three pairs of lovers with space

LOOKING BACK BY NORMAN DOUGLAS

 

George Norman Douglas (8 December 1868 – 7 February 1952) was an Austro-Scottish novelist and travel writer, widely admired in his day. He was also an active lover of boys, which was well-known in his social and literary circles, but not outside it.

Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion, was Douglas’s memoir, finished in February 1932 and published by Chatto & Windus in London in 1933. Its premise is that he is picking visiting-cards at random out of a bowlful which had accumulated during his lifetime, and writing about the people who had left them – and thus about himself too. Presented here are all that is of Greek love interest. Some are character sketches of well-known pederasts he knew, often giving original and fascinating information about them. As regards himself, he was bold in what he did reveal, but his revelations are veiled in a slight aura of ambiguity which can best be removed by referring to the best and most thorough biography of him by Mark Holloway.[1]

 

[DEDIC ATION]

The man addressed here is Ernest Frederick Eric Wolton (1898-1958), whose lover Douglas had been when Wolton was a boy and with whom he was to remain intimate friends until death.

My Dear Eric –

I wonder whether you realize – I don't suppose you do – that it was you who put the idea of this book into my head. Yes! Do you recollect that antiquated gramophone, and how I used to ask you for one particular piece over and over again, Mendelssohn’s “Auf Flilgeln des Gesanges,” saying that the melody took my thoughts back, back into the past, much further back than that evening visit of ours to the Crystal Palace?[2]

You begin to remember? It was queer, you said, and you said it more than once, that you still knew so little about my life, about where and how I had spent all those years before the evening of the 5 November 1910; very queer; only a glimpse here and there…. “I’ll write it down for you one of these days,” I said, “when I’m as decrepit as the old gramophone over there.”... I kept the idea in my head, and here you are. Now, if you like, you can read about the kind of thing one used to do and the kind of people one used to meet. Ghosts, nearly all of them; undistinguished ghosts gliding along….

I skim through what I have written and note just one thing: taking us all round, we of those days must have had a fairly concrete and positive view of life. We lived with greater zest than the present generation seems able to do. We had more fun – of that I am convinced. I often look around me and wonder what has come over the youngsters of today. Are they losing the sense of reality? Why are they listless, as if their blood-temperature were two or three degrees below the normal? Can you explain it?

                                                                Yours ever,
                                                                                   Uncle Norman

 

 

MASTER GEORGE MOURTOS

Totidem verbis. Now why should a Greek secondary school boy, one of those with the imposing gold braid on their caps, have a calling-card printed in the English language, and at Argos? Mystery! A mystery I might easily have solved, had I taken the trouble to ask him.

Master George conceived a fancy for me on discerning that I was friendly towards his species, and useful, moreover, for the practice of French dialogue. He gave me sound information concerning the history of his native place, the oldest city in Greece; and I forebore to tell him that I knew it all before he was born. He took me up to the Larisa fortress; he took me one grey afternoon to the remote and lonely burial-ground, a gruesome spot encumbered with evil weeds and potsherds and petroleum cans – where we found one of his little friends, all by himself, paint-brush in hand, sadly renewing the faded lettering on his father's tomb (it was a vignette out of the Greek Anthology); he took me to the rock-hewn theatre where Pindar expired in the arms of his disciple Theoxenos; he took me to the small local museum; he took me to his school-fellows; he took me to his parents, who gave me some light refreshment and then persuaded him – Greek parents never order their children about – to dress up for my benefit in an old-fashioned pallekar suit which had been specially made for him. Prettier than ever he looked; I wish I had taken a snapshot.

Well, that was in 1920, and I defy Master George to get inside that costume today.

 

GIOVANNI PATURZO

Eric Wolton at Crotone, Calabria, 1911

This describes the time Douglas and his thirteen-year-old Cockney boyfriend Eric Wolton, to whom Looking Back is dedicated, both caught malaria in Italy, where Douglas had taken the boy travelling with his parents’ full approval. Everything said about Eric is being presented here with a view to shedding as much light as possible on the close life-long friendship that had been forged through Greek love.

This, unless I am mistaken, was a gentleman who showed kindness to Eric and myself while we lived in a dazed condition in Calabria during the end of July and the beginning of August 1911, Eric being then thirteen years old. We could not imagine what was wrong; all we knew was that we felt queer and that we ought to go back to London. We did manage to reach Rome; then Turin, where we actually crawled to see some exhibition; then London; it happened in a dream. There I deposited Eric with his parents, who were none too pleased with his looks and sent for a doctor – a capable young Scotsman, who in 1921 got nine months for abortive practices – while I tottered to Museum street and took a room. […]

Now the plasmodium malariae began to make itself at home and to take on regular habits. On the 12 September I picked up Eric, who had improved wonderfully, and we went to Yarmouth, hoping that the sea-air would do good. It did nothing. A month and a day later we emigrated to Leigh-on-Sea, where we stayed till the middle of December. The landlady was a good cook, but swindled us frightfully in her coal-bills, which was a serious matter, as we required huge fires on account of our shivering fits. Presently Eric began to have a bad time of it. His curly hair dropped out till he was nearly bald, and a sight for the gods; his spleen swelled to such an extent that the doctor vowed he ought to be exhibited at every hospital in England; worst of all – so far as the general public was concerned – he developed a disconcerting trick of being sea-sick, without a moment’s notice, in the middle of a street or wherever else he might happen to be.

We laugh over it nowadays, we two….

PS. – Here is Eric's account of malaria, in a letter to a friend:

“I am just writing to let you know how I am. I have been away to Italy and have caught nasty malaria which is awful but I am better now.

“When I came home I was all right for three days and after that I was downright ill. I thought I had got a stroke or something but it turned out to be malaria afterwards. I was ill in bed for two weeks and it was a nasty two weeks for me. It came over quite sudden. I had a very bad attack and sometimes get little ones like that now. I had to take the most nasty medicines you can ever get but quinine got me better. I often got shivery fits and it was awful. When I was ill I was very hot and high fever and another time I was cold and shivering. Once I was out in the street and I was taken sick, I went into a chemist’s shop and was sick there, came out and was sick again, got on a bus and got off again and I was sick, got on another one and then got off again sick again with violent shivering fit. I just hope you don't get such an illness because it is terrible.”

 

MRS. WEBB
40 AVENUE HENRY MARTIN

Mrs. Annie Bertram Webb (1845-1925)

Mrs. Annie Bertram Webb was a New Englander, and I knew her long before this Paris card was printed, yet never otherwise than as an old woman, short and dumpy, with grey hair, a peaked countenance, and eyes that protruded from her head in a fixed stare like a "poulet effrayé,” as one of her dearest friends used to say. […]

Even more auspicious was her intervention in 1911 when Eric and I were on our way to Calabria over Apulia, and, barely arrived at Taranto, were already wondering how we should get home again. There came a letter from Mrs. Webb enclosing thirty pounds, which she thought might be useful for travelling expenses. No doubt she could afford it. It is to her credit, and greatly to her credit, that she did afford it. Persons as wealthy as herself are generally the meanest of all.

