Reader, he married her

Christopher Hitchens

  • Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions by Francis Wheen
    Chatto, 452 pp, £18.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3143 8

When Tom Driberg died in August 1976, the Times ran an obituary which, as people used to say, broke with convention. The deceased, bleated the former Thunderer, had been: ‘A journalist, an intellectual, a drinking man, a gossip, a high churchman, a liturgist, a homosexual ...’ There was nothing precisely objectionable about this. Tom had, after all, been indubitably the most consecrated blow-job artist ever to take his seat in either House. But the Times had never before described a public figure as a homosexual, let alone defined him as one, let alone in an obituary. William Rees-Mogg had, apparently, decided that anything less would be anodyne. This same Mogg has written elsewhere of a psychic and political link between Maynard Keynes the homosexual and Keynes the promiscuous debaucher of the currency, tying this in turn to the homosexual propensity for treason, so his appalling frankness in the case of a known political and moral outsider was of a piece with his general tendency to ethical invigilation. With Tom safely below ground, others have crept forward to say that he was a shady player in the espionage milieu, thus rounding out the picture that Mogg had begun to sketch.

‘Unacknowledged legislator’ is an admittedly over-familiar Shelleyan tag, but I think it better describes Tom Driberg than any other. He was more interested in, and adept at, influence than power. In barely any recognisable sense was he a politician at all. He once explained to me with customary pedantry that Ruling Passions, the title of his uncompleted memoir, was a pun on his service as an MP. The pun was at his expense, since he did precious little ruling and his passions did the rest. He was an uneasy, unhappy, inquisitive and voracious man, blessed with good taste and cursed by lack of means, for whom variety was not the spice of life but the pith of it. Well before the back-bench existence ever occurred to him, he had given W.H. Auden his first reading of The Waste Land; had been the only witness as Evelyn Waugh was ‘received’ into Holy Mother Church; had been saluted by Edith Sitwell as the hope of English poetry; had been anointed as the diabolic successor to Aleister Crowley; had nearly interested John Betjeman in socialism and A.J.P. Taylor in incense. But he was one of those modernists who could only have been formed by an observance of tradition: he needed an anchor as much as he wanted a sailor.

I only knew him at the fag-end of his career, when the passions had been banked down a bit. He was tending to live off his store of anecdotes and acquaintances – making a point, for instance, of drinking only milk in Indian restaurants because ‘Crowley – The Beast, you know – always advised it,’ and dusting off filthy limericks he had collected from Auden or Constant Lambert. Every now and then, to pay some dun, he could knock out a piece on his friendship with Guy Burgess. In only one respect did he keep his old life up to speed. He would go anywhere and do anything for the chance to suck somebody off. Mark you, even this desire had been coloured, if that’s the word I want, by advancing years. He tended to say that he did it on doctor’s orders (‘the potassium ingredient is frightfully good for one’).

He did not, even when faced with decrepitude, much relax his exacting and minutely considered standards. The potassium donor should be heterosexual, proletarian, and – though this condition might be varied when demand outpaced supply – unknown to Tom before the encounter. I still wish I had listened more attentively to the stories he told about those who, like him, yearned for anonymous sex and its corollary, which was, as he hurried to point out excitedly, dangerous sex. (Certainly, I wasn’t surprised at the nemesis that later overtook a senior politician I met in his company.) A taste for policemen, for uniforms, for dodgem-greasers and dockers and garage mechanics can be a version of cruising for a bruising, angling for a mangling, thirsting for a worsting, strolling for a rolling, aiming for a maiming, or what you will. Tom took his lumps philosophically, more or less along with the best of them. At its crudest, this can be a form of slumming, and he freely acknowledged the unattractive side of it when he mobilised ‘friends in high places’ to defeat a prosecution for indecency brought by two hunger marchers he took home one ill-starred night in the Thirties. At its nastiest, the longing for tough male-on-male sex can be identified with uniform fetishism and fascism à la Mishima (who candidly wrote in Forbidden Colours that men of his kind were against democracy because they had a natural horror for majority rule). In Tom’s case, though, there was something rather herbivorous and democratic about it. He was not a sadist or a masochist. He wasn’t a coprophile. He didn’t go in much for the anal end of the business, once telling me feelingly how he identified with Auden’s ‘Letter to a Wound’ and with all those who had ever suffered a rectal fissure. He just liked to administer free blow-jobs to the masses. How many modern Members of Parliament can claim as much?

