three pairs of lovers with space



Beryl Augustine Hallam Tennyson (10 December 1920 – 21 December 2005), a great-grandson of the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was a radio producer and assistant head of drama at the BBC. He wrote a memoir The Haunted Mind: An Autobiography, published by Andre Deutsch, London in 1984. Presented here is everything in it of Greek love interest, found in two of the chapters about his boyhood.


Chapter Two.  The Throne of Childhood

"Pen" Tennyson, later, as a film director

The first nudity that was to give me conscious and unreserved pleasure was the sight of my brother Pen[1] lying in a bath. I remember the tawny tendrils of pubic hair curling on top of the water: the contrast with his dark skin excited me as did the long dusky penis cushioned against the inside edge of his thing. Was he the only one of the five of us who was uncircumcised? I can’t even remember that. I must have been twelve by then: here was the body I yearned for, while for some obscure reason I feared that it might prove beyond my power to attain it. By that time Pen had become my masculine ideal and  I was more than half in love with him The fact that he had called me ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ when I had been absurdly ingratiating to some posh visitors, had nicknamed me ‘Flue-brush’ because of my wiry hair and sticking-out teeth, and ‘the intellectual tapeworm’ because my nose was rarely out of a book, did not diminish my love. I took these labels as expressions of an oblique affection, as tokens secret to the two of us. And as such they were treasured rather than resented. [p. 28]


Describing his time at his preparatory school, Greycliffe[2], which he attended 1929-33, when aged from nearly nine to twelve.

As an undersized ‘swot’ with sticking-out teeth I was a traditional target for bullying. I also happened upon a traditional remedy in the shape of a twelve-year-old protector. Peter Potter was not typical of his kind, he was an aesthete with no interest whatever in sport and he did not look in the least like God or Lord Byron. He was tall and bespectacled but he was also shyly affectionate. I went to stay with him in the holidays at ‘The Brackens, Brockenhurst’. The visit seemed wholly pleasant and satisfactory to me but evidently it set tongues wagging; the four-year gap must have struck somebody as suspicious. Peter dropped me as suddenly as he had taken me up: indeed he never spoke to me again at school after the visit. This coldness persisted in later life as well, for after he had become a well-known theatre director we met on several occasions and when I mentioned our earlier friendship at school he froze immediately. I wish we could have broken the ice just once before his death. [pp. 29-30]   


I could have been no more than nine when I followed one of the masters into a school loo in the hope of seeing him play with his ‘tail’ as we still called it. This was the first of many such pleasure trips. Yet neither the act nor the place of urination has even come to arouse in me any trace of associative excitement. [p. 31]


But I must not leave my mother there. I started out with the intention of illustrating her positive qualities and yet, once again, I have ended up insisting on the carapace of middle-class prejudice in which she had encased herself. Much of the shrillness of tone can be accounted for by her disabling illness. [Tennyson goes on to describe his mother’s suffering from her ailments….] It must have been incredibly irritating to have these symptoms attributed to psychosomatic causes, and looking back it is perhaps remarkable how much vigour and imaginative sympathy she managed to retain. I can remember one typical instance of this in the mid 1930s.   

Boy in a park, 1930s

Sir John M.[3] was an elderly friend: he had had a distinguished diplomatic career and had retired to Guildford where, after the death of his wife, he lived alone. Suddenly, out of the blue, the tabloids carried lurid details of his trial and sentence on a charge of gross indecency with a twelve-year-old boy on a park bench. My mother exploded with anger and in no time she had found out the date of his birthday and was bullying everyone she could think of to subscribe to a special present for him. She was able to raise enough money to send him an expensive gold pocket watch with a fervent inscription on the inside of the case. I remember my father mildly attempting to dampen her crusading ardour by pointing out that Sir John was possibly guilty, since a park attendant had given corroborative evidence, but that this was not unusual since elderly men were subject to sudden deviations in their behaviour which they could neither explain nor control. This makes it seem as if it was only because my mother supposed Sir John to be innocent that she had taken up his cause. But I do not believe this was the case. An elderly friend had suddenly been isolated and from the depths of her own loneliness my mother reached out to express her kinship. After her death one of the subscribers to the birthday present sent my father a letter which he had had from Sir John M. Sir John thanked him for contributing and then added: ‘You and I share one great piece of good fortune: we both of us have the privilege of being a friend of Ivy Tennyson.  I have come to think that this is one of the greatest privileges extended to me in the course of a long life.’ Recalling this incident I can understand why my mother, right up to her death, retained that band of devoted admirers. [pp. 34-35]


