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’).

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