In this witty and combative portrait with background (to annex Tom’s own title for his profile of Guy Burgess) Francis Wheen doesn’t consider the social-democratic aspect of oral and homosexual promiscuity as much as he does the allegedly crypto-Communist angle that has lately been superimposed upon it. A whole flock of mediocre scavangers, from Chapman Pincher to ‘Nigel West’, have feasted on each other’s leavings in this case. Unable to concert their stories with any intelligible sequence of dates or developments, and unable to prove that Tom was an agent of the Russians, they have concluded – quoting from each other with a high degree of discrepancy – that he was a double agent and well in with both Curzon Street and Dzerzhinsky Square. Not even this all-encompassing and unfalsifiable portmanteau theory is capacious enough to contain the multitude of its own contradictions, as Wheen shows very ably and amusingly in his chapter Honourable Members. One day, the mischief done by hack writers and ‘climate of treason’ parasites will make a book in itself.

Is there any point, then, in Leo Abse’s ‘take’ on all this, digested into one facile heading as ‘The Judas Syndrome’ and published in the Spectator in 1982? Abse began by mentioning something which I must say I recognise from recollection: ‘Driberg walked all his life on a tightrope and gained his thrills in public and private by a never-ending series of adventures, courageously and foolhardily oscillating from one role to another almost every day of his life.’ That’s true-ish. Tom loved to come fresh from the potassium chase to some drear committee of the Commons or the Labour Party or the C of E, and to sit there beaming and replete thinking, ‘If they only knew,’ while the cream was still drying on his whiskers. But, as Abse generalises: ‘The spy is a man of identities and each day he must act many parts.’ Still true-ish, but tautological. Why aren’t thespians thought to be security risks? And what about this deduction from the foregoing? ‘Treachery is uncomfortably linked with disturbed homosexuals unable to come to terms with their sexual identity ... It was always so: did not Judas embrace and kiss Christ as he betrayed him?’ The tie that binds disturbed homosexuality and treason, asserted Abse, is ‘the child’s lack of reconciliation between his hatred and his love of his father’. At this point, if not before, the non sequitur becomes the methodology of the witch-hunt. To take the most salient counter-example, there was nothing ‘queer’ (Tom’s preferred term, by the way) about Kim Philby, who was the most dedicated and risk-taking agent of them all. For the matter of that, there wasn’t anything famously fishy about Judas, though it’s been argued that there may have been something a touch ambivalent about the Nazerene himself; no lady-killer, at any rate. Tom emphatically did not get on with either his father or his mother, but he has and had that in common with many docile and patriotic heterosexuals. Moreover, as anyone with any Foreign Office or SIS experience will tell you, there were and are numerous confused homosexuals in the service who are well able to resist the blandishments of treason or Marxism. (One of them more or less incubated the Ultra Secret. Others we know have soldiered on in less obtrusive ways.)

I believe it’s possible that Tom may have exchanged gossip and even information, at least for the hell of it, with fellow journalists and even with officials who put things to him in a sympathetic way. But there are two persuasive reasons to disbelieve any specific or general suggestion that he was ‘a spy’. The first is that he never had any money and was always painfully and chronically in debt. (Wheen has some gruesome exchanges of correspondence between him and the forbidding manager of the National Provincial in Liverpool Street, a banking address that is somehow amazingly lowering to the spirit.) The second, equally intuitive perhaps but more important, is that Tom had no desire to be on the winning or more powerful side. His fellow-travelling and Communist phases were marked not by Stalinist power-worship but by a rather sickly Christian sympathy for the underdog. At the end of his days he was still in agony about his decision to exclude the account of his blowing Aneurin Bevan from his memoirs. The reason he always gave me was the shock and hurt he judged this would cause to simple loyalists in his former Barking constituency. This kind of sympathy was congruent with his disordered private life, continually invaded by mendicants, losers, dead-beats, schnorrers and wide (narrow?) boys needing one last chance. Many a time and oft, Tom would return to a flat picked bare of every last picture frame by some Borstal charmer, and count himself lucky that the charmer wasn’t waiting behind the door with a cosh and a dildo. He even had the galley of his Times obit for Harold Wilson nicked by a smarter than usual short-stay guest, who flogged it to Private Eye. Any intelligence service reposing confidence in Tom’s discretion and silence, in other words, would have had to be even more cretinously incontinent about secrecy than we know such outfits to be. (And any such outfit trying blackmail would have been wasting its time for the same reason. Like John Sparrow, Tom rather wistfully mourned the legalisation of homosexuality because it removed some of the charge from the daily round.)

The third argument for disbelieving such allegations against him is that there is, as Wheen points out disgustedly and in detail, not a shred of supporting empirical evidence for them. None of the pimps for Curzon Street – not Pincher, not ‘West’, not Boyle, not Costello – has ever dredged up more than an innuendo, and even those were third hand and posthumous. Pincher didn’t even bother with the sub-Freudian niceties of an Abse, preferring to sink straight to Paul Johnson’s level and to say that there is an axiomatic, Forsterian connection between homosexual and traitorous deportment.

