Mostly harmless

At the LRB blog, Bernard Porter reminisces:

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. … They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps).

One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

This prompted a memory which I’ve never written about before. It wasn’t so much submerged, let alone repressed, as ignored; not in a locked cupboard of memory but in plain sight on a neglected shelf. I’ve never told anyone about it, but there’s a lot on those shelves that I’ve never told anyone about – the time the electricity meter broke, the time I nearly didn’t see Douglas Adams, the time we found the funniest line in Shakespeare… As a rule I haven’t told anyone because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But maybe this one is worth bringing out.

So. Quite soon after I went up to Cambridge in 1979, I received an invitation to breakfast with Dr Pars, one of the college’s two resident retired fellows; the story was that the college had done away with lifetime residence and dining privileges several years earlier, but that Pars and one other don had hung on to theirs and were determined to exercise them to the last (as indeed they did). Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends, ‘Pars’ to everyone else – was 83 at the time.

Pars, anyway, entertained me and another undergraduate to breakfast in his rooms; I gathered on the grapevine that he was working his way through the first year intake. It was a civilised but not particularly comfortable occasion. The other student was a woman – the college had just started admitting women – and Pars seemed very solicitous in pressing food on her (“I do hate it when people die of hunger at my breakfasts”); she was rather posh and was very gracious with him. I remember there was a fruit course, complete with appropriate cutlery; I ate a banana with a knife and fork, which was fun at least. Then there was a second breakfast invitation, for me and another undergraduate (another man this time); he was a third-generation student at the college, and Pars had known his father (and quite possibly his grandfather). This somehow led to a theatre outing for the three of us (Frederic Raphael’s From the Greek). When Pars sent me an invitation to afternoon tea in his rooms – just me this time – I thought things were looking up. The cakes were nice, the tea was good quality and Pars confided that he too preferred China to India; it was all very civilised.

In retrospect it looks very much like a selection process, but nothing of the sort occurred to me at the time. The breakfasts – and the play – were rather a bore, but having a (very) senior don take an interest in one and serve one China tea in his rooms… well, I was on the Left, but I wasn’t immune to this kind of thing; I’d read a bit of Dornford Yates in my youth and always thought it sounded like fun, the fox-hunting apart.

Then I got a letter from Pars, saying that he’d previously sent me an invitation to the Club (or possibly The Club) and been disappointed to have no reply – but, “as an invitation to the Club was not the kind of invitation one refuses”, he would expect me anyway. Date, time, place – it may even have been at the Master’s Lodge – guest of honour so-and-so, dress lounge suit. (I don’t know if the lost invitation was some sort of ploy or if Pars forgot to send it. There’s very little chance of it actually having got lost, en route from one side of the college to the other.)

Now, I’d never heard of The Club – I’ve never heard of it since, come to that – and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But I thought it sounded appropriately privileged and inner-circle-ish, and I thought I’d give it a go; I was also slightly concerned about the potential ramifications of refusing, given that this was not the kind of invitation one refuses. My main worry was establishing what a lounge suit was, and – once I’d worked that one out – checking that I looked OK in one of the old suits my father had presciently given me before I went up. (I’d had them altered to fit my measurements, which at the time included a 28″ waist. I didn’t get much wear out of them.)

It was all very new and mysterious. I wrote, asking for advice, to a family friend named Keith – the son of a friend of my mother’s, to be precise. He wasn’t a personal friend – he was nine years older, a daunting gap at that age – but he’d graduated from the same college a few years earlier with a degree in archaeology, and had been very helpful when I was about to go up. I wanted to check out what I was getting into, and possibly show off a bit (“been invited to this thing called The Club, whatever that is…”). He replied, “I wouldn’t worry, Pars is pretty harmless these days.” Worry? Pretty harmless these days? I knew what Keith was – what he must be – referring to, but the thought had never crossed my mind until that moment; I hadn’t been worrying, but I was now (pretty harmless, these days?). What kind of ‘Club’ was this?