 

DOTTOR SALVATORE LO BIANCO

Friedrich Alfred Krupp (1854-1902) was an eminent German industrialist who died, possibly by suicide, following allegations in the press that he had been having sexual orgies with boys in Capri. Douglas, already a visitor there, moved there the next year. Krupp was also “a passionate investigator of marine biology” …

Krupp had intended to carry on these investigations in 1903 with a larger yacht and a still more complicated outfit; it came to nothing, for he died on the 22 November 1902.

I do not know whether a correct account of the persecution and murder of this inoffensive man has ever been made public. This should be done, since a legend has grown up around his name which is injurious not only to his memory, but to the reputation of the island which he loved.

Any one who has the persistence to read through my book on Capri, the fruit of a long residence there, will be convinced that on this small subject, at least, I am something of a specialist. My acquaintance with Krupp, moreover, was so close that on one or two occasions he insisted -on taking me in his yacht from the island straight to my villa on the point of the Posilipo, in order to save me the annoyance of landing at that horrible Naples harbour; and I should like to ask, en passant, how many other people would have gone to that length of civility? (The Captain was English, or rather Scotch, and they gave you an English breakfast on board; I am sorry to say, however, that Krupp had no French champagne, but only a German substitute with which he was very free; and that, instead of offering you a Havana after lunch, he produced an ostentatious Hamburg brand called “Bismarck”; there was nothing to be said against its length, but the flavour left a good deal to be desired.) On these and other occasions, as, for example, when the weather was too stormy and when he therefore took his meals on shore at the Hotel Quisisana or in that Grotta Fra Felice which he had fitted up for convivial purposes, I had ample opportunities of studying him. He was advanced in years, over sixty, and, as to health, none too strong-it was this which originally sent him to the South in winter; unassuming, quiet, always making plans for next day's dredging if the weather would allow, and overflowing with little kindnesses. These kindnesses proved his undoing.

Friedrich Alfred Krupp by Ludwig Noster, 1896

Strangers make a mistake when they imagine that all Italian residents of Capri are natives of the island; Krupp made this mistake and, in fact, I have yet to meet a foreigner who did not make it. The indigenous population falls into two distinct classes; the real natives, who own property on the island, whose ancestors were born there, and who ask for nothing save to be allowed to go on with their work in peace; and a race of newcomers, immigrants from the mainland who settle there for longer or shorter periods, attracted by the tourist-traffic. The majority are decent folk – officials, tradesmen, professionals; others are the reverse, a disturbing element of impoverished adventurers, unscrupulous and malicious, with no reputation of their own to lose, and no respect for that of others. It was Krupp’s misfortune, as it has been that of many foreigners, not to realize the fact that while the native of Capri, however humble, is a man of position who has been brought up by his parents under patriarchal rule, those others, though speaking the same language, are often the scum of the province and of the Naples pavements, living on their wits. I have known the island since 1888 and can lay it down that whenever there is any trouble, no matter of what kind, one or the other of these rapacious and sophisticated outsiders will be found at the bottom of it, and never a native. The native, owing to a relative isolation which lasted many centuries and is only now being broken down, had evolved a definite ethical code; these others, plausible and accommodating as they sometimes are, have no code save that of self-interest.

Krupp was also a German; in other words, a sentimentalist. Whoever knows German society will realize that the formalities and kow-towings to which an Excellency of his station is there exposed are far more exacting than in an analogous English case; they irked his simple tastes. Here, in the South, he expanded; he breathed a freer air and let himself go, regardless of whether he was dealing with immigrants or with natives. In his romantic eyes the inhabitants of Capri were children of nature, one and all of them.

Everybody has his pet barber, and it was even so with Krupp; he took a fancy to one particular man for having his hair cut and over-paid him scandalously. Straightway an envious anti-Krupp barber-clique was formed. One of the artist-riffraff, immigrants who swarmed in those days, persuaded him to buy paintings to the tune of several thousand francs; the others, unable to dispose of their own daubs, were furious: more enemies. He rented at a fancy price an apartment in the Quisisana Hotel, but never entered the principal cafe of the town, whose proprietor, an immigrant, was already involved in a political feud of long standing with the Quisisana man: another enemy, an influential and implacable one. He bought the Hotel Schweizerhof and gave it to somebody, and then omitted to buy up the remaining hotels on the island and give them to somebody else: more enemies. Children of nature! He purchased the land which afterwards became the Villa Krupp and gave it to the municipality; there were hungry immigrant land-agents on the island; why did he not take what they had to sell? And so on. While some people fattened at his expense, the unsuccessful candidates were growing green with envy – envy, that Southern vice par excellence. What was to be done? Advise a man of Krupp’s standing as to how he should spend his money? A storm was brewing. From which quarter would it arise?

Via Krupp (built by Krupp for the people of Capri), 1905

It arose from the usual quarter.

He had begun to take lessons in Italian from one of the two local schoolmasters called X. Needless to say, he overpaid him. And why not? Krupp was the richest man in Europe, and this poor devil, besides being a good teacher, had to keep a wife and family on his miserable salary. He overpaid him not from ostentation but from kindliness; such generosity, he doubtless thought, was expected of him. This came to the ears of Y., the other schoolmaster.

I must linger over Y.; he is the causa causans of Krupp’s death. He was born (father unknown) at the village of A. on the neighbouring mainland, and afterwards became schoolmaster at B., which lies about two miles distant. From this post he was dismissed for improper conduct with school children, and whoever is anxious to consult the original deliberation of the local council on this point will find it in the municipal archives there. I have procured notarially attested copies of it for sundry friends who were threatened by his intrigues, and have thereby been enabled to paralyze his efforts; the mere mention of it used to make him tremble, and I only wish that Krupp – or I, at the time-had been aware of its existence. After his “licenziamento” from B. he migrated to New York, where he supported himself by organ-grinding and picked up a little English. Then he returned to Europe and, for reasons which do no credit to those in authority, was installed once more as schoolmaster, here on Capri.

This is the man who, because his colleague was being overpaid for giving lessons while he got nothing, started the odious business by sending an anonymous communication to a socialistic rag called the Propaganda, accusing Krupp of practices with which he himself was familiar. No need to go into this absurdity. If Krupp, in a burst of Teutonic idealism and demonstrativeness, placed his arm on the shoulder of some young sailor like Silvestro, that was so far as it ever went; so far, indeed, as it ever could have gone, even supposing he had wished it to go further. For Krupp, whether on his yacht or on shore, was never by any chance alone, but surrounded by friends like his engineer Wiesener, or one of his two secretaries, Captain McCallum of the Puritan, Dr. Cuomo, Lo Bianco, and a dozen others; every moment of his day was accounted for. He was by far the most prominent man on the island. He lived in a glass house, and it is asking too much of a fish in an aquarium to engage, unobserved, in homosexual antics.

An English millionaire would have avoided the risk to which Krupp exposed himself – the risk of arousing envy by overpaying; it is his favourite pose to be “too poor” to over-pay his teachers or anybody else. Your Italian millionaire scorns this assumption of poverty; he admits frankly that he has the money; he adds, equally frankly, that he is not going to spend a farthing of it on anybody but himself, and there is something exhilarating in this straight-forward stinginess. If Krupp had belonged to one of these two types, nothing would have happened. I am aware that the legend of Krupp's aberrations has taken root, especially in Germany, where nothing about his Italian life was known and where it even led to the production of some literary trash (see page 319 of my Capri); my version, however, may be accepted as the correct one, not only because I knew him and his entourage and the entire population of the island, and would instantly have heard of such occurrences, but also, and chiefly, because I should not care tuppence if these insinuations had been true; I should think it rather sporting of the old gentleman to have indulged in love-affairs of any kind, at his time of life.

