Just Who Are The Dilly Boys?

Romantic Guff leaves One Wondering

THE DILLY BOYS by Mervyn Harris. Croom Helm Ltd. £2.95

It is very hard to see what useful purpose this slight (and ludicrously overpriced) book serves. Mr Harris certainly tackles a difficult subject about which little is actually known, but about which much is conjectured. In the event he provides remarkably little information with which either to confirm or destroy our wildest conjectures. He seems to take no particular moral standpoint. This seems like praiseworthy objectivity until one notices how words like ‘corruption’, ‘deviant’ and ‘straight world’ creep in, all indicative of a certain attitude which would be better if properly expressed. And while his book is clearly destined to appear on mail-order lists and in the windows of shops like Sterlings, Mr Harris will disappoint those who wish vicariously to feed their buy-a-boy fantasies.

A grant from the Ninevah Trust enabled Mr Harris to work full-time on his research, so obviously he comes across, or trips full-length over, certain extremely relevant ideas and material which he either relegates to an aside, or avoids thinking about. And his field of operation is certainly too narrow for the breadth of his comments.

Front cover and photographs: Toni Ranz. Front cover and photograph without blacked out face is posed by a model.

The field of operation is precisely enough stated: “Male prostitution on Piccadilly”. Sounds exciting until one realises just how limited this is (not to say inaccurate, since it is one corner of Piccadilly Circus and a few cafes, arcades and clubs in Soho he is talking about, certainly not the elegant stretches between Fortnums and Green Park).

So what it boils down to is that our researcher has got to know a few hustlers who hang over the meat rack at the end of the Quadrant, has talked to them, gained a certain degree of confidence and written it all down. The form of the book is apparently logical starting with how boys become hustlers, moving through aspects of the game to leaving the Dilly. Clearly there is little enough to say about this particular group of boys as such and consequently we get some really vague pseudo-sociological comment and real cop-outs like this: “The world of the boys to a large extent revolves around sex where human nature and human desires are seen in all their varied manifestations, the grotesque, the sadistic, the masochistic and, some venture to say, the sublime’.

I mean, really!

This is just romantic guff. Some thirteen years ago Simon Raven published an essay The Male Prostitute In London in Encounter. Harris’s worried, worthy tone is, of course, a stranger to Raven who accepts and smiles knowingly over his brandy. But in that comparatively brief essay, Raven packs in exactly the same information and, indeed, the same conclusions. And the entertainment value is, naturally, much greater. Consider Harris on the clients, offering us mysterious and vague information about men with one leg and someone with a fetish for hair. Consider Raven on clients: “…the clients wear one face only, a face which can never change. For it is the face of a currency note, always as beautiful, however faded and wrinkled, as when dew-fresh from the Mint.” Harris knows this and says it in many strangulated ways.

But if he is seriously going to describe the motivation of the man who seeks a male whore then he has got to do much better than his few random quick sketches.

Actually, as one reaches the end of the book one begins to wonder whether Mr Harris has been writing about male prostitutes at all. “It is my contention that the values of the Dilly boys are an extension of the values inherent in the larger society, only carried to a further extreme. The boys want a greater share of the goods produced by society but are corrupted by their situation.”

So what has happened really is that we have been reading about a few young lads, all of whom seem to have left homes in Scotland or the industrial midlands, found themselves rootless and homeless in central London and have tumbled to an unorthodox way of earning some money. Which is maybe why Mr Harris is vague on the two basic subjects – prostitution and homosexuality. He never seems to be regarding his boys as male prostitutes at all, but as a small (very small) section of a certain class of youngsters. This seems to me to be issue-evading.

On the question of the homosexuality of both boys and clients, Mr Harris is always ambiguous. He makes a major point of what he calls the code of conduct which consists of doing, and not doing, certain sexual things: it seems that cock-sucking is all right, but that anal intercourse is all wrong. This code is a self-protective device to enable the boys (and sometimes the clients) to assure themselves that they are not really gay at all. We hear, for example, of a newcomer to the game who allowed himself to be fucked several times before his peers informed him that this wasn’t done.

Yet we are never actually told what does go on in the hotel bedrooms, smart flats and dingy rooms that the pairs hive off to, And one wonders if, in fact, Mr Harris himself has not accepted the code too much at face value. With such a paucity of evidence on the subject it is impossible to establish the facts of the matter. And this book should do precisely that, not leave one wondering.