To clear Tom on this charge, then, is a matter of journalistic and political hygiene. But it still leaves the matter of misogyny and cruelty. People like Paul Johnson are wearisome and sickening in their ceaseless complaint about the appropriation of ‘that fine old English word “gay” ’. (They never objected to the borrowing of that even finer old English word ‘queer’, which had to be re-appropriated by people like Tom.) But there was something grim and lugubrious in Tom’s life, which he very often exposed in bursts of self-pity and sarcasm. And there was something a little depressing about his lavatorial stipulations: his positive preference for the dripping cistern and the reek of chemical disinfectant. Wheen is wrong to say that Tom ‘could hardly shake hands with a woman without shuddering’, because he was popular with women and enjoyed their company, but it’s fair to say that there was a marked element of disgust in his private attitude to them. ‘That awful wound– I don’t know how you can,’ he would say, perhaps forgetting, or perhaps remembering, the cicatrice commemorated by Auden. If there had been scientific proof of vaginal fangs, he could hardly have been more cold on the idea. Once, when I declined dinner on the grounds that I had to visit a girlfriend in hospital, he feigned concern for a split second, moaning: ‘Yes, there’s a lot to go wrong with them isn’t there? I do hope it isn’t her clitoris or anything like that.’ Nice try, in a way. He made very occasional but very pungent reference to his bizarre and expired marriage, growling with irritation at the luckless woman’s refusal to abide by their pre-nuptial agreement. ‘She tried to seduce me! On our honeymoon!’ But not until I read Wheen’s book had I realised how wretched his treatment of the lady had been, and how anything can be pardoned except utter, ruthless indifference. I almost felt shabby in retrospect for laughing at his jibes – the one flat negation of his usually reliable humanism. It was a relief to turn away from that chapter and to concentrate again on Tom’s career as a rebel.

His radicalism was unaffected and genuine, and reinforced by wide reading and extensive travel. He had an especial hatred for the vice of racial prejudice, a hatred which I really think was owed in part to his homosexual universalism. He was the first Member of Parliament to argue against the post-war recolonisation of Vietnam, and the first to criticise Britain’s unilateral acquisition of thermonuclear weaponry. As a journalist, he put his pen at the service of anti-fascism and did some original work in unmasking the now-forgotten Frank Buchman and his ‘Moral Re-Armament’ racket, whose sole memorable adherent today is, incidentally, Mrs Mary Whitehouse. Both in the Commons and in Fleet Street, he was from the outset a stylist and an independent, of a breed now etiolated to the point of near-extinction. (These days, if an MP can be said to have ‘outside interests’ at all, they usually turn out to be in property speculation.) In the Sixties, he made a slight fool of himself by over-identifying with the ‘young’; by hanging out with Mick and Marianne and nodding while floral-power nonsense was talked. These may be lapses, but compare the repressed jealous attitude of Home Secretary Callaghan and the unsmiling judges and policemen who panicked about marijuana, jailed Jagger and snooped hysterically on campuses.

What this book conveys so well about Tom as poet, as columnist, as MP and as individual is that everything about the old thing was bloody well manqué. He had poetry in his make-up, but is mainly remembered for being the first to notice that the Commons injunction ‘The Clerk will now proceed to read the orders of the day’ had the same cadences as ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. He had a talent for characterisation and biography but squandered it on catchpenny books, about Beaverbrook and Hannen Swaffer, which didn’t even catch many pennies. He fought well for many good, brave causes but never sponsored any serious or successful Bill. At his funeral there was a touching attendance by diplomats from former colonial possessions, but his standing in the Third World – last repository of reputation for many English leftists of that generation – doesn’t approach, say, that of Fenner Brockway.

I can still see him, though, rebuking the abysmal nosh in the House of Lords dining room (‘the white wine is warmer than the food’) and later showing up uncomplainingly in the near faultless squalor of Muriel’s Colony Room Club or (is it still there?) the Toucan in Gerrard Street. I still wish that Gore Vidal had had his way with Hugh Gaitskell, and got Tom appointed or at least nominated for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. It would please old Tom, he argued at A.J. Ayer’s dinner table, and might help to extinguish Christianity in England. Tom was thrilled at the scheme. He was not so much a snob as an élitist, and helped me to realise that the two things are often wrongly confused. The path of the rebel, as followed by Tom, was a protest against boredom and the ordinary, conformist, utilitarian precept. It was a hopeless search for a good life where ugliness and need would not always be sovereign, and where there would be wit and booze and wickedness, and it ended in a taxi between Paddington Station and the Barbican.