Monday, November 26, 2012

Is debate about Britten's boys "censorious hysteria"?

John Bridcut's book Britten's Children is quite one of the silliest and most misleading studies of a public figure I can remember. Why? Well the clue is in the title. Flick through it and try and find the references to girls. Britten's Boys would have been a better title. I haven't read it for a couple of years, but when I did my overwhelming impression was of a determined attempt to exonerate Britten. Bridcut interviewed a number of people who were "taken up" by Britten, including the actor David Hemmings, and recorded that nothing untoward had taken place between them. Hemmings stated that he was well aware, as the original Miles in The Turn of the Screw, how attracted to him Britten was; it was just that Britten never did anything about it. Bridcut concludes from his failure to find any evidence against Britten that the composer never did anything wicked.

This naive conclusion must be read in the light of the Harry Morris affair. In 1937 Britten, then 24, took Morris, a chorister aged 13, on holiday to Crantock in Cornwall with his family. Whilst there an incident occurred; Morris returned to London and a stand-up row took place between Britten and his elder brother; they were estranged for a time afterwards. Bridcut writes (p.52) that later in life Morris said he had been alarmed "by what he understood as a sexual approach from Britten in his bedroom. He said he screamed and hit Britten with a chair. This brought Beth (Britten's sister) rushing into the room, who, he said, shouted at her brother. She and Ben left, and Beth locked the door. Harry got dressed, packed his bags, and sat waiting for the morning. Without speaking, Beth took him to the station, and dispatched him to London. When he reached home, he told his mother what had happened, but she told him off and refused to believe his story. He never told his father."

Morris died in 2002. Bridcut notes (p.46) that "as an old man he had revisited Crantock, and the experience had made him feel ill". Then, astonishingly, Bridcut goes on, "Benjamin evidently delighted in laying on for Harry the same sort of treats as those he had given (another young protege), and in seeing his eyes light up with fresh experiences beyond his reach at home. This was what motivated him all his life in establishing friendships with boys".

I nearly fell off my chair when I read that last sentence. With all the participants dead, it is impossible to be specific about what happened between Britten and Morris. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that this was an incident where Britten's interest in young (and therefore vulnerable) boys crossed the line. It may be the only time Britten did so; it may not be. In either event, Bridcut's general conclusion about Britten's conduct and proclivities is conclusively undermined.

There are further stupidities in Britten's Children, of which perhaps the most egregious are the many pages Bridcut devotes to Britten's relationship with Wulff Scherchen, a young German. It's true the pair met in the early 30s when Scherchen was 13 and Britten 20; but their relationship did not begin until 1938 when Scherchen was at Cambridge. The relationship was between two young men, and quite why Bridcut devotes fifty pages to it in a book called Britten's Children is a mystery.

Does it matter whether Britten was a paedophile? Well evidently yes if anyone suffered from his attentions; but even if he was it wouldn't make him a bad composer. Wagner isn't a bad composer because he disliked Jews.

If John Bridcut's letter in this morning's Guardian is anything to go by, he is still at the whitewash. "There was no suggestion of impropriety", he writes.

Perhaps he should re-read his own book. More on this in 'Re-reading Britten's Children'.
That comment on my post 'Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh' was added today by Nicholas Simpson, and John Bridcut's letter in the Guardian is titled 'Britten's boys and censorious hysteria'. When I wrote my original post three weeks ago I observed “although I would much prefer to be writing about other things, I am reluctantly returning to the subject of Britten”. I can only echo that sentiment today; but I fear that it will be difficult to move on while the pervasive attitude of denial continues.

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