Chapter Three.  Needful Parts

On his time at Eton College, 1933-37/8, where he was in R. A. Young’s house:

Happily, as well as going through a non-conformist phase, Eton, in my year at least, was humming with sexual activity. Harold[4], only two divisions above me, experienced nothing of it and claimed my reports to be exaggerated: which seems to show once again how local and temporary such phases are, and how dangerous it is to generalise from them. Pressed down and brimming over, Etonian sexuality reached crisis point during the period when my year was being prepared for confirmation. One of the potential communicants confessed to the school chaplain that he engaged in mutual masturbation with a number of other boys. The chaplain, an odious hypocrite and, come to think of it, the only preceptor in the entire school whom I disliked, promised the boy immunity from punishment if he would divulge the names of his associates. He did so and each one of these associates was approached in turn and further names wheedled out of them. ‘Sane’ Peter, not normally given to exaggeration, told me that this round cock-robin soon produced a list of well over two-hundred names, at which point the authorities, fearing a press scandal of undreamed of proportions, called a halt. Parents were summoned and trod the streets with grave aspect, and one boy a peer, was sacked for sodomy. The scandal subsided.

Eton boys, 1930s

Oddly enough, although a fully paid up member of the mutual masturbation club, I was not involved. Actually my sexual knowledge had been achieved with considerable effort. My mother had occasionally encouraged me to ask questions if there was ‘anything you are worried about’. Her face wore an ingratiating smile and I cringed with embarrassment. My father took me for a walk in the ground of Kenwood – where we had inspected the Gainsboroughs, no doubt – and made suggestive remarks about the green shoots on the tips of the laurel bushes. I was at least sixteen then and already realised that my father was much more innocent than I was. (I, apparently, did very little better by my own children. According to my daughter I started to tell her about menstruation in a traffic jam three weeks after she had experienced her first period and I relied much too heavily on high-minded books with titles such as Learning to Love or Boy needs Girl. My son fared better. He was enlightened by his sister, five years older than he, when she gave him a bath.) Picking up information from coevals who were not much better informed than I was, was a haphazard as well as a hazardous business. I knew about orgasm (I had experienced wet dreams for a year) but did not know how to achieve it. I seem even to have known that lubrication could be helpful, for I remember retiring to the bog with a bottle of linseed oil (cricket bats were oiled with it), but I did not know where to apply it and spent some time strenuously massaging my balls, which was messy and had little effect. I remember the smell: I remember the frustration too. But knowledge came, as it so often does, quite inadvertently. A few weeks later I was sitting in my room with David, a chubby fair-haired boy a year younger than me. We got involved in some perfectly guileless horseplay. Soon we were rolling on the floor, tearing at each other’s clothes. I had an erection: David opened my fly buttons and had scarcely touched me before I came all over his trousers. I asked him how it had happened: he demonstrated the action again so that I could register it more clearly. I offered to perform the same service for him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘my testicles haven’t dropped. I can’t yet.’ He spoke in a simple matter-of-fact tone. I could hardly wait to put this new-found technique to the test, but doing it on my own proved something of a disappointment. My need for a partner had already asserted itself: without a partner I experienced no validation, no transcendence.      

