My past exposure to this topic has been through occasional references to historic individuals such as Lord Roseberry and those who were active post WWII (I read ‘Tom Driberg : his Life and Indiscretions’). I am also today haunted on my TV by the multi-coloured image of Michael Portillo (railway documentaries) who is one the last and most recent individuals to be covered in the text.
I am familiar with the works of Michael Bloch especially those focusing on the intimacies of the lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Joachim Von Ribbentrop who was rumoured to have had a sexual association with the Duchess though the work is tainted by his association with the odorous Maitre Suzanne Blum. He is keeping his hand in with his more recent biography of Jeremy Thorpe. Readers have come to expect a somewhat salacious read with some wit and this he usually manages to deliver – he is, after all, a barrister.
The common theme in his works is one of stretching the available concrete evidence until it ‘squeals’ and that is evident in this book as well. Clearly, most of these individuals were not about to leave large wads of what until 1967 was evidence of criminal activity (and still constitutes opprobrium in some people’s minds.) He is therefore inclined in some cases to simply point at circumstantial indicators and associations and claim these as evidence – where there’s some, there’s fire. It almost seems unfair to include people like Edward Heath who seems to be asexual though with music and literary associations with the gay world.
I found the coverage of the lives of gay men who came from largely aristocratic or upper middle class backgrounds from Victoria, Edwardian and early Georgian times well worth the read. I was familiar with some of these but was intrigued by their apparent networking and the use of the ‘old boy’ network to stay below the radar – Lord Esher would be a good example of this. The between world wars period is one of change, both in the mixture of those involved in politics and crucial technological changes such as the growth of media and its organisation. There are pointers to tensions inside most parties including the Socialists and Labor parties where any sense of reform and change would clash violently with entrenched homophobia.
I have no detailed awareness of much of the British political life during the period before WWII but lived (somewhat obviously) that time to the present with a reasonable political awareness and remember many of the individuals and their ‘scandals’. This was heightened by the Cold War focus on espionage and the involvement of gay men especially those coming from the privileged Oxbridge background.
Certainly, he has done a service by ‘outing’ so many of these cases as it often proves the worth of many of these men (no women) whose loves and peccadillos, if they had been heterosexual, would have been unremarkable. I would love to read a similar offering based on Australian political life.
One example who linked British and Australian political circles was the seventh Earl Beauchamp who cut a fine dash (along with his handsome footmen) as a Governor of NSW and had the Beauchamp Hotel named after him in 1910. The hotel eventually had its ironic time in the sun more recently as a gay pub. It is claimed that The Earl was the model for Waugh’s Lord Marchmain in ‘Brideshead Revisited’.
I can say that I found the earlier and latter portions of the book interesting and enjoyable with the caveats I have mentioned. It sits well with the perhaps apocryphal comment Churchill made when told of a Tory male MP being apprehended on the coldest night of the year with a Guardsman in Green Park (seems like nothing ever changes) – ‘Makes you proud to be British.’