Keith was living at home at the time, in between research trips centred on shipwrecks, so I was able to ring him and ask what, precisely, he was saying about Pars. He laughed it off – oh, there were stories, you know… I didn’t know. Oh, you know… choirboys running screaming from his room in a state of undress… It’s all a while ago now – I mean, he’s an old man! I should go, it’ll be fine. Talking to Keith – who was a lovely bloke – reassured me greatly, even though he was actually confirming my suspicions. I rang my mother; she was rather brisk, and said that at this stage I was probably going to have to go, but pointed out that if necessary I could always make my excuses and leave.

So I went. It was a piano recital; there was assorted seating dotted around a rather large (and well-lit) room, there were twenty or thirty people, and I think there was wine. Looking around, I could see that the company was mostly male, but not entirely; some of my more lurid fears dropped away. I could also see that everyone else there was in their thirties or over; I was the only student. I didn’t recognise anyone, with one inevitable exception: Pars. He was sitting on a sofa, and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. The pianist was introduced and began to play – some classical piece that I didn’t recognise. I noticed Pars nodding and tapping his foot to the rhythm of the piece; I thought this was surprisingly uncultured and concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying the music. Then I noticed his hand, which was on my thigh, just above my knee. He let it rest there for a while then squeezed, as if he was assessing the meat on a cow’s hindquarters. Then he patted my knee a couple of times, and left his hand there.

After the recital I made straight for the door. The Club seemed to be a perfectly innocuous cultural society, and perhaps it really was a privilege to be invited; I hadn’t actually been molested as such, either – nothing had happened. All the same, I had had my leg fondled in public – and, what was worse, Pars had effectively shown me off to the assembled company as his latest (potential) conquest. It was a deeply humiliating experience, and I wanted no more of it. Happily, Pars didn’t pursue me – literally or metaphorically – and I never had anything to do with him again.

I wasn’t angry, though, so much as ashamed; the indignity had been forced on me, but it felt as if the resultant shame was all mine. Shame led to guilt and self-reproach – why didn’t I say no? why hadn’t I said no before? why did he pick me – was there something about me? I told my parents and friends about what had happened (I don’t think I said anything to Keith), but the idea of reporting Pars in some way never occurred to me, and if it had I would have dismissed it. After all, what could I accuse him of? What had actually happened, really? No bones broken, eh? And I’d done all right out of it, hadn’t I? Poor old Pars, he’s harmless enough, it’s sad really when you think about it… So people would have said – or so we thought people would say – back in the 1970s. Even writing about it now, my initial impulse was to change names and details, to protect the… well. So hard to think of it as something that he should have been ashamed of, not me; so hard to think of it as something to feel angry about, not guilty.

Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends – died in 1985, aged 89. The saddest part of the story is that he outlived Keith, the maritime archaeologist. Keith died in 1980, aged 29. He’d just surfaced from a dive in a Scottish loch and was standing in shallow water in a ‘hard’, pressurised diving suit, with the helmet off. A freak wave knocked him off his feet, the suit filled up and he couldn’t get back to his feet; he drowned in four feet of water. Although I never knew him well, I still think of Keith from time to time – I’ve never forgotten him and hope I never will. I’ve never forgotten Pars, either, but I live in hope.




  1. Posted 19 March 2016 at 14:03 | Permalink | Reply

    From the U.S. these customs seem alien and remarkable; I was faced with scoutmasters and Catholic priests instead (and theater teachers). As long as homosexuality wasn’t named, the system permitted all kinds of behavior that seem both obvious and predatory to the contemporary mind.

  2. Olivier
    Posted 20 March 2016 at 00:03 | Permalink | Reply

    Maybe the contemporary mind is the problem.

    • Phil
      Posted 21 March 2016 at 09:32 | Permalink | Reply

      If we were talking about something which only looks abusive in a narrow 21st-century mindset – in particular, something which everyone involved was fine about at the time – you’d have a point. But everyone involved was far from fine about it. I was warned – in a jokey way, but the warning itself was genuine enough. I was worried beforehand – one of the reasons I went was anxiety about potential repercussions if I didn’t. And I was deeply unhappy about it afterwards. The difference between the ‘contemporary mind’ and the way I thought then is that in 1979 my unhappiness took the form of shame and guilt. Contemporary Phil – having thought about it for some time – is rather angry.

  3. Posted 21 March 2016 at 09:19 | Permalink | Reply

    The contemporary mind is certainly ‘a’ problem but not, I think, ‘the’ problem, at least when it comes to the free rein certain pedophile cohorts enjoyed in generations not so recently past.

