Scene from a public bath with shirtless boys, vintage photograph

Advent Calendar 10th December 2011: Public baths part 2 – the freedom of nudity

Let’s continue where we left off on the 8th December: The public baths in London, as experienced by Michael Davidson in 1917. Page 91 (chapter 6) in The World, the Flesh and Myself:

I became, as the years went by, an authority on the swimming-baths of London; I could have compiled a guide-book to them. They were as much the habitual playgrounds of youthful voluptuousness as any Roman or Greek bagni can have been; and very recently, notwithstanding the restringent vigilance of today’s ubiquitous authority, I’ve seen overt juvenile orgies that would have surprised any of our prevalent fetichists of moral welfare. What might surprise him more, is the argument – not perhaps outrageous when solemnly considered – that such behaviour among the young is, in a sense, moral welfare; though doubtless not the etymon from which acquiescent social discipline derives.

The exalting freedom of nudity, solitary or in company, releases naturally – not perversely – other freedoms, of the mind, the spirit and the body. A smooth, untimid, eruption of these freedoms, as natural as an errand-boy’s whistling, surely must lead to moral health (if that’s what moral means); their constriction, to deformities of the spirit.


Now and then there would be a brief, bewitching encounter in one of the dressing-boxes; but generally the delight was reticent and contemplative; and I’d go back exhilarated and mentally flushed to the evening’s drinking appointment. I remember one gathering in the Duke Street pied-à-terre that Bertie fleetingly had: one of his young woman friends, intuitively percipient, suddenly said: ‘There’s something fishy about Michael – I think he’s a woman-hater. I believe he likes little boys!’ Of course I roared with laughter; my double life had taken shape.

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