has become an ordinary young man, and one can look at the curve of his cheek without feeling a pang and an ineffable joy. Ideally, if one can use the word in so reprobated a context, the paederast is, as the Greeks knew, a pedagogue: his loves should pass in succession through his life as pupils progress through a master's class; and like the master he should see that each owes him at the end some mental or spiritual growth. But this is an ideal scarcely possible to attain, in this prying world, outside parts of Asia and the Mediterranean.
It wasn't so much Mervyn's prettiness that bowled me over—the First XI prettiness, as I remember it, of any prep. school story—as the sheer contiguity of his boyhood (like a child's begging to be given something for the sake of its being 'mine'); and I didn't stop to discover whether there might be affection there too. Within hours of our meeting he had become my partner in a pig-farm; within days, his family had given their assent; within a week I was sailing to England to try to make pigs and pounds-sterling out of my infatuate dream. …
Back in Queen’s Gate, Davidson persuaded his mother to advance him £ 1000 out of his inheritance and sailed back.
I remember the swaggering pleasure of sending a marconigram to Mervyn; and I remember the unbearable excitement—like breaking up for the holidays, like the first dim glimpse of one's Christmas stocking at the bed's foot, like the morning of release from prison—of swinging in early daylight round the Bluff at Durban and searching madly for the sight of Mervyn's face on the quay. I had learned from Ken Young in Zululand a lot about livestock; I'd learned nothing about farming economics—and besides, the motions of money have always been to me inscrutable. Of course the farm failed; of course, too, my experiment in bucolic love. I hired the first small farm I saw because it looked romantic and the furnished cottage was pretty: plunged into it without observing that the rent was absurdly high and the cost of pig-fencing huge. It was by the coast south of Durban, near Umzinto; a tame country with none of the reach of Zululand; and with neighbours a mile or two away, proud of garden-gates to their homesteads and neat avenues of eucalyptus. But there was a good wild ride to the sea over five miles of scrubby veldt, and bathing and sprawling among the rocks; though sharks and the weight of the Indian Ocean forbade swimming out.
The Major was our nearest neighbour. … Soon he was almost daily nosing about our place, stumping uninvited into the house, breezily inquisitive. 'How much capital you got? What's your Property in the Old Country: Want to get a woman in here—a man ought to have a woman, you know, if she's kept where she belongs. Got any whisky?' And then: 'What's this boy you've got here? Put him to work, do you? No good, having a boy about the place, I'd say—anyway, see that you make a man of him.' And it was The Major, in the end, who gave our faltering comradeship its coup de grâce; and to me another lesson in what I might expect for the rest of my life.
But before that moment came, I could laugh over The Major behind my horror of him; and he was useful. Through him I got a nice little grey cob for Mervyn; and word of the very horse I was dreaming about for myself. …
We had stocked up with sows; and I'd brought down a couple of Ken Young's Friesland cows-in-calf from Zululand, at £25 a head (this was 1920) plus rail. But from the start the money seemed all to be flowing out, with nothing corning upstream: the bacon-pigs swallowed more in cash then they amassed of flesh; the porkers snouted beneath the sunken fencing and ran away their weight; our Hindu gardener's wages were higher than the worth of the greens he so torpidly irrigated. Our only possessions which showed a profit were the horses—and that was huge: but the profit was pleasure. I thought, as I have always, that things would come right in the end; we rode, and bathed among the rocks, and up at the store gossiped and swaggered like cowboys.
But also we quarrelled. It was much more my fault than his: I shouldn't have blamed him for being incapable of giving the affection I'd bargained for; nor, a townee, for being a good deal bored and lazy through these months of pastoral sameness. When one builds a castle in the air, it's childish to complain because the castle doesn't exist; it was I who had dreamed perfection: nobody else could be reproached for an awakening to imperfection. Djuna Barnes, in her agonisingly exquisite 'Nightwood' (written perhaps on the terrasses of the old Dôme and Rotonde in Montparnasse), said: 'To love without criticism is to be betrayed.' Yes: but oneself is the betrayer.
We were often in tears; yet there was one interlude nearly daily when we both were happy. After our midday meal we would lie side by side in the bedroom and I would read aloud: the 'Jungle Books', 'Black Beauty', Morris's 'Norse Sagas', 'Richard Yea-or-Nay'—these are some that I remember. The bed stood full under the wide-open window to get the smell of the veldt; Mervyn would snuggle up to me as the young do when their imaginations are engrossed, lost in the story; and we'd scarcely notice if our cook or one of the 'kaffirs' came by.
One day, so absorbed in 'Jock of the Bushveldt' that neither of us had heard a sound, something made me look up at the window: The Major, sitting on his horse with the steel-tipped stick across the pommel like a gun, was glaring in at us. Without so much as yelling, as was his habit, at the front-door, he'd ridden quietly round to our room at the back. I can hear today the snort he uttered; and see his horse's yellow teeth as he jerked its head round. He spent the afternoon, we learned later, riding round to all the neighbours to report the 'disgusting' thing he'd seen. This was the end. Not because of the neighbours, who quite failed to play up to The Major's indignation; but because poor Mervyn turned on me. It was he who rallied to The Major's side; and accused me of blackening his character and doing the opposite of 'making a man of him'. Of course he was right in a way; although his eyes were wide open well before I met him and there were only half a dozen years of age between us. And yet, looking back now across, years, I can't think of a single other friendship with a boy, not one, that ended in recrimination and 'moral' odium.
I sold up, at a big loss of course. Mervyn had his grey cob and a share of the wreckage; and I took a train to Johannesburg with, as my sorrowingly indulgent mother had feared, nearly all the money I had coaxed from her 'frittered away'. I didn't 'fall out' of love with Mervyn quickly; as time took me further from the reality, the dream appeared increasingly real; and I'd pore with sugared misery over the snapshots I had of him. There's always some pleasure in heartache.
After a stint in Johannesburg, Davidson decided to go back to England.
The night before I took the train for Capetown, after dark, I was stopped in the street by a boy. It was Mervyn. I've forgotten now why he had come to Johannesburg; I remember only that he was charming and friendly and ready, I think, to start all over again. Of course it was too late; but the extraordinary chance of this meeting reopened for me a wound that had almost healed. I rather enjoyed the gentle pain of it; I have always been sentimental.
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to email@example.com, mentioning in the subject line either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it.