Advent Calendar 8th December 2011: Public baths part 1

London in 1917. Michael Davidson was 20 years old and hospitalised. When he got out, he discovered the London of “Q” – “elder brother of Lord Alfred Douglas”, a London where “only eccentrics went into public-houses – the word ‘pub’ had scarcely appeared”. The following passage is from page 90 (chapter 6) in The World, the Flesh and Myself:

When I left hospital, arm out of its sling, I began deliberately pursuing my secret wants. I didn’t look for boys ‘on the game’ – I hardly knew there were any; remembering the delights of boyhood bathing places, I started to explore London’s swimming baths – I’d slip away after lunch, making some suave excuse to Bertie or whomever it might be, and spend the afternoon till the evening’s drinking appointment at some borough pool. Because I had to wear uniform, I couldn’t go to the ‘2nd class’ baths in the poorer districts which I haunted in later years; but to the ‘first class’ in Westminster or Victoria where I wouldn’t look so out of place.

[…]

At that stage in my development, in 1917, I was less interested in doing than in seeing – or perhaps less daring than I became, and so largely contented myself with seeing. I discovered some swimming baths which amply supplied the needs of the voyeur I was becoming: generations of ‘dirty old men’, apparently, had systematically bored peep-holes through the wooden partitions between every dressing-box – observation posts which, to my knowledge, remained unaltered by the City Council for the next 30 years at least.

Mixed bathing, then, was still municipally considered indecorous; most baths were as a matter of course labelled ‘men and boys only’, and generally there were more boys than men.

What a complete reversal in the social conscience has occurred in these 40 years* – in the last ten or 20, indeed; and especially since the doctrinal inundation of the Montagu Case: the public awareness of homosexuality has become so general, the fear of a sexual fifth-column so publicized – a sort of English spectre of Alfred Krupp or Prince Eulenberg – that nowadays the bikini type of bisexual exhibitionism is almost desperately encouraged and the old ‘men and boys only’ has been given the savour of decadence.

To be continued!

*Keep in mind that Davidson wrote these words in 1962, and that another 50 years have passed since that. The ‘men and boys only’ period he describes thus occurred almost 100 years ago.

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