A German professor bargains with a Caprese boy to accompany him to the Blue Grotto, by Christian Wilhelm Allers, 1892

It is easy to be wise after the event, and now we see what Krupp ought to have done. He ought to have engaged the services of a couple of the best fighting lawyers in the country, Parliamentary deputies by preference, and thrashed the matter out in the courts. When even inconspicuous persons were able in those days, by arts best known to themselves, to rebut before the Neapolitan tribunal charges of the same nature which in their case were not false but well founded, what might not Krupp’s money have done (I lay no stress on the justness of his cause)? He could have wiped the floor with his opponents. He hesitated. He was no fighter; he was staggered by these accusations. Maybe he thought the storm would blow over. Maybe he divined that there was something else at the back of the business: blackmail. If so, he divined rightly. Blackmail was at the back of that virtuous indignation. Krupp was wise in refusing to march, or they would have sucked him dry.

The Avanti was then a more important socialistic rag than the Propaganda, and I have had the whole of its front page dedicated to me and my misdeeds. Much I cared; to Hell with the canaille! They could not blackmail me. They could not make a political lever out of me. It was otherwise in the case of Krupp. For the complexion of the affair was changing; it began by being an act of personal spite on the part of a school-master; it now developed into a political move: socialism versus capitalism and its vices, as exemplified by Krupp. He saw that if he took action there would be a scandal of the first magnitude; the whole of Capri would be dragged into it; socialistic members of the Chamber would make their usual uproar, to the embarrassment of the Italian government, which had treated him with the greatest consideration. He hesitated.

He hesitated till it was too late. For soon the storm blew from another quarter. The German socialistic “Vorwärts” took up the war-cry; Krupp had not disculpated himself in Italy, therefore the charges were true. His hope now lay in his friend the Emperor. A single word from William, a single gesture, would have saved him. William left him to his fate. That was the tragedy of Krupp. He was killed by a disgusting press-campaign, and I sometimes try to picture to myself the agony of mind he must have undergone in his “Villa Hügel” during that final period….

 

MRS. DURRANT
40 PRINCE'S ROAD, GREAT YARMOUTH
APARTMENTS. NEAR THE SEA 

This is where Eric and I stayed in September 1911, during our malaria period.

 

ARCHIPRÊTRE ALEXANDRE ISMAILOW
AUMONIER DE S. A . I. MADAME LA PRINCESSE MARIE DE
BADE. Erwartet Sie am Dienstag

The following passages follow ones in which Douglas had been telling of the two mistresses he had had in St. Petersburg until he left his position as Third Secretary to the British Embassy there in November 1896. Of the two, Anyuta, a delightful  “young girl” procured for him (partly to improve his Russian), had bought him as a gift a Malacca cane: “along the sides of its silver top is engraved in Chinese style an assemblage of old men, presumably mandarins, sitting under trees.”

These winter months and the early spring of 1897 were spent (apart from short visits to London and Paris and Vorarlberg) round about Naples, where I had bought a villa on the Posilipo.

A View of Prosilipo, Naples by Antonietta Brandeis, late 19th century

In Naples I became acquainted with a woman called Maria Spasiano, who kept a dressmaking establishment on the left-hand side of the ugly Corso Garibaldi which leads from the station to the harbour. I shall not call Maria Spasiano a procuress. She was a woman full of gaiety who took a fancy to me; like many others of her sex she did it for sport, for the fun of the thing. No doubt she earned a small commission; I have known English society ladies earn dreadfully big ones for performing the same service.

We got on so well that one day she told me she had a niece of sixteen; would I like to talk to the mother? If so, she was in the next room. It was arranged that I should see this niece, for I had taken an instant liking to the mother and felt sure I should be in good hands. A dusky, well-formed dame of middle age and of the old school, a widow, who told me that, poor as they were, she would never have let the daughter go but for her sister's warm recommendation of me as a reliable person. She wore no hat; this signified that she belonged to a certain social set which thought a good deal of itself and kept to its own traditions. A deep and well-founded disrespect for all authority was one of them; the knife played a leading part in their affairs.

Such contracts for girls, I may say, were quite a regular thing; they enabled them to gain a little money which afterwards constituted, or helped to constitute, their marriage portion. The rule used to be this: whoever seduced a girl without the consent of her parents (a monetary transaction) might look out for squalls; once that consent was obtained, nobody, not even the nearest member of the family, had another word to say in the matter. The age of the girl was not taken into account; she might be a minor or even a child; she generally was. This particular family was not Neapolitan by origin; they came from Afragola in the Campagna Felice, which had the reputation of being an even more bloodthirsty place than the rest of them.

A Street Scene in Naples by Chas. John Watson, 1891

It struck me as a curious coincidence that this exquisite girl who, with her pale complexion and full vermilion lips and darkly flashing eyes, was all that my heart could desire, bore the name of Anetta, like the Russian Anyuta; still more curious was the fact that she, too, lived with a widowed mother and a younger brother of fifteen. At the mother's suggestion I went to their place once or twice. It was at the other end of Naples; their two or three dark rooms lay in a certain narrow street ( I forget its name) that climbs in steps – the only one, I believe, which goes in steps – upwards from the Riviera di Chiaia; a sombre alley which, after ascending awhile, takes a turn to the right. The mother and Anetta were usually at home; as to the younger brother Michele – I never saw him, though he must have seen me; he was at work, learning to be an engraver on metal; Anetta described him as a hot-tempered and reckless young devil. Something awful will happen, she used to say, if he finds out about us....

Something awful did happen; it might have been awfuller. I was walking one Sunday peacefully up a street, all alone, when I received from behind a terrific blow on the head with a stick or club. If it had been an inch lower down, it would have caught me on the temple and stunned me. As it was, I felt dazed, and that only for a moment, though my head ached as if it would split. I sat down on a doorstep amid the usual crowd of sympathisers, one of whom was kind enough to fetch a bucketful of water. It was all over in a few minutes, save an enormous swelling, and then I did what is unquestionably the right thing to do: beard the lion in his den. For it was that young brother, of course, who had meanwhile evaporated. I found neither him at home nor his sister; the mother was there, and she, on hearing what had happened, was disappointingly calm about the accident to my head – a good stab in the liver might have interested her – but trembling with rage at her boy, who had broken all the traditional rules governing such cases.

“Only wait!” she said. “Wait till he comes home. And you must be here too, sir. That boy needs a lesson, or he will never grow into a man. You will do me a great favour if you come, because then he will understand once and for all.”

When I arrived in the evening, all three of them were there. The boy hung his head; he had evidently been getting it hot. I looked at him for the first time. He was like his sister, and even prettier; the same red lips and pale cheeks, but the chiselling and pencilling were more thoughtfully done and his eyes had a more troubling expression; Anetta was a preliminary sketch for this picture. The mother scowled at the picture and said:

“Now, vagabond, have you had your lesson? What do you mean by bringing dishonour on our family and annoying (inquietando: a nice way of putting it, I thought) the gentleman who is a friend of mine, and a friend of your sister, and a friend of your aunt Donna Maria –“

Street Boy by Gaetano Esposito

“Just a boy’s joke,” I said.

