On Chaps and Their Cocks

7.20.2010

By James Kirchick

In his memoir, Christopher Hitchens comes clean on gay love affairs past.

In his vivid and deeply felt 1952 essay, 'Such, Such Were the Joys,' the great English essayist George Orwell recalled the ritual bullying of the young boys at his prep school at the hands of the headmaster. It's one of the most sobering accounts of British boarding school life ever written, and a powerful antidote for anyone who thinks the system superior to state education. But in the most revealing section, Orwell recalled sex 'always smoldering just under the surface' until confronted by the head teachers in the most public and exaggerated way: 'There were summonses, interrogations, confessions, floggings, repentances, solemn lectures of which one understood nothing except that some irredeemable sin known as 'swinishness' or 'beastliness' had been committed,' he wrote. 'One of the ringleaders, a boy named Horne, was flogged, according to eyewitnesses, for a quarter of an hour continuously before being expelled. His yells rang through the house.'

Fast-forward and it's another celebrated (and pilloried) essayist's turn to recall his youthful experiences of fraternal bonding at boarding school and beyond. Christopher Hitchens, coincidentally the author of a slim biography on Orwell, provides an updated account of adolescent orgies with rather less angst than his literary idol. 'The night was loud with the boasts and groans that resulted from this endless, and fairly evenly matched, single combat between chaps and their cocks,' he recalls of his all-male prep school in Hitch-22, his new memoir, adding, 'To even the dullest lad, furthermore, it would sometimes occur to think that self-abuse was slightly wasted on the self and might be better relished in mixed company.'

The revelations have stirred the hormones of the British press (some of whose elders may have crossed the young Hitchens's path, or, perhaps, his bedspread) and sparked a guessing game around his more significant confession that at Oxford University he slept with two men who would later serve in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. On its face, the fact that a member of Britain's literati once slept with other men is nothing new: It was a rite of passage long before Evelyn Waugh immortalized Oxford's particular kind of male love in Brideshead Revisited and by all accounts still is. But what made the media coverage so deliciously piquant was the inevitable guessing game about who those ministers were, especially given Thatcher's propensity for championing old-school morality and -- that dreaded phrase -- 'family values.'

'I just feel that all of this is relatively easy if you allow for the elasticity of human desire,' Hitchens says, mulling over a tomato and mozzarella salad at La Tomate, his favorite hangout in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle. A well-known casanova who has been married twice with children from each union, he resists naming the men, arguing that most men have done as much, and pretending otherwise is a waste of time. 'I do know some men who claim to find homosexual attraction unthinkable or impossible,' he says, a lit cigarette dangling from his hand, 'But they're a very small minority. It's very rare to find somebody who's pure [heterosexual], who either hasn't done or thought something.'

For Hitchens, the revelations were motivated less by publicity than principle. 'When I was deciding whether to put that stuff in Hitch-22 or not I made up my mind to include it because, even in an oblique form, it was a sort of solidarity,' he says. 'It'd be a good thing if more 'heterosexuals' made the same avowal, as I know a huge number of them can, or could.'

Tags: Art & Books
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