Boys will be boys

The Poisoned Bowl Alisdare Hickson Constable £14.95
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The Independent Culture
Sociologist and writer Alisdare Hickson has inadvertently compiled the funniest book of the year. He wrote to 5,000 distinguished personages trawled from the pages of Debrett's and Who's Who, asking for their memories of homosexual encounters at public school. Some returned the letters defaced with remarks like "bugger off" and "you prurient shit . . . at my school you would have been done." Other were happy to reminisce.

Until about 1860, schoolboys were allowed to fondle each other in peace. Master-pupil relationships too could be passionate - Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India and sampler of dusky boys, gave his former teacher, Oscar Browning, an OBE as a mark of their friendship. Then Victorianism struck. One headmaster developed "an unerring eye for the unwholesome boy." Three such unwholesome boys were G K Chesterton, Quentin Crisp and Rupert Brooke. Somerset Maugham, ever contrary, fell in love with the headmaster.

One correspondent recalls three sex education pep talks: one when new, warning him to "avoid older boys", one when 16 to "avoid younger boys", and one when leaving school "telling us to stay away from Piccadilly Circus". Another contributor was told not to wear a school tie "when bent on extra- marital sex". Lord Falkland, when at Wellington, remembers his housemaster "pointing and poking" at his pet bulldog's genitals when explaining sex to the bewildered pupils.

General Sir Hugh Beach (who "has contributed chapters to several books on nuclear proliferation") confesses "I masturbated with six other boys . . . homosexuality at Winchester did me no harm". Rear Admiral John Hervey recalls an urge to grab his squash partner and the Archdeacon of Tonbridge owns up to several "pashes".

The combination of fumbling, nascent sexuality and the promise of executive power is irresistibly comic. When the future managing director of the Financial Times has an assignation with the future governor of Malta, cue the canned laughter. More sinisterly, Lord Campbell of Eskan remembers lunching one day with the board of a famous clearing bank. He found himself sitting next to a man who, as an older pupil at the same school, had raped him when he was a new boy. "We did not remind each other," notes Lord Campbell. Such good breeding.

How comforting to know that "Voice of Reason" Woodrow Wyatt cradled the testicles of a 15-year-old; that Alan Ayckbourn was "a sort of Cyrano figure", writing love letters on behalf of other boys; that Ranulph Fiennes had his bottom persistently pinched; that Ludovic Kennedy sent billets- doux to a red-head chum; that David Owen was called "Dahlia"; that Peter Tatchell's recent talk at Eton resulted in him selling several "Queer as Fuck" T-shirts to sixth-formers.

The best contributions are from those who now identify themselves as gay; these are refreshingly free from humbug, though often rather sad. Heterosexual boys have always lustily enjoyed each other's bodies, if no girls are available. Timid gay boys have never found it so easy to lose their in-hibitions. One terrible account records a boy being given electric aversion therapy to cure his tendencies. And when one hears that "at Oundle, younger boys were not supposed to smile in the presence of a senior", one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

No doubt there are still boys "gamming" in the shoe- corridor, or "cherubing" "tarts" in the corps sheds. Hyacinthine desires still proliferate, however many phonelines Esther Rantzen sets up. Public schoolboys will always condemn in others what they do themselves in secret. This is why they become such good politicians and journalists. Public school homosexuality must surely join John Major's cricket on the village green as one of those quintessentially British things.