“Are you going to behave reasonably in future? Are you going to understand that it is I, the mother, who commands in this house? If that good soul of your father were still alive, he would have broken every bone in your body. Now go down on your knees and kiss his hand and beg his pardon.”

Which was gracefully done, while I laid my hand in playful benediction on his head. The incident was closed, and I stayed till quite late, talking about everything except the bump on my head. As I rose to depart, Michele was told by his mother to accompany me down the dark and slippery steps into the main street, the Riviera di Chaia. There he would have left me, but I dragged him further, observing that he was anxious to say something polite and did not know how to set about it. Crossing the street, we entered the well-lighted public garden and sat down on one of the benches near the Aquarium. He was abashed and monosyllabic, beginning a sentence and then stopping again, while I did my utmost to set his mind at ease and make him forget the nonsense of that afternoon, despite the fact that my head was now aching so much that I began to wonder whether he had not cracked my skull after all. It was an odd situation; there were moments when I felt like throttling him. Slowly he brightened up.

“That’s a pretty stick of yours,” he remarked, taking it in his hand. Anyuta’s Malacca! I happened to be carrying it that day. “I like those funny old men under the trees. But why is there no picture on the top? Please, sir, let me engrave something there for you; it is the least I can do, after what happened this afternoon. You know that I am learning that trade. What would you like? A heart? Or I could also cut your initials, if you prefer.…”

The silver top was duly engraved, but unfortunately the metal was so thin – or else he cut too deep – that it soon gave way, with the consequence that I frayed the inside of my hand each time I used the stick. Reluctantly, and after many years, I had a new top fixed to it; the old mandarins, however, are still smiling benignantly under their trees, as they did in Nijni-Novgorod. And herewith ends the tale of Anyuta’s malacca, which is one of my cherished possessions.

The end – or rather the beginning – of Michele is also noteworthy. For not long afterwards the boy fell in love with me desperately, as only a southern boy of his age can do; so blindly that at a hint from myself he would have abandoned his work and family and everything else. It came in a flash, and he did not care who knew it. And the queer thing is (queer, at least, to our English way of thinking) that his mother and sister were not in the least surprised; they thought it the most natural thing in the world.

“L’avete svegliato,” the mother said; you have woken him up.

That was in or about January 1897 – a good long while ago.

 

MR. EDMUND JOHN

This section is included because it is clear from other sources[3] that Edmund John (1883-1917) was a pederast, which can only be guessed from gentle hints in what follows. It is given in its entirety as one of the most important sources on his life.

Edmund John

Returning from the country on 4 August 1913, I found a note from Edward Garnett saying that a young poet unknown to himself, Edmund John, had been viciously attacked on grounds of morality by a certain puritanical reviewer ( who has recently made a far greater ass of himself in such matters) ; it was really too bad; would I write a short notice of his Flute of Sardonyx in the English Review and vindicate, if I thought fit, its reputation on that score? He himself was doing the same elsewhere, and had asked other critics to do so too.

This is how I came to notice the book in the September number of that Review, and at the end of Edmund John’s second and final volume of poems (The Wind in the Temple, Erskine MacDonald, 1915) will be found some extracts of press notices of the first, mine among them.

We met through his sending verses to the English Review after the publication of the Flute of Sardonyx, and it often struck me how greatly his person resembled his writings-sensuous and ornate, elaborate in manner, a little over-dressed, too many rings and tie-pins, too much thought expended upon the colour of socks. He would have grown out of these incongruities, had he lived. Meanwhile he was young and handsome, as can be seen from the frontispiece to the Flute of Sardonyx; disreputable-looking poets swarmed on the market: why not study appearances for a change? And there was something behind these external graces. Edmund John was poor, a hard worker, keeping a boys’ school at Crouch End with his brother and coaching undergraduates in his spare time; he had a passion for the classics and wrote a half-imaginary Life of Anacreon, quite a long production, of which I read the typescript and should like to know the fate; he could drink.

He could drink like a fish, and remain perfectly sober. In those days I bought my whisky in kegs, and it was alarming to see how he could put; it away. Good company! At such moments he cast off that veil of preciosity, though a certain refinement always clung to him; it was part of his nature. Even so, I often thought, would he presently learn to discard the husk of sickliness and superfluous imagery in his verse, to clarify his vision. He was a lover of the right word, and yet, to my way of thinking, not sufficiently stark; melodious, but over-luxuriant. Original ideas were not lacking; they were sound ideas, and he had a most sensitive ear. Would he have done better things?

In his correspondence he told me that he had been invalided out of the army on account of his heart; he had also married for money, as he frankly ·confessed. His tastes were luxurious; coaching, and an occasional volume of verse, would never make him feel at ease. It looked as if all were going well, yet I did not like the nervous tone of his letters, and he seemed to have dropped working, for in his last note to me, from Sicily, he says:

Norman Douglas in his 40s

“I am not writing anything except this blasted letter to you, which you insist on with such offensive emphasis.”

Then follows an ominous sentence inspired by that entanglement of which I knew nothing:

“l don't know how long I shall stay here-probably until I am impressed with the idea that another climate might be healthier for me-a not impossible contingency by any means.”

I replied to this letter on the 19 February 1917. On the 28 of that same month he killed himself. A miserable ending, of which he seems to have had a presentiment:

Ah God, it was the Hope You gave to me,
Within the womb, of things unknown and fair,
The Bud that blossomed into this Despair.
Art Thou content, O God, with this Thy work?
Art Thou content that Thou hast planned so well?
That Thy cold hands have thrust me into Hell?

You may find several such premonitory passages in his poems.

You may find them, too, in the works of poets who have died at a patriarchal age in their beds.

 

MR. EDMUND BARTON

There was a brief but convulsive love-episode, too, at Amiens, whither I went with a casualty permit of three days to visit the 41st stationary hospital.[4] […]

A few weeks later, still in 1918:

In the first days of December I found myself in a back room, cold and gloomy, in the rue Servandoni; heating was out of the question. Marcel still came to see me when he was in the mood, to cheer me up. I had given up bothering about other people.

I linger over Marcel. He was a type worth studying; a plump but ragged voyou – almost a child; a product of the underworld. This boy, with his profile of gem-like purity and thick-clustering curls, looked like an angel in disgrace, and I learned from him more than any angel could have taught me. He was amusing and pretty, unstable of temperament, and liable to fits of passion or else of prodigal generosity, during which he insisted on standing me drinks, taking me to a circus or two, and showing me other marks of affection. I never enquired after the sources of his money, nor after his family and occupation – I should have heard nothing but lies; I never even asked to know his surname, and I think he appreciated this discretion on my part. A tough little devil, brought up in the lore of the streets. For all his coaxing playfulness there was something feline and sinister about him; he was full of mute reservations. I imagine he was an implement, a decoy, who for some reason or other took a momentary fancy to me. Moralists would have found him depraved. I found him instructive. The society of Marcel was a liberal education, and I would not have missed that experience for worlds; he was an ethnographical museum. I owe to him some of the information given in How About Europe? (pages 94-104).

