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The fugitive tenderness: love between men. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
The fugitive tenderness: love between men.




And then I went up to university. 


There was by now a change of tide: one could feel the undertow.  The apparent price of the Coming Dawn of Liberation was to be, one could already discern, a hardening of the lines, a new regime of labels and identity politics.


Fortunately, that day was not quite yet.


I was still somewhat hampered by appearances.  Standing in at just at (well, very nearly) five and one-half feet in height (Brussels and the meretricious metric mob can sod right off), a trifle over eight stone, just eighteen years in age, with a floppy mop that, with sun and season, ranged from straw to red-gold and eyes the precise colour – I am not, unfortunately, jesting – of cornflowers (I was once, years later, stopped, in town, by a rent-boy, who told me, ‘Never wear glasses, love, them eyes’re yer best feature, sleep wif yer m’self gratis, mince lahk that’) … well, let’s be honest, it was going to be difficult, all sorts.  Many of you will recall from your Freshers’ Weeks the sorting and grading that goes on, as everyone sizes everyone else up (and do bear in mind that in my day, hen colleges were hen colleges and men’s colleges were men’s colleges): everyone sizes everyone up socially, intellectually, and sexually, taking in details ranging from tailoring to luggage, accoutrements, parental conveyances for those who didn’t take a sensible train, and what not.  I had realised that E-G was quite right: I didn’t at all wish to be the college tart, any more than I had been the house or form tart at school.  I also well knew that I didn’t wish to continue frustrated, forever chivalrously protected from my own wants.  A middle station, I concluded, one admitting of serial singular attachments, had much to commend it.


It was therefore important to establish at the outset a firm line, neither hearty nor exquisite and æsthetic.  (Waifish, well-tailored blond cherubs of an artistic, literary, and musical bent tend to end up in Mercury on a rather too regular basis, or did in those days, even if not open about their sexualities.)


This was not to be.  A beneficent fate (aided, I make quite certain in retrospect, by various mortals, through no doing of mine own and without my being in the least consulted) had so arranged things that I should spend my first year in Bachelor’s Row, my second, living out, and my third Peckishly, in a magnificent corner room, with never a need to set foot Meadows-ward.  In consequence, I found myself immediately cheek by jowl with Holsworthy; the aquatic and taciturn young Plumstead, an aloof if friendly enough Apollo; one of the Kelvin Twins, insane rugger-bugger budding medics and sons of a celebrated surgeon; Juniper, the line-spinner, a decent and attractive chap enough save for his appallingly naked ambition and insincerity; the utterly gorgeous Robin Crathie, with whom I fell hopelessly and bootlessly in love, to my own great injury; stern, sensible Herron, whose grave lies afar, killed in the desert in ’91; with the feckless Thaw; with Oldroyd, large and fleshy and profoundly deaf, and his lifelong friend and occasional interpreter, Paget, the rowing godling.


Assessments.  Initial judgments.  Books, equipment, impedimenta, Things to Put On Walls.  Plumstead is easily categorised: Service family (RN, in fact), second son, family took The Times and the Telegraph and the Economist, Low Church, intellectually incurious, serious about sailing, swims religiously.  Kelvin One: engagingly mad, clever and hiding it, shall get a First without apparent effort, all whilst being concerned chiefly to appear as a madcap hearty; bog-standard décor, juvenilia, conspicuous absence of any religious iconography, much sporting clobber: the sharp-eyed would note various libertarian works hidden away and a huge Rush poster (suggested leitmotif for both Kelvin Twins: ‘Freewill’).  Juniper: smarmy, a climber, effortlessly successful hitherto in rather a small pond and now bricking it; not clever, not as hearty as he pretends, brought a guitar, and is clearly no stranger to cannabis.  (Need I mention which of these new acquaintances was eventually to be put on the – admittedly rather a lowly – bench?)  Herron, my size, more of a bantam and a gamecock than I am, born to be what he became, namely, an officer in HM Jollies: utterly Spartan.  Thaw, a nonentity, who would not last the term, minded only to drink and get high and pester women.  Oldroyd, necessarily bookish, gentle, and shrewd; the inseparable Paget, his shadow.  Men, as may have been noted, compartmentalise.  I could deal with each of these on one basis or another: Oldroyd and I were bookish together, and he was a cricket fan as well.  Fortunately, Plumstead golfed.  Kelvin One and I should argue politics.  Juniper would exert himself to be agreeable.  Herron ran whilst I rambled, but we both rode, and we were both interested in history.  Thaw could be disregarded.  Paget was disposed to be friends with anyone who was sincerely well-disposed towards Oldroyd, and had, rather surprisingly, some common interests with me in wine and food.


