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29 December 1975

Extracts from a letter from Nico Llewelyn Davies to Andrew Birkin, 29 December 1975

[...] As for Michael's possible suicide: if I had put money on it I'd invest pretty heavily on "natural causes" if only because it is known that he and Rupert banged on somebody's door on the way to the river and said "Come on out and bathe", therefore no "immediate intention"; added to which, I suppose, for most of the time Michael appeared to be the healthiest, most vital, best company, highly athletic etc chap you could meet. My chief "reason" I think was that he couldn't swim a stroke, as I told you, though the rest of us were good swimmers - in fact during the same recent holidays he and I had been going to a swimming bath with he, three years elder, being the one with water-wings trying to learn: so (a) I find it impossible to believe he could have swum out to try and save Rupert-in-trouble, (b) I find it even harder to believe that he would get out in the current and into trouble for Rupert to swim to his rescue. Yet I suppose one of these things happened. He was a very clever person, subject to fairly long fits of depression: I'll show you an obituary in the Eton College Chronicle by his tutor which says he had been restless at Oxford, but continues "henceforward there was no wavering, he worked loyally and found increasing satisfaction in his work: he was at Eton for a day at the end of March, full of quiet happiness." I'm apt to think - stressing think - that he was going through something of a homosexual phase and maybe let this get a bigger hold on his thinking than it need: I have no knowledge of Rupert's leanings in this direction though I would guess they preferred each other's company to anyone else's. The majority of the younger suicides whom I knew were of the over-average clever sort. Actually, and nothing to do with it, and alas! Michael's and my last meeting was something of a flaming row - every now and then we had them, usually no doubt stemming from some envy or jealousy of mine - I was always pretty good at this or that, but he was always three or four times as good! But 95 times out of 100 we were pretty fond of each other. Yes, Michael was a promising writer. He had a much-admired longish session as editor of the Eton College Chronicle, writing most of the leaders, and - oh, I don't know! - was always getting prizes for this or that bit of writing. George won the Essay Prize at Eton, Peter had it all - left to Jack and me to confine ourselves to letters! I have, bless the Lord, been so far removed from despair or feelings of futility that I can't sensibly begin to guess what could have been gnawing at Michael - with the possible exception mentioned above of thinking he couldn't "go for" women as a presumed more normal friend would have been doing in Oxford days. I would say he had a number of friends who were girls, rather than that he had a number of girlfriends - but I've really no right at all to say or even think that, as he wouldn't be talking to me, at 17, about them - and I really have no idea at all whether or no he had copulatory adventures! We never talked about them. Peter, yes, we talked much later on, and he talked a bit of George, and Jack has talked: never with Michael. [...]

Uncle Jim. The most startling line in your letter was the [Mary] Ansell/[Hilda] Trevelyan/[Roger Lancelyn]Green thing about JMB not being 100% impotent. This was complete news to me. [...] Oddly enough the little boys rather than little girls had never struck me: coincidentally of course there were 5 Davieses and 2 or 3 Asquiths - all boys - yet he had just the same success with girl children and I cannot conceive for a moment that in fact there was an important difference. Gossip I've no doubt there was - but, if so, without serious foundation. One of my favourite stories is one of Peter's friends who told him she had been at a literary cocktail party where (as so often) the talk had got onto homosexuality among authors etc. "Anyone in particular?" she asked: "Well, think of Barrie!" "Good Lord, surely not JM Barrie?" "Heavens, yes! Don't you know about him and his five wards?" All I can say is that I, who lived with him off and on for more than 20 years: who lived alone with him in his flat for five of these years: never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophiliacy - had he had either of these leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware. He was an innocent - which is why he could write Peter Pan!

I haven't the skill - or gift, or whatever - to judge your comment about JMB being "in love" with George and Michael. Roughly, yes - I would agree: he was in love with each of them: as he was in love with my mother. When you come to Mary Ansell it's a different "feeling" and different again I would say Cynthia. For myself, Peter and Jack at our different times different again - nearer to normal deep affection. I'm 200% certain there was never a desire to kiss (other than the cheek!), though things obviously went through his mind - often producing magic - which never go through the more ordinary minds of such as myself.

I have never thought anything "special" of the last holiday in Scotland [on Eilean Shona in 1920]. I'd be pretty sure that the thoughts you have had in this direction will have been covered by things written by JMB after Michael's death. At the time we were a very normal and happy little party enjoying every minute. I would personally swear that there was no harm, either present or "ultimate", in JMB's love for Michael or any of us. (Excepting perhaps that I'd have been a harder worker, and more "successful", if my father had lived and kept me on a tighter rein than my almost always kind Uncle Jim!) I am equally sure that if suicide was Michael's end, JMB would not be remotely responsible: surely I'd have had some hint of this and Michael, for instance, never said to me such as "I wish Uncle Jim would get out of my/our hair" etc. Reverting for a second to Michael's "girl friends", I recommend you try to get in touch with Eiluned Lewis (author of Dew on the Grass). I've no idea whether she and Michael even held hands but she might well have a clue as to his feelings towards girls - and she loved JMB and all to do with us in those far off days. [...]