One evening soon after my arrival in that ghastly hole – it must have been about the eighth – he gave me another taste of his quality. I required some medicine from the chemist and, feeling too run – down to go myself, asked him to fetch it; he had often done me little favours of this kind. Unfortunately I had no small change whatever; nothing but a most precious hundred- franc note. He took it, saying that he would be back in a moment. He never returned. I stayed up till far into the night; Marcel was gone. The temptation had been too great. It was a wrench; not that I was particularly attached to him: I was attached to the money. Having nothing better to do (every kind of work had been put aside for some time past) I made it my business to re-discover the young rascal. The money, of course, was gone for good, but there would be infinite satisfaction in telling him what I thought of him. I knew his usual haunts, the rue du Vert-bois, passage du Caire, and other dubious regions of the quarter-very dubious, at that period; these I perambulated, glancing into the more questionable of their bistros.

Passage du Caire by Vincent Monozlay, 1914

Now the cold was growing so intense, and I was feeling so knocked up, that I took a sudden resolution: if I must go to pieces, I’ll do it in the sunshine, at Menton. Burn your boats! I sold all I possessed save the barest necessities which filled one small portmanteau, and decided to leave on the twelfth. Meanwhile my search for Marcel continued (what else was there to do?), and on the very day of my departure I unearthed him. Looking not for the first time into a certain low-class café, I observed that there was an inner den which I had not noticed before, shut off from the other by a folding door of opaque glass. On an impulse, I pushed it aside. There was my young friend, among a group of forbidding-looking customers – oh, quite unpicturesque; just flashy. He wore a new greatcoat of light brown which covered his miserable clothes and made him look a perfect little gentleman; it was not difficult to guess how my hundred-franc note had been spent. The company glanced up as I opened the door, and Marcel gave me a look of concentrated loathing. I beckoned to him to step outside; the interior of the bouge struck me as being an unhealthy kind of place.

“That's a nice new coat of yours. A sensible way of spending money, I must say, these cold days. I congratulate you.”

He was pale with rage, and the expression on his face had become positively evil.

“Fous le camp! Clear out, or my friends will have something to say to you.”

“Damn your friends. Tell them to come here, and I shall have something to say to them.”

“Please go away,” he begged, with a sudden change of tone. He was terrified now, terrified at the prospect of that encounter. “Won't you do me this favour? Don't you understand? I never told them about you, and now I shall suffer for it. Please go away at once.”

“I am going away-leaving for Marseilles tonight –“

“Bon voyage!”

He turned and slipped inside. I thought: that’s the end of Marcel. No matter. I had relieved myself. I had said what I meant to say.

Trains in those days were few and far between, and the service was still hopelessly disorganized, even that of the principal expresses. The Paris-Menton rapide, for instance, was seldom less than six hours late in reaching its destination, often eight or twelve, and on one occasion, the record, twenty-four. This I happen to know, because I was on the Menton platform every day, for an excellent reason, at the hour when it was due to arrive.

Gare de Lyon by Eugène Galien-Laloue, ca. 1910

Expresses were not for me, with my third-class ticket. In order to be sure of finding a seat I allowed myself more than an hour’s time at the Gare de Lyon, and on the way there had a little accident. I was walking the whole way from rue Servandoni; sheer weakness, or the load of my portmanteau, or the slimy condition of the roadway, or all three combined, caused me to slip just as I was crossing a street. In that moment a taxicab ran over my leg below the knee, swerving in the nick of time to avoid my stomach. It was my first experience of such a thing and did not hurt nearly as much as I expected, though it made me limp badly. The station, where I arrived in ample time, was crammed with people leaving for the provinces; the train was drawn up, and already not a single seat was left unoccupied – not one. I might have to stand the whole way to Marseilles: a cheerful prospect. Now, bustling through that crowd, I felt a pull at my sleeve. It was Marcel, in his elegant new surtout. He began airily:

“I've been waiting here all the afternoon. I wanted to say good-bye.” His face was discomposed; there must have been trouble of some kind.

“That's nice of you,” I said. “But you're not looking quite yourself. Come and have a cup of coffee. And please allow me to pay, for a change.”

We gulped down the mixture, talking blithely about everything save our conversation of the morning. I observed that he was always scratching the back of his hand, between the fingers.

“What's up?” I asked.

“Cette sacrée gale. I believe I’ve got it again. That will mean another three days at Saint-Louis.”

The First Cigar by François Bricard, 1904

“The itch? Then you've given it me too, I’ll bet. Never mind! Just a little souvenir from Marcel. And now I must squeeze into a carriage.”

I did squeeze in; we were packed tight. When he realized that I was actually going, that there was no further doubt about it, a sudden change came over his ungovernable nature. He set up a terrific howl. Nothing I could say in the way of consolation had the slightest effect, and his chubby little face, all streaming with tears, attracted more attention than I cared about. He wanted to come too; he implored to be taken into the carriage. Everybody sympathized with him as he leaned against the outside of the compartment, sobbing as if his heart would break; there were some ugly looks in my direction, for it was a clear case of an Englishman giving pain to a poor French child. A burly fellow, standing next to me, asked quite indignantly: “What? Aren't you taking the little one with you?” How I longed for the train to start! In its small way, this was one of the most disconcerting scenes I can remember.

At last we steamed out, and that was really the last of Marcel – no, not quite; for the souvenir made its appearance in due course at Menton.

It took me three nights and two and a half days to reach Menton; the journey from Paris to Marseilles lasted about thirty hours. It was the worst of my life. […]

Menton was reached on the fifteenth, and here, even before I had issued from the station, my luck began to turn. It was in the nature of a miracle, and were I not convinced that among all these calling-cards there must be one or more from “Mr. R.” I should proceed with the tale. I shall postpone it, till that card turns up.

Burn your boats….

How right I had been!

 

Rene Mery” follows this as a continuous story.

 

MR. CARLOS WILSON

This section describes Douglas’s visit to East Africa in May to July 1925, to stay with Eric Wolton, to whom Looking Back is dedicated, and who was in the Tanganyikan police. Douglas had met then 12-year-old Wolton (here called simply “my friend”) in November 1910 and had a deeply-felt love affair with him over the next few years. Included in what follows is not the entire account of his visit, but everything Douglas and Wolton are stated to have done together, the object being to shed as much light as possible on the close life-long friendship that had been forged.

Lunch at Moshi; Africa Hotel; not bad. Here my friend was waiting, and we drove in another car to his place at Arusha on the flank of Mount Meru, passing immense herds of game and some picturesque Masai shepherd boys leaning on their lances, and also a pair of hyenas, who strolled about as if they were on exhibition at the Zoo. That experience likewise added a relish to life; one felt remote from Europe.

Eric Wolton (1898-1958)

It is good to live in strange places, in places where, a day’s march distant, there are districts marked as “unexplored” on the newest map. Arusha was delicious, and I stayed there from 20 May to 1 July 1925. Here was Wilson, a young but important and correct person: hence this card. Wilson was an official. We got to know each other better one evening when he sent word to say that a native boy of his had been clawed by a leopard on the very doorstep of his house-leopards are given to these little insolences, and a more remarkable one is recorded on p. 157 of Colonel Patterson's In the Grip of the Nyika. Wilson asked us to come round and help to scare the beast away, if it was still lurking about the premises. We wandered about the grounds in a procession with lights and guns; the leopard having apparently moved off, we sat up half the night with him, telling stories and drinking. At such moments these people unbend and grow human; then, next morning, they are officials once more. I was sorry to learn that Wilson, who looked so uncommonly fit, died two or three years later of a galloping consumption.