That left Crathie and Holsworthy.  Holsworthy was a laughing, cheerful ginger from my own country, and fond of his drink; he was also, I found with consternation, an acolyte.  My acolyte.  There are few things less calculated to starting over anew than to be greeted immediately and loudly by a chap who was at a rival school, followed some of one’s same pursuits, and considered one an exemplar in them: ‘Hullo!  It’s Wemyss, isn’t it?  You won’t recall me: Holsworthy, of ––––––.  Saw you at –––––––––– ….’  Flattering, but squirm-making.  And the gorgeous Crathie: of no mean family, but more than genteelly poor, Kirk-haunted, and utterly at sea.  My own protective instincts were immediately engaged, quite as much as my desires.  Disaster was implicit in that from the first.


And of course, all these and others were sizing me up as well.  The decanter and glasses, the oil paintings of hounds and horses, stags and game birds, the cigars and pipes and tobacco jar (and snuff-box), the bespoke wardrobe, the breeches and boots, the shooting paraphernalia, the books, the classical music (this was before the CD, you will recall), the violin case, the home comforts (tattersall sheets: I ask you), the fly-rod….  I was dripping with sheer side, I know that.  I was also well-camouflaged, able to move effortlessly between hearty and æsthete, and to avoid labels and assumptions.  Only a few of the dons, perhaps, and the all-seeing and all-knowing porter and scouts, were not deceived: they knew us to the innermost fibre in a glance, for they had seen us all before.


I cannot blame Holsworthy, or any of my unsolicited acolytes who came after, for queering my pitch and putting paid to a new start before it began.  I was still, after all, my ain sel’: shy, pre-emptively combative in defence of that shyness, utterly incapable of getting the simple quotidian social relations right.  It is notoriously true that, as early as one’s prepper, lads who grow up to be bent tend to gather together, all unknowing (and I am amongst the anecdotal evidence, as my two closest friends in those days of infant treble innocence were Cuthbertson and Evans-Russell, both of whom turned out as gay as I, just as I later found that two of my university acolytes came noisily out of their closets as they approached thirty).  It is equally true that I tended to congregate with other eccentrics, or happy monomaniacs.


Recall, please, that men compartmentalise their friendships.  I treasure these that I recall for you.


Jamie the Auk – inevitably, given his Scots surname, so called, and despite his size and gentle demeanour, never called ‘the Ox’ – had stepped out of the Orkneyinga Saga, flaxen-haired, sea-storm-eyed, alabaster-carved, fourteen stone of thews and muscles.  His one abiding interest – he had no interest, I may add, in me, sexually, or in lads at all, sexually – his one abiding interest was the breeding, raising, and showing of Welsh Springer Spaniels.  Inevitably, we became cordial, given my passion for field sports and my own familiarity with the Fancy.[1]  He was kind, and gentle, and soft-spoken, as a man wants to be who works with gundogs.  And when I was stressed, he would, of mere kindness, with infinite patience gentle me, holding me until I was still once more.  It was a point of pride with me that I never contrived this, or easily revealed my stress, in hopes of taking advantage of his incredible kindness.


There were others, also, never amounting to a great deal or a great passion – the need for discretion, the encroaching iron regime of identity politics that was putting all the old freedom of the 1970s aside, and other factors, all militated against it – ending, I think, for many of us, in a university-years phase in which our emotional entanglements were largely innocent or physically hampered, whilst we tricked, cottaged, and otherwise disported ourselves in contexts devoid of real intimacy.  Sex was largely rutting, a quick one behind the fives court; emotions were trapped in a Forsterian amber.  A few years before, this might have been harmful only morally and psychologically.  In the period 1980 – 1983, it was, unbeknownst to us, incredibly dangerous.


My shyness, discretion, and utter obliviousness to (or inevitable misreading of) social signals preserved me from risking my life in this manner, although it obviously and necessarily also made for an extremely modest pull record.


Yet not altogether. 


There were kindly moments, in which the young Wemyss, impossibly pink and white, a trifle over-eager beneath the studied languor, found grace of another: cheeky, cheerful grammar school lads, porcelain princelings, the young grandee whose curiosity as to my courteous care, in acting his sister’s walker at a Commem. ball, he suddenly satisfied in an access of courage by kissing me without warning.


And most of all, there was Rowland-Allanson – a distant cousin, as it transpired, as I’ve Allanson connexions on my mother’s side.  He was – in the great tradition of compartmentalisation – a friend of a friend of sweet Jamie the Auk.  I am not quite sure how this came about, for Rowland-Allanson had but one hobby, one study, one interest, and that all-encompassing.  Pleasure.


Denys Rowland-Allanson was aptly christened.  He was tall and perfectly formed; he laughingly protested – Denys was ever laughing – that he was ‘but a lad from Scunthorpe’, which was mischievous; he made Scunthorpe seem a fantastic California to have produced him, honey-skinned, honey-blond of flowing locks.  Pleasure had softened him: he was Antinous; he was, more pertinently, Dionysos, of whom Antinous was but a shadow.  A slight softening, a touch of the overripe, made him just the least bit androgynous, perhaps; more to the point, it made him human and accessible, attainable to mere mortals.


