I first came across Tom Driberg in his fictionalised cameo of Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm. His classic 1960s London crime novel introduces Lord Teddy Thursby, a hard-living peer who becomes involved with the gangster Harry Starks. At first the two hit it off – ‘His strong-arm stuff can get him respect,’ Thursby says, ‘but friends like me can get him respectability’ – but the lord soon becomes dragged into Starks’s crimes. The first hint that Thursby is out of his depth comes when Driberg, with whom he enjoys a cross-party friendship, warns: ‘Be careful, Teddy.’ It jolts him. ‘Driberg urging caution is not a good sign.’
There are passages in The Long Firm that read like homage to Francis Wheen’s remarkable biography of Driberg: the letter from Thursby’s wife demanding recompense for their sham marriage is in parts word for word the same as a letter written to Driberg from his enstranged companion. The story of ‘Chips’ Channon, with a wink and nudge, showing the new MPs where the Westminster toilets are (‘the most important rooms’) appears in both books.
Wheen’s biography is as warm and vivid as his book on Marx and his social histories, but there is a fresh, raw quality to the writing that you don’t see in his later works. It’s a tone that allows him to do justice to the life. Radical Labour MP Tom Driberg won a scholarship to Oxford and wrote prolific amounts of journalism before going into politics. The cliche of someone having a ‘ringside seat of history’ seems true of Driberg. Wheen takes us through the party decade of the 1920s right up to Swinging London.
Though he was a hedonist and gossip columnist, Driberg’s life wasn’t all vile bodies and bright young things. Like many people in the late 1930s, he wasn’t convinced that there would be a war, but unlike many observers of the time he was able to recognise the threat of fascism. It was an isolated position to be in at a time when much of the ruling class approved of the European dictators, the Daily Mail screamed ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts!’ and Chamberlain’s appeasement policies were widely admired. Returning from the Spanish Civil War when it was clear that the republicans would be defeated, Driberg was disgusted at having to cover a celebration of Franco’s victory thrown by the general’s apologists and supporters at Queen’s Hall.
Franco was described at the meeting as ‘Our generalissimo’, ‘A military officer as honest and patriotic as any anywhere’, ‘Our ruler and guide’ and ‘The heaven-sent chieftain’. The only moment Tom enjoyed was when a meek little man stood up and asked quietly: ‘Might a member of the public denounce you as traitors?’ The answer was no: the revellers shouted ‘Throw him out!’, and out he went.
Later, Driberg saw Buchenwald.
He was never popular with the establishment. On his death, the rightwing press smeared him as a KGB spy. Obituaries made a great deal of his sexual promiscuity. As a gay man Driberg had to deal with a society that had criminalised his love life, but he managed to enjoy rich, varied and constant liaisons despite the dangers of the time. The Torygraph‘s Paul Johnson wondered, if Driberg had to be gay, why he had to be so proud about it. Gay people worthy of respect were ‘those pathetic figures, like the late E. M. Forster, for whom homosexuality was a lifelong burden and shame, and who agonised about its moral consequences.’
At this point you have to shake your head and remind yourself this was only about thirty years ago. Johnson then compared the Good Homosexual, E. M. Forster, with the Bad Homosexual, Tom Driberg:
From first to last, Driberg was a homosexual philanderer of a most pertinacious and indefatigable kind, wholly shameless, without the smallest scruple or remorse, utterly regardless of the feelings of or consequences to his partners, determined on the crudest and most frequent form of carnal satisfaction to the exclusion of any other consideration whatever: a Queers’ Casanova.
Wheen could have gone on to point out that Johnson reflected attitudes of the time. Even the supporters of legalising homosexuality argued that it was an inferior, evil thing: why add to the miseries of gays by persecuting them through the courts? Peter Tatchell remembered that ”The tone of the parliamentary debate alternated between vicious homophobia on one side and patronising, apologetic tolerance on the other.’ Geraldine Bedell in the Observer has an illuminating piece about the 1967 debate:
No one mentioned equality or love. The consistent position was that homosexuals were pitiful and in need of Christian compassion. [Leo] Abse argues now that much of this was tactical. ‘The thrust of all the arguments we put to get it was, ‘Look, these people, these gays, poor gays, they can’t have a wife, they can’t have children, it’s a terrible life. You are happy family men. You’ve got everything. Have some charity.’ Nobody knew better than I what bloody nonsense that was.
The attitude of the reformists was: okay, we will give you equality, but you must remember that your sexuality is essentially evil, and you must hate yourself for it for the rest of your days. Driberg broke the rules: ‘the wearisomely persistent rightwing misconception’ that ‘socialists ought never to enjoy themselves’.
The conventional wisdom was that it was okay to be a deviant or an outsider, as long as one does not enjoy it. You can see the echoes of this sinister fallacy in the debate on ‘New Atheism’.