I used to meet my friend at luncheon and tea-time (that is, whisky-and-soda) when sun helmets could be removed; and, of course, for dinner. In the morning and afternoon he was at work while I perambulated the country alone in all directions […].

We went in a Ford to Dodoma for a few days – what a road! – passing a night on the way at Kondoa lrangi with an unusually agreeable English official, who seemed a cheerful mortal: he has since killed himself. At Dodoma was a vast gathering of native clans in honour of the Governor’s visit; some fine types of humanity were on view here. I stayed at a hotel kept by a Greek, and our chief afternoon amusement was being driven along the railway line on a trolley and shooting game for my friend’s table, the small dik-dik antelope for the most part, which is good eating; a silver jackal was also bagged. On the way back to Arusha we passed the night at a spot called Babati, sleeping in the car. The road passes through some beautiful scenery, forest-clad hills and park-like stretches of open country. We encountered an assemblage of baboons pilgrimaging through the woods in a patriarchal, half-human, fashion; so may our ancestors have marched, troop-wise, for protection. Elsewhere the natives produced for our inspection a young albino; the ugliest boy I ever saw. If his colour had at least been white, instead of that unhealthy-looking yellow!

The trip from Arusha to Dodoma takes two days; it used to take sixteen. It had to be performed on foot, on account of a fly-belt which intervenes and would be fatal to animal transport. […]

We also went for a five days' visit to an amiable coffee-planter on the western slope of Mount Meru, in his car. “There’s an old ant-eater in there,” he said, pointing to a bare patch of land on our left. Further on, we had to avoid many holes of the ant-bear, a mysterious beast which nobody ever sees. […]

We had a lively dance at this plantation, somebody shot a serval cat, and I found three or four implements of worked flint in a cave along the stream which flows near by: this much I remember.

The Usambara took me back to Europe; a German boat, and most comfortable.

 

MR. D. H. LAWRENCE

David Herbert Lawrence, 1929

Douglas and the famous author of Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc., were friends who respected each other, but had rather fractious relations. Here is presented just the little bit of Douglas’s description of him coming closest to the topic of Greek love:

Lawrence was no Bohemian; he was a provincial, an inspired provincial with marked puritan leanings. He had a shuddering horror of Casanova’s Memoirs; he was furious with a friend for keeping two mistresses instead of one, and even with Florentine boys for showing an inch or so of bare flesh above the knee – “I don't like it! I don't like it! Why can’t they wear trousers?”; my own improprieties of speech he ascribed to some perverse kink of nature, whereas they were merely an indication of good health.

 

LE COMTE DE FERSEN hoping you are better

The French writer and aristocrat Jacques Adelswärd-Fersen (1880-1923) was probably the most famous of all the notable pederasts who settled in Capri. He has been the subject of several biographies and depictions in fiction, but comes so much to life in Douglas’s account that it is given here in full.

There is a full-length portrait of him as “Count Marsac” in the Vestal Fire of Compton Mackenzie, who successfully catches the comic side of Fersen’s personality. He had a tragic side as well.

It is one of my many crimes that I induced this apple of discord to establish himself on Capri. No: that is putting it too strongly. The fact is that he turned up on the island one day and met me almost immediately. He was about twenty-three years old. In the course of conversation he mentioned that he was thinking of building himself a villa there – indeed, he had made up his mind on that point before his arrival, having heard of the attractions of the place from certain friends in Paris; a villa, he added, in some romantic spot on a cliff, if possible, and overlooking the sea. He had already walked along the Via Tragara that morning, but it was full of houses and tourists and altogether too near the town; he wanted something remote and solitary.

I took him far, far away, to a favourite spot of mine, high up, where you could dream through the summer evenings looking round the corner, so to speak, at the promontory of Minerva, the Amalfitan coastline and the mountains of Basilicata bathed in the golden light of sunset; to the spot, in short, where afterwards his Villa Lysis (also called La Gloriette) was erected. It was then a rocky stretch of ground with no buildings of any kind in the neighbourhood, and the unexpected view round that corner of Capri was entrancing. I asked:

Sculpture in the garden of Villa Lysis

“Can you have anything more romantic than this?”

“But I want trees.”

“You can have trees, thousands of them, if you care to plant them.”

“On this rock?”

“Yes. Only give them water for the first two or three summers.”

“Water?" he asked. "Where's the water to come from?”

“Don't you know? Build cisterns. Rather an expensive job,” I added, “blasting cisterns out of this limestone.”

“Oh, I've got some money,” he said, and proceeded to tell me about certain profitable ironworks on the northern frontier of France. He became so enthusiastic that I tried to cool him off. The transport of the material, I urged, would cost as much as the building itself; what a distance from the town, and every ounce to be carried on the backs of men or donkeys! The winds in winter, at that exposed angle, would sweep him off his feet. And if he were ill, how about getting a doctor out here? He had only just arrived; hadn’t he better look at a few other sites before deciding anything?

“Of course I will. I'll look at everything. But I must say I like this place. One could write poetry here.”

In the end he made up his mind to build here and nowhere else, and I think he preferred this locality to others because au fond (as he would have said) it was a spectacular one; it was remote and yet conspicuous. People would be sure to enquire who could live, and build himself a palace, in such a situation; they would then learn that it was the retreat of a young and handsome French poet, who had turned his back on the world in disgust at the ill-treatment he received at the hands of the Paris tribunals. He would be talked about.

He built, and who would now recognize the spot? The sterile tract is gone, and there stands the Villa Lysis, an ostentatious fabric – Fersen had not much taste, though he did have some notions of what to avoid – there it stands, with snowy plaster already cracked and crumbling and stained by damp. There it, stands like a castle in a tale, all empty and forlorn, and embowered or rather smothered in a tangle of trees, in a veritable thicket, because he grew so fond of his pines and ilexes and mimosas that he would not allow the smallest twig of them to be touched. They have remained untouched to this hour.

“One could write poetry here.” That summed him up sufficiently well. He wrote no poetry there; he smoked a good deal of opium. The poetry was written in Paris and elsewhere.

There was something not disingenuous or false, but theatrical, about the fellow. With his childlike freshness, his blue eyes, clear complexion, and flawless figure, he could have made the impression he yearned to make, if he had not always been over-tailored. That ruined everything – to my way of thinking, at all events. He was too noticeable an apparition. Somebody ought to have told him that boys with pretty faces should dress modestly, else the beholder’s glance will be deflected to the cut and colour of their clothes. In character, too, he was flamboyant and self-assertive. He had a passion for living on a stage, the Neronic love of exhibiting himself and being the centre of whatever was going on. The Villa Lysis might have been a secluded place, a hermitage ... vixit qui latuit was not Fersen’s ideal. He was a fluent but shallow talker; vanity had made him more empty-headed than he need have been; some lovable streaks, some touches of genuine sensibility, made their appearance now and then. These traits should have been fostered in childhood, and those others repressed. Unfortunately his upbringing at that malleable age was in the hands of people whose acquaintance I also had the honour of making ....