Etonian, 1930s

Whom could I find? I longed for someone with a hard muscular body whom pubescence was more advanced than mine: someone who could, by association, temporarily dissipate those still unspoken fears about my masculinity. Miles was a lean athletic boy of my age with pursed lips, beaky nose and roving eye. There was something indefinably randy about him. He was also rather dim at his work which gave me the opportunity to offer him help. We stood side by side with exercise books open on top of his bed - folded up and covered with oil cloth Eton beds made useful tables, four foot six high. We were turned at a slight angle to each other, our shoulders touching and I put my hand on his crotch. Miles seemed to be expecting it. He chuckled, took a pair of compasses and jammed them into the door above the latch. This was called ‘sporting the oak’ and was the recognised way of the locking oneself in. Over the next eighteen months we sported our oaks with great frequency. There was no guilt, no emotion, it was uncomplicated, uncluttered, wholly monogamous, and curbed only by the exigencies of training . . . and here, although less of a sportsman than Miles, I was the more meticulous. The affair remained secret; a luxury made possible by having ‘a room of one’s own'.   

If my friends had affairs with their contemporaries they were equally secretive about them, for somehow it was not considered proper to publicise such things. A romantic passion for a new boy with golden curls, snub nose and liquid eyes was all the rage, however. During my brief sojourn in ‘the library’ (the senior house common room) my colleagues kept a public score sheet on which they numbered the progress of their affaires du coeur. ‘1’ meant a glance returned, ‘2’ a word exchanged, while the meaning of ‘3’ was left to the imagination. When our housemaster peered at it myopically one day he was told that it was our ‘ping-pong’ rota. ‘Why aren‘t you on the list, Tennyson?’ he asked mildly, ‘I thought you were keen on table-tennis’ . . . collapse of slim party.   

Hallam Tennyson

What effect did all this have on these sirens of the Remove? Were they damaged by being turned into temporary girl surrogates? If young David, who had tumbled me on the floor, was anything to go by it would seem that they were sexually pretty sophisticated. (David became a junior cabinet minister, by the way.) Luckily I found David’s bald pelvis and soft flesh relatively unappealing. Unlike most of my friends I was a genuine homosexual and if David — my first directly sexual encounter after all - had attracted me, what had begun as an innocent pastime might have edged implacably towards a condition execrated by both society and the law. Not that I myself think ‘paedophilia’ intrinsically mon-strous. In fact, if boys or girls consent to sexual advances from adults I am sure they suffer a great deal less harm than most of us seem to want to believe. I stress the word ‘consent’, of course. To my mind the Dutch have got it about right. In Holland sex between adults and children over twelve is not in itself criminal. Violence or undue influence has to be proved.[5] As for me I suppose I was never really in danger of being swayed by this particular fashion. My eyes were drawn to those older, more confident and more mature than myself: they alone possessed the fetish of ‘male power’. At school my real hero was my classics tutor, a man in his mid-thirties, short but well built with hairy wrists and a crisp, slightly sarcastic manner. When he made a late marriage with an attractive pre-Raphaelite girl, younger than himself, I felt sadly let down.     

A fragile impulse towards towards heterosexuality began to show itself. At fifteen, in the best family tradition, I fell for a girl cousin whom I saw for the first time over a breakfast of kippers and kidneys. [pp. 45-47]


[1] Frederick Penrose Tennyson, later a well-known film director, was born on 26 August 1912, so was aged 20 to 21 when his brother Hallam  was 12 (Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage (1970), p. 2623).

[2] The name appears to be fictitious.

[3] Even though truncated, “Sir John M.” seems not to have been his real name. No Sir John M. who either lived a Guildford or was a diplomat appears in the complete lists of baronets and knights in the 1933 edition of Debrett’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage.

[4] His second cousin, Harold Christopher Tennyson, later the 4th Baron Tennyson, who was born on 25 March 1919 and was in the same hose as him ((Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage (1970), p. 2623; Eton College School Calendar, Lent 1935).

[5] Actually, although there was a consensus for adopting such a law in the Netherlands, and pederasty was widely tolerated there in the 1980s (with the police generally unwilling to pursue consensual cases), the age of consent remained technically 16. Eventually, in 1991, prosecution was legally ruled out if the child was over 12 unless he, his parent or guardian, or the Child Protection Board initiated a complaint. By then, however, an illiberal reaction had already begun and even that concession to freedom and justice was rescinded in 2002.


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