Many of his pleasures were not mine.  He approved: he warned me against his greater vices, noting that if I tried to drug the way I drank, I should swiftly die; yet he himself did not drug heavily, thank heaven, refusing to ruin his sensations, his palate, and his health.  (The fates that that sad doppelganger of Tom Felton, young Bismarck, and his acquaintance, knew, were not for Denys.)  He confined himself mostly to – frankly – spliff.  And beer, and all my short- and long-drink indulgences.  And, always, sex.  Denys was not gay, or straight, or bisexual, or anything save pansexual.  He was safe and clean, before it was necessary or fashionable to be: again, he was so devoted to pleasure and sensation that he wished never to dull it unnecessarily with needless risk. 


He twitted me for my literal allergy to even the residual smell of cannabis.  Yet he accommodated me, in that as in all my foibles (it was Denys who said, acutely, ‘You don’t drug because you think it infra dig., darling: you’re not a moral paragon, you’re a Wine Committee snob’), never using around me.  His pursuit of hêdonê, of voluptas, was such that I nor any one person could truly be his lover; yet he loved, fiercely and freely and fairly, merrily.  I doubt he could count – it would not have occurred to him to count: he should have found it distasteful – the number of lads and lasses he slept with; but I never heard that any of us repined of it or were disappointed of the experience.


If I speak with evident fondness of sweet Denys, it is because it is due him, for he was my Dionysos, my Eleutherios, my liberator.  Not sexually; rather, Denys taught me joy as such, what it meant to silence or quiet my incessant self-criticism and to enjoy even the simple and quotidian, the Betjemanic, things.  I was born with a strong streak of simple sensuality – not primarily sexual – an appreciation of colour and line, of poetry and music; but it was all-giving Denys who freed me from being forever the critic in the stalls.


That he and I should have spent more than a moment in one another’s company was at first blush surprising, not to say miraculous; yet it was fundamentally right that we should do.  Deeply injured as I had been, and prickly and defensive with it, by and after the disaster of my unrequited passion for Robin Crathie, it took someone on the order of sweet Denys to reach me.  We shared a direct appreciation of the things of the senses, eye and ear and palate; and he was kind enough to say, and to make me to believe, that he enjoyed my mind and wit.  He was certainly as clever as I, and of the sort to earn a good second in place of a superficial and trumpery first, and to distinguish the two.


Above all, he was giving, generous.  He lent me some of his wildness when I was in want of it.  He inculcated in me a refusal to compromise – and to accept labels.  He taught me to play; to improvise.  His edges softened yet clearly there, his slight over-ripeness, autumnal, Dionysian, the fruit at the cusp of fermentation, soothed me and healed me when I was direly in want of it.  I had always – and yet do, but now knowingly, freely chosen – I had always found it more blissful to receive than to give: yet Denys, my liberator, uncaring of roles and labels, of his charity rode me to copious mutual delight one verdant afternoon, in the frail privacy of a canopy of oak and leaf-dapple and shade, some fifty yards from a concourse of persons of consequence, forcing me to cast away caution and the conventions that, though I prize them, had come to strangle me, his larger and exquisite frame above me, his hair falling around us as a glory, offering himself with a freedom and abandon I envied then as now.  Sharp as a Hilliard miniature, rich as a Gauguin, light welling from Vermeer’s deft brush, I can still see a detail that will always be with me, until I die: removed from all associations, shorn of all desire, I yet see the perfect play of light, the perfect form and line and colour, of the swell of Denys’s left buttock, that perfect cushioned globe, golden and biscuit-coloured, gleaming with the sheen of sweat and lubrication, against the myriad greens of leaf and turf: even as a purely abstract æsthetic memory, he is forever unforgettable.


Denys stands, then, a culmination, an epitome, of the generous and kindly youths of my youth: E-G and Blanchard, Jamie the Auk, Denys himself, and so many others, gay, straight, indifferent, fiercely male yet graced with a fugitive tenderness, whom I loved, and who kindly allowed me, physically or not, to love them a little, and loved me in their ways in return.  There was much that was ill-done in those years.  Yet I look back upon these lads with whom I was a lad with tenderness, with gratitude, and with an awed love for their hidden sweetness in a bitter world.


These are the memories I have held close in my illness in the week now past.


[1] http://wemyss.livejournal.com/168131.html#cutid1


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3 comments or Leave a comment
17catherines From: 17catherines Date: August 6th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC) (Link)
I hope you don't mind me saying that I have found these last two essays of yours very sweet.


wemyss From: wemyss Date: August 6th, 2009 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)

Mind, love? Not at all.

I'm simply grateful you've read the damned things, I was beginning to fear they'd be amongst my orphans.
17catherines From: 17catherines Date: August 7th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Mind, love? Not at all.

You're very good at bringing a time and place to life.

And, while the era is different, you're reminding me strangely of Peter Wimsey.
3 comments or Leave a comment