Villa Lysis, Capri

Some of his verses are contained in a volume entitled Le Danseur aux Caresses which he gave me; other such gifts were Une Jeunesse and Et le Feu s'eteignit sur la Mer; novels. There is nothing arresting in these books that I can recall, and I shall not wade through them now. Yet I mean to do so one of these days, although the task is sure to scare up a cloud of ghosts. I nearly forgot Lord Lyllian. This he sent me with an indiscreet dedication. It is the earliest of his books, I think; the naughtiest and most characteristic of them. Glancing into it now, I become aware of a musty, Dorian-Grayish flavour. Thus it opens:

– Mais qui est-ce au juste? demanda derrière son masque M. d’Herserange. Je suis piqué au jeu: pourtant, savez-vous que c’est très popotte? …

– Dites plutot très cocotte, monsieur le Diplomate, répondit della Robbia, merveilleusement svelte dans son arlequin noir. Il appartient à l'une des plus vieilles familles d’Angleterre….

– Jeune, n’est-ce pas?

– Oh, dix-neuf ans, à peu près. Mais vous ne fumez pas…. Encore un rien d’opium? ...

Della Robbia fit signe et un boy chinois, ridé et preste comme une araignée, posa une boulette de pàte brune dans le fourneau minuscule des pipes .... Pas vingt ans. Il est, je crois, le dix-septième ou le dix-huitième de ces lords Lyllian qui peuvent, depuis qu'ils existent (jolie, la musique, écoutez ... c’est une danse croate) revendiquer toutes les célébrités.

– Presque fou, m'a-t-on dit….

And so on.

Fersen was attached to me in an idiotic and ineffectual sort of way and wrote me numberless letters, some of them with illustrations – he was clever at drawing – from Guernsey, Oxford, London, Zurich, Paris, Rome; those that have survived are devoid of any general interest. Here is a fragment of one, dated “Friday, 23rd”:

“ ... You'll pardon me thinking that with bags and trunks to carry, a review to ‘build up,’ a flat to take and friends to see, little time remains. I am in London, Garland’s Hotel, Pall Mall, since about a week, had an enjoyable stay and only have to fly away on account of your beastly Sundays! One is enough. I can’t more. I am going to see Thomas [Havard Thomas, the sculptor] today. He has his wax statue and the dancer at the exhibition – interesting only for the british retrospective of arts and the french applied arts. The rest is the usual thing, in the usual pastries. But I was impressed by the way entente cordiale has made … Hear! Hear!!...”

The review which he was “building up” was called Akademos, and only one number, I believe, appeared (January 15, 1909).

Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen reclining in his 'Opiarium' in the Villa Lysis, Capri, 1914

My last meeting with Fersen was when I was staying with friends at the Hotel Quisisana on Capri. One morning, in the middle of my breakfast, he suddenly entered the room. I was amazed, knowing how late he sat up at night; amazed and pleased. That he should have walked down from his distant house at such an hour of the day to see me was a manifestation of the kindly vein which ran through his nature. I asked:

“Since when have you taken to getting up so early?”

“But, my dear fellow, I haven’t been, to bed yet.”

He had put on flesh, his face was more puffy and his voice huskier than it used to be. Otherwise I noted no change. He could not be induced to take a seat, but walked up and down the room asking me questions, telling me what had happened to him in the interval, and taking, every now and then, a pinch of cocaine.

“Have a pinch?” he asked.

“Thanks. I will.”

“I didn't know you took snow.”

“l don't make a rule of it.”

“Pouf!” he said. “I do.”

“So I perceive. Do you want me to tell you, Jacques, what a damned fool you are?”

“You told me that long ago, when I used to smoke opium.”

“Do you know what you are doing to yourself now?”

“Nobody knows it better. But I have nothing left to live for save – this. My life has been messed up.”

“It is you who are messing it up –“

“Messed up by other people. You know?”

“I know. Send them to Hell. Don’t go there yourself.”

“Ah, mon vieux, if I had met you when I was a boy!”

It was a cry from the heart. And he was right. If we had met then, he might be alive today ... What was the use of talking? I should like to meet the man who can cure a drug votary with arguments.

I never saw Fersen again. He died early in November 1923, and this extract of a letter from a friend, dated the 27 of that month, told me how it happened:

Nino Cesarini, Capri, by Wilhelm Plüschow

“... Just three weeks ago today Fersen came back by the evening boat from Sorrento, returning, after a month’s absence, from Sicily. That evening he walked up to the villa, saying he felt better for his jaunt and how glad he was to be home again. He dined, and as he was lighting his after-dinner cigarette fell forward – dead. Heart failure. Ten years’ opium smoking had prepared the way: two years’ cocaine sniffing finished him off. I was not at all surprised, I had expected something much worse [? suicide]. As it was, the end was a clean cut, merciful in its quickness. I had seen very little of him latterly; he had not been near me for nearly two years. The last I saw of him was at a dinner-party in August, when I noticed how ghastly he looked and how [?] he was. He had a fine elemental send-off, for that night a thunderstorm began which lasted for over twelve hours. He seems to have left the house to Nino[5] for life with certain sums of money; also directions that his body was to be cremated, but that if his family objected to the cremation then everything he possessed was to go absolutely to Nino. A nice little dilemma for Madame la mere, who, it appears, is both very superstitious and very avaricious. So far no precise directions have come from Paris, and the body still lies (pickled of course) in the mortuary chapel of the non-catholic cemetery. Of course Nino won’t take the responsibility of deciding anything, so the situation is a curious one, but the body can't be left unburied or unburnt indefinitely…."

Fersen was fated to lie in alcohol for long; for many months, I was told. Certain of his relatives made themselves objectionable in the matter of the will and the provisions it contained for Nino, his secretary, the most upright and conscientious creature on earth, and one who had been Fersen's guardian angel for long years. It was suggested that Nino had poisoned his master; the corpse was dissected, and only after endless trouble and litigation was the poor secretary freed from his tormentors. I learned that the body was then burnt according to Fersen's instructions: it cannot have given much trouble at the crematorium. If this was the case, what lies under the tombstone which was put up to him in the local cemetery?

On this marble he is named Baron J. A. Fersen; he also called himself Count Fersen or de Fersen, Count Adelsward Fersen, Count Fersen Adelsward, or simply Fersen. Funny, not being able to make up your mind what your name is. Was he a Fersen at all? I never went into this matter. A link was supposed to connect him with the friend of Marie Antoinette, but he was never explicit on this point, not even to me, though he liked us to think that such a family tie existed; it added a nimbus of chivalry and romance – a gloriole, he would have called it – to his personal graces. Judged by external appearance he might have passed for a Scandinavian (blond like the famous Axel, but not so big); his parsimony – for he was undeniably close-fisted, in a jovial way – was a French peculiarity, and I know where it came from. I should have liked Fersen to make a gloriole for himself, and leave his ancestor to look after Marie Antoinette.

 

RENE MERY

“Rene Mery” was really called René Quilicus Mari and was fourteen when he met Douglas. The love affair which ensued lasted several years and, like that with Eric Wolton, evolved into a deep life-long friendship, ending only with Mari’s early death on 2 March 1934. This excerpt follows “Mr. Edmund Barton” as a continuous story.