  4. Olivier
    Posted 21 March 2016 at 11:17 | Permalink | Reply

    @RobotBoy, Your comment rather proves my point: a college-age young man is no child and fondling him, however questionable, is not pedophilia. Nowadays we see sexual predators and tewwowists behind every bush and under every bed, which I think epitomizes what is wrong with our times. It’s true there were back then real cases of institutional pedophila that were ignored but this isn’t one of them. I’d much rather have a fondling here and there than witch hunts like the Outreau affair and unfortunately a middle ground does not seem to exist.

    @Phil, I don’t mean in a mean way but while the story is revealing of the times I think your feelings of shame then say more about yourself than about the Zeigeist: a 83-old ruin engaging in such behaviour in public is extremely vulnerable to ridicule. Had you for instance smiled in a knowing way and patted his hand, I’m pretty sure the joke would have been on him, even in 1979. I was myself born in 1964, by the way, so I am only slightly younger than you.

    • Phil
      Posted 21 March 2016 at 15:29 | Permalink | Reply

      Olivier, you’ve gone from suggesting my present-day reaction is misplaced to suggesting my reaction at the time was misplaced and that I mishandled the whole incident. You haven’t challenged my veracity, but I’m sure you’ll get round to that if I let you. Please go and troll someone else.

  5. metatone
    Posted 23 March 2016 at 07:56 | Permalink | Reply

    It was a different time, but the school I went to had a teacher who “common knowledge” put warnings out about to every new boy who joined the school… Looking back, you wonder…

    • Martin Wisse
      Posted 1 April 2016 at 06:55 | Permalink | Reply

      The problem is of course those boys who didn’t share in that “common knowledge” for one reason or another.

    • Phil
      Posted 1 April 2016 at 11:45 | Permalink | Reply

      Common knowledge only gets you so far, in any case. I remember two teachers who used to threaten us (13- and 14-year-old boys) with corporal punishment: a rather Brian Sewell-ish history teacher who used to brandish his slipper at us (actually a gym shoe) and a large and overbearing physics teacher whose weapon of choice was a polythene rod. I only remember seeing either of them carry out the threat once; they probably did it once per year group, just to keep the threat alive. Anyway, common knowledge told us that the physics teacher was absolutely definitely gay and had a thing for teenage boys; he knew he had this reputation and played up to it, in a Childcatcher-ish sort of way. All this despite the fact that he was married with two kids, one of whom was actually in my year. As for the history teacher, all that common knowledge said about him was that he was a bit weird. And the story of the swimming session he’d supervised, when he’d insisted that the boys swam in the nude – well, I told you he was weird…

      Common knowledge’s gaydar wasn’t so great, in other words. But it was all a bit hypothetical, as we saw it then. This wasn’t that long after Wolfenden; the thought of identifiable people actually being gay – even the thought that Larry Grayson or Kenneth Williams actually was gay – was so shocking that we’d automatically dismiss it. Even when the rumour went round that a third teacher “lives with a big German called Horst” we treated it as the stuff of rumour, not as a statement of fact – which in retrospect it probably was.

  6. suntlegion
    Posted 6 April 2016 at 09:23 | Permalink | Reply

    I read the article back on 18 March from the LRB link, and wondered whether to comment or not, then decided to come back in a few weeks to see whether my reaction would be better expressed by someone else.
    Didn’t happen.
    So – talk to a woman about what happened to you, and it will be the exceptional one that will not be able to understand completely your discomfort, your confusion, your reaction, and the whole self-shaming and shaming.
    The powerlessness because there should be some rules but what are they, who enforces them, how do you get them enforced. The anger because this should not be happening – not to me, not to anyone, not ever.
    As for the idea that it is all a bit overdone, that we are all a bit too sensitive – as far as I am concerned – bring on the sensitivity, recognise abuse and privilege and stop the victim blaming.

  7. suntlegion
    Posted 13 April 2016 at 09:19 | Permalink | Reply

    And so a week later.
    “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nichst anderes tun.”
    The trolls have gone.
    I hope that it gives you fortitude.
    Should we try to sell them a bridge?

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