Happy families of boys

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

In 1895, when Pum was fourteen, Oscar Wilde spoke at his first trial of ‘the great affection of an elder for a younger man … such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect … it is in this century misunderstood’. By the early twentieth century, manliness had come to mean virility and hardness with an emphasis on games and quasi-militarisation in schools. Colonial life, though, had allowed some conspicuously ‘inveterate bachelors’ to flourish in this atmosphere, men such as Gordon, Kitchener, and TE Lawrence. As a fourteen-year-old, Gordon had wished to be a eunuch, and as an adult was quite happy as long as he could give the occasional bath to a dirty urchin and talk to him of God. He adored his ‘Gravesend laddies’. Kitchener’s male friendships were sentimentally fervent; he had no use for married men on his staff and only young officers were admitted to his house - he called them his ‘cubs’ or ‘my happy family of boys’. TE Lawrence had his ‘commune’ in the Punjab, there were ‘Howe’s boys’ in Calcutta, Wolesley’s ‘Staff Ring’, Rhode’s ‘lambs’, Sir Robert Hart’s ‘kindergarten’ in Canton, and Lord Milner’s in South Africa. During the Great War, Baden-Powell watched the soldiers ‘trooping in to be washed in nature’s garb, with their strong well-built naked wonderfully made bodies’. This was his ‘happy brave family laughing together’.

Stephen Spender wrote about Pum’s fondness for the beauty of male youths in his preface to the posthumously published volume of Pum’s verse, Christeros and other Poems. Spender himself had written in a letter to Christopher Isherwood in September 1934 that, ‘I find boys much more attractive, in fact I am rather more than usually susceptible, but actually I find the actual sexual act with women more satisfactory, more terrible, more disgusting, and, in fact, more everything’. Describing Pum’s own happy family of boys that he had gathered around him in Cairo, Spender wrote that, ‘He was devoted to children, and there were always two or three small boys (sons of servants or from outside) employed in his establishment in one minor capacity or another. Their real function was to add to the general atmosphere of the place that element of tenderness, immature human beauty and ingenuous humour that was essential to [his] wellbeing. They all attended every meal picturesquely dressed, and one of them ”on duty”, accompanied by the dog, followed his master at all times to carry things or run errands … The mealtimes were the happiest periods of relaxation in the day for him and his guests and doubtless the children too, for they all loved him and his teasings and jokings. They realised instinctively that he was, in a subtle way, one of themselves besides being their “father and mother”. He tended their ailments, supervised their education, encouraged their hobbies, minded their savings and interested himself in each one of them until he was launched in life. For similar reasons [he] was fond of both dogs and cats’.

Pum himself noted what he thought of as the ‘precociousness’ of these boys, that they were ‘little men of the world’, and he elaborated on his preference for their company, platonic or otherwise, in his poem, ‘Boy-Wife’:

When you see one whose pretty young spouse is

Clad as a lad in shirt coat and trowsies

You may be sure

He’d far rather she were.

Boy-lovers took terrible risks. After Sir Hector MacDonald, a hero at Omdurman but ‘given to quaint practices’, got caught in a train carriage in Ceylon with four Sinhalese boys in 1903, he shot himself. In 1922 Lewis Harcourt, ‘Loulou’, an ex-colonial secretary, made a pass at a teenage house guest who complained to his mother. ‘Loulou’, too, killed himself. They were by no means alone. Humphrey Spender recalled that Pum told him and Stephen a ‘strange story of a fellow medical officer who was the subject of an improvised court, where they asked him many questions until eventually extracting from him a confession of homosexuality. So they said “We will give you a service revolver and leave you alone. The thing is entirely in your hands”. Dreadful, they expected him to shoot himself.’

Before the mid-twentieth century, discretion seemed to be the accepted thing; being overt or getting caught was the danger. In a very unpopular move in the early 1930s, General Montgomery cracked down on the flourishing ‘fleshpots’ of Egypt. This was a man who denied himself sex, even during his ten-year marriage, despite or because of his tenderness for pre-pubertal boys, and these desires drove him to react against them in an exaggerated way. Many years later, in 1965, he attacked the Wolfenden proposals, suggesting that the age of consent be set at eighty. As with Gordon, mere looking at naked boys seemed to be as far as he could or would let himself go.

All these ‘men’s men’ were being boys together, and it has been often said that many of the great heroes of the Empire were essentially boy-men enjoying escapades. But it has also been argued they were ‘not well-adjusted personalities … many members of the ruling elite seem to have suffered degrees of emotional retardation’. Many were impoverished, even diminished, by the legal and moral codes of their day, in what Jeffrey Weeks calls the ‘construction of homosexuality’. With male-oriented love and sex banished from ‘normal’ life and experience, it came to be defined in a cultic and romantic way. Pum exhibited this - he was coy and, of course, cautious - he was interested in beauty and left florid descriptions of the boys and youths he cared for. This ‘most shocking’ self-discovery, he confided, had thrown all his ideas about friendship and love between men and women into a confusion best avoided. 

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