Wrong surname.

I thought a card from him would come to the surface sooner or later.

This is the "Mr. R." concerning whom I have spoken abundantly in a book called Together. My first meeting with him was auspicious; it marks a turn of the wheel. ...

Menton railway station

I have written somewhere about my stay in Paris during the War and about that awful journey over Marseilles to Menton. There I arrived utterly knocked-up on Sunday, 15 December 1918, and with sixty-one francs in my pocket. An odd pound or two might be dribbling in presently; it was not worth mentioning. Though I felt sure of finding some kind of work at Menton I was not anxious to spend a penny of this last remaining money on a porter or a cab; as to carrying that portmanteau myself (in Paris I had still done so, with difficulty) – it was now out of the question. I could barely stand on my legs, one of which had been run over by a taxi on my way to the Gare de Lyon. What was to be done? I glanced around the station platform. There was a group of boys, collégiens recognizable from their caps, bidding good-bye to a school-friend who was leaving by the train which had brought me. Could one of them be induced to help? No harm in trying. Which one?

It took a little courage-I was exposing myself to a snub and might be made to look like a fool – it took a little courage to ask an unknown schoolboy of good family to carry my bag and, what made it far worse, in front of his companions; I was desperate. I went into the matter. I spoke of the horrible journey from Paris, of the preceding night spent on the floor of the Nice refreshment room, and how that I was too weak to carry the bag myself and too poor to pay for a porter: voila! Would he be so kind as to help me, after he had seen his companion off? This was a pretty severe test also for “Mr. R.” Something inspired him to say “Je veux bien.”

Later, on the way down from the station, I asked if he knew of some cheap hotel, as I had never stayed at Menton. No; he had been inside none of them, but there was one which he often passed and about which he had heard from some Ventimiglia friend of his father’s; it was dirt cheap, he gathered, and owned by an Italian (“Mr. R.,” being Corsican on both sides, does not share local prejudices). Italian? That suited my purposes. If it came to a question of running up a short account I knew that an Italian manager would be more accommodating than any Frenchman.

I will not say that the Hotel d’Italie is no longer to be recognized, but it has been renovated and improved immensely by the son of that old proprietor who has retired. I never visit Menton nowadays without going for a meal down those two or three steps into the dusky dining-room which was then haunted by all sorts of strange characters. How many luncheons and dinners have we had there together!

“Mr. R.” on that first occasion was so obliging in his unaffected way that when he left me – he lived with his parents at Ventimiglia – I gave him a note to his father saying how grateful I had been for his help, and regretting that I could not come over to Ventimiglia to make his own acquaintance; I was too much run-down just then. This brought both parents to me next day. Things began to look brighter. “Mr. R.” dropped in whenever he could, and the first walk we took together was in search of the tomb of Aubrey Beardsley in that cemetery on the hill. We found it in a state of considerable neglect, and it was not much better when I went there three years ago with Edward Hutton, who had known Beardsley well. […]

René Mari and Norman Douglas in the Vorarlberg

Now for Together.

The presence of “Mr. R.” kept me at Menton on and off for five years during those periods when he could not come to see me in Italy either alone or with his father or brother. We were together in the Monte Amiata region in South Tuscany, at Siena, in the Abruzzi (the walk described on pages 158-163 of Alone was undertaken with him), at Sant’ Agata above Sorrento, at Capri, at Fiuggi, San Remo, Olevano, and elsewhere; also in Provence; also in the Vorarlberg, where he spent those two summer holidays which in Together, for literary purposes, I melted into one. That was 1921 and 1922. His diaries refer to many incidents recorded in that book, and I find it entertaining and instructive to compare his unadorned versions with mine. Here is Blumenegg (Together, pages 69-81):

“… et nous prîmes un petit sentier qui nous conduisit jusqu’au château de Blumenegg ou dedans nous mangeames et bu nos provisions. C'était très joli dedans; nous étions presque entourés d'une enceinte de murs dentellés, le sol était couvert de mousse, et il y avait quatre ou cinque arbres de sapins; autour de nous de temps en temps on entendait le cri de pie ou de corbeau qui se posait sur un arbre et se mettait à chanter; nous reçumes en plus la visite d'un hibou, d'un pigeon sauvage, et d'une pie verte ...”[6] (15 September 1921). Another Blumenegg –  he was writing English by this time: “… Then we crossed the fields and we walked to Blumenegg castle. There we rested in the middle of the castle. I played some music on the moss which was perfectly dry. The spot is very beautiful. Of the castle which seems to have been very large there remain only some decayed walls, windows and some pieces of wood here and there. In the interior there is moss and large firs. We descended to the lower part of the castle. Instead of large rooms of formerly, there are now only trees, bushes and fallen stones. On a fir-tree there was a squirrel’s nest, I think. I threw stones at it, but I was not able to hit it …” (22 July 1922).

Blumenegg Castle

Another Blumenegg: “… We climbed up on the right hand of the waterfall, crossed in an oblique fashion the upper fields where people were making hay, and reached the main road near the so-called fox meadow; arrived at the castle at a quarter to seven. There, after having found a nice place on the moss we dine at once. After dining we admire the play of the sunset on the trees, smoked and playing some music. It was getting night when we left at a quarter past eight; we had to come back, after starting, to find our match-boxes which we had forgotten on the moss. We passed behind the reservoir, and went down through the forest to the road of Jordan, we descended to the village and to bed. Before sleeping there was an accident with one of the night-tables …” (10 August 1922).

Here is mention of the petrifying brook, the Stag’s Leap, pré des papillons, Schlins, ruisseau des écrevisses; accounts of our visit to the Scesaplana, Valduna asylum, St. Gerold, Roseneck, and all the other places….

That was ten and eleven years ago, and a glance through those diaries has made me feel fifty years younger.

And yesterday – 2 January 1932 – arrived a letter from “Mr. R.” wishing me prosperity for the present year, and asking why on earth I don’t come and join him and his lady-friend in the mountains for a week or two?

I shall reply this afternoon.

 

[1] Mark Holloway, Norman Douglas: a biography, London: Secker & Warburg, 1976.

[2] Douglas met Wolton at the Crystal Palace on Guy Fawkes Night, the date mentioned in the next paragraph, when they were aged forty-one and twelve-and-a-half.

[3] The best summary is by Timothy D’Arch Smith in Chapter III of his Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of the English “Uranian” Poets, London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

[4] In October 1918. Douglas was visiting his wounded son. According to an annotation cited by Mark Holloway (Norman Douglas, p. 255) the “love-episode” was with a Madagascan soldier. One can only presume that, like many 1st World War soldiers, he was a teenager, otherwise this would stand out as the sole reference to Douglas ever having sex with a man.

[5] Nino Cesarini was the great love of Fersen’s life, taken as his lover when he was a boy of 14 and going on to be the one who cared for him in his last years.

[6] This translates as:
… and we took a little path which led us to Blumenegg Castle where we ate and drank our provisions. It was very pretty inside; we were almost surrounded by an enclosure of jagged walls, the ground was covered with moss, and there were four or five fir trees; around us from time to time would be heard the cry of a magpie or a crow which landed on a tree and began to sing; we also received the visit of an owl, a wild pigeon, and a green magpie…

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