EM Forster and his 'wondrous muddle'

For 40 years, EM Forster and the policeman Bob Buckingham were in a loving relationship. Buckingham was 28, Forster 51, when the two met. They shared holidays, friends, interests, and – on many weekends – a domestic and sexual life in Forster's Brunswick Square flat. But this was a relationship in which there were three people. In his memoir My Father and Myself, Forster's great friend JR Ackerley wrote that the problem of the girlfriend was "all too liable to be found in the lives of normal boys … Since women could not be excluded they had to be admitted ... the Ideal Friend could have a girl or wife if he wished, so long as she did not interfere with me. No wife ever failed to interfere with me." The same was true for Forster, but the wife who "interfered" in his life – Buckingham's wife, May – also became his friend and nursemaid. Perhaps this is not so surprising for the writer who valued personal relationships above all else, and for whom the motto "only connect" applied as much to his private life as to his novels. Who else but Forster could end up becoming firm friends with his lover's wife, and godparent to her child?

It's easy to see why Buckingham's vigour and toughness were attractive qualities for Forster. As a child, he was cast in the role of the "delicate" boy, always wrapped up and fussed over by his mother Lily, and always with half an eye on the farm boys next door. At Tonbridge Prep School, where the motto was "Perish every laggard, and let us all be men", Forster was, predictably, badly bullied. Even at Cambridge, where he discovered real camaraderie and love between men, Lytton Strachey christened him "the Taupe". A "real" man, bluff, beefy and beautiful, was evidently irresistible to this mole, both as lover and protector.

His relationship with Buckingham was not his first with a policeman: he'd already enjoyed a brief dalliance with Harry Daley, who was, for the Bloomsbury set of the 1920s and 30s, something of a celebrity young tough. Daley regularly entertained Ackerley, Duncan Grant and Forster at the Hammersmith Section House, treating them to bacon and eggs and boxing matches. Forster also had a fling with a bus driver named Arthur, which ended after Arthur's wife kicked up a stink. Forster wrote to Ackerley: "It is not my policy, even were it within my power, to break up homes." Of the affair, he noted in his diary: "Coarseness and tenderness have kissed one another, but imaginative passion, love, doesn't exist with the lower classes."

So when the novelist met Buckingham at a party given by Ackerley on the day of the 1930 Oxford v Cambridge boat race, he already had his ideal of the working-class boy firmly in place. Influenced by Edward Carpenter's ideas, he'd long fantasised about living in a rural idyll "looked after by the robust and grateful lower classes". It was a fantasy in which he, as an educated, moneyed novelist, had the upper hand. But his relationship with Buckingham was to challenge his assumptions in more ways than one.

Buckingham was a large, good-humoured man, with a nose flattened in the boxing ring, a wide smile and a deep, loud laugh. On the day they met, he impressed Forster with his knowledge of the Thames and told him he was reading Dostoevsky. Forster invited Buckingham to his flat, and soon the two became close, with Forster taking over Buckingham's reading list, and Buckingham thrilled to become something of a highbrow. Soon Forster was in a position to write of Buckingham's falling "violently in liking" with him. To his friend Sebastian Sprott, Forster wrote with rather old-maidish coyness that the "spiritual feeling" between him and Buckingham had now "extended to my physique".

During these early years of their relationship, Forster seems to have at last found happiness. In his Commonplace Book, he reported that "From 51 to 53 I have been happy, and would like to remind others that their turn can come too." This was in spite of Buckingham finding a girlfriend – May Hockey, a nurse – not long after he'd met Forster. In 1932 Buckingham announced that he was to marry May; the register-office wedding took place in August, with Forster as witness. Once Buckingham was married, Forster's worst fears seemed to come true – Buckingham became rather unreliable about their meetings, and Forster panicked, calling his rival "domineering, sly and knowing" and wondering if he should break with his lover and go abroad to escape the situation. Buckingham, ever the voice of calm sense, wrote that the two of them simply had "to go without pleasure for a bit".

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