We also learn nothing about the physical self-perception of the boys. This too is important (if one is writing about male prostitutes, that is). How clean they are; are special efforts made to present themselves as fresh and attractive; how much of their earnings do they spend on clothes/cosmetics (ie talc, aftershave, shampoo etc); what about crabs and VD? If in fact these are low priorities (we are told that when the boys do score it is almost compulsive that they spend their cash quickly and Mr Harris only hints at beer, coffee and pin tables) then it kind of devalues some of his other suggestions that part of the appeal of the boys is their fresh youth.

“The excessive premium most homosexuals tend to place on youthfulness enhances the I attraction of the boys for the customers who come from all strata and classes in society”. Now there is a deal of truth in this, but also a deal of misapprehension. I don’t think I would agree that most homosexuals place an excessive premium on youthfulness. And though I know that an unlovely, middle-aged woman might well be a successful prostitute and an unlovely middle-aged can’t be, it remains true that hets about town do gravitate towards those cat houses where the girls are young and lovely. And if, as I feel, the boys are undernourished, scruffy and dirty, then the remark about youthfulness seems irrelevant. Mr Harris seems to have just about the usual tolerant/understanding type views of gayness, but again, the above statement implies that the clients are all homosexual. I think this is a dubious assumption. There are many possible reasons why a man who perceives himself (and who Mr Harris perceives) as conventionally straight might buy a boy. (I am aware that since the contact is that of two males then in actual terms it is a homosexual one). And I would suggest that bi-sexuality is one of them; also the feeling that infidelity on a fleeting level with a bought boy is less dangerous to the psyche than direct infidelity with a woman.

If one is looking for well-researched facts, one isn’t going to find ammunition here. I was continually reminded of Laud Humphrey’s Tearoom Trade. Bearing in mind that Humphrey’s methods were possibly ethically suspect, he nevertheless faced his subjects fearlessly and drew some conclusions that were very useful indeed, especially relating to the meaning, and the incidence, of casual male sexual contact among men not regarded as homosexual.

The implications of male prostitution itself are hardly dealt with here – that is the deeply anti-social concept that a man should sell his sex which is conventionally the exclusive priority of the female. Consideration of this would be far more useful than trite remarks about people wanting more than their fair share of the world’s goods.

That hustlers are street people essentially is another interesting aspect, implied but never thought out. This book does accept this idea and there are passages that indicate clearly the sort of bonding between people who live on their wits and in the streets. But one feels this is accidental.

Here and there some useful points are made. That the laws now relating to homosexuality confuse everyone, for example. And that – as opposed to the case of the female prostitute – in the case of male prostitution it is the client that would be charged, not the hustler. It is also made clear that though boys are occasionally busted it is never for soliciting, but for other reasons – drugs perhaps, or petty crime. And Harris also makes a firm statement about corruption when he writes: “Boys are not coerced or compelled to submit to the advances of an adult. There is great doubt whether there is such a thing as corrupting a minor, and most of the boys who are sought, themselves seek.”

This may be the sort of thing some of us would like to hear, but like everything else in the book, it must be taken cautiously. No doubt that once on the game, this is true. But earlier Mr Harris does demonstrate how easy it is to get on the game and indeed how some boys do so almost accidentally (that is, accepting offers of hospitality from strange men without realising the implications). If this experience leads to an awareness of an easy way to make a living, then that could be argued as a sort of compulsion.

Writing in The Times last month, a woman police sergeant of the Juveniles Squad which operates in Soho, had this to say:

“If they are young lads (ie absconders, missing children) men will start speaking to them, take them back to their homes and be nice to them. These boys are usually naive, and often accept. The man demands something more of them. Eventually, they put these lads on the streets as male prostitutes, and they give the men part of their earnings. Their ages range from 14 upwards. Many of these boys end up as permanent homosexuals…”

The WPS must know what she’s talking about, but her evidence has no support in Mervyn’Harris’s book; in fact he makes a point that the boys insist on their independence, and freedom of operations. (One might also wonder, in passing, how a young woman of 24 can be so definite in her statement that many boys end up as “permanent homosexuals”.) In his final chapter, Harris gives pretty strong indications that the boys, when they have left the Dilly “come to some sort of terms with the world as they grow into adulthood and drift back into the straightworld.” Simon Raven drew a similar conclusion in his view of the street hustler.

The book is easy to read and occasionally entertaining; but it never arouses anger, pity or fear. And its information will only be new to those who never realised that male prostitution existed in the first place. No index; books mentioned in the text but no bibliography.

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