Book review: Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

Closet Michael Bloch

As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?

Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left the Callaghan government in 1977 to become President of the EEC. Crosland, a heavy drinker, died soon afterwards. But it was Jenkins, who as Home Secretary oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality. Bloch points out many of the key architects of the change in the law, in fact, had secret homosexual pasts themselves. Bloch even suggests the bisexual Lord Boothby (for many years, the lover of Lady Dorothy Macmillan) may have blackmailed the notoriously homophobic Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe into permitting the Wolfenden Report which urged legalisation in the Fifties.

What about Downing Street? Bloch repeats the rumours that the 1890s Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery may well have been homosexual, rumours which ultimately wrecked his career at the time. As for Edward Heath, one of only three bachelor Prime Ministers in the UK, Bloch re-enforces the growing conventional wisdom that Heath (a misogynistic mummy’s boy) was essentially homosexual but chose to suppress his sexuality as he knew it would destroy any chance of a political career. This throws an interesting angle on the brief coalition talks Heath went through with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. Heath knew from the security services that the married Thorpe was a promiscuous homosexual and indeed that the younger man was already in difficulties with the Norman Scott affair which would ultimately destroy him. Heath kept his knowledge to himself, however.

Some might raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Winston Churchill in a book entitled “Closet Queens” though. Yes, Churchill reportedly had a low sex drive, had misogynist tendencies and enjoyed a number of close friendships with young men. This does not, in itself, make him a “closet queen,” however, and this chapter should have been expunged from the book.

However, with the wealth of biographical information on the likes of such characters as “Chips” Channon, Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, Harold Nicolson and Peter Mandelson and the like, this is a useful book even if you choose to ignore the bits about their sex lives.

Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch. Published by: Little, Brown

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Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

jeremy-thorpe

Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

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Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown

Book review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Tartt with a heart?

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt.

Published: Little Brown, 2013

It has now been over twenty years since the publication of The Secret History. The book provoked an immediate literary sensation and remains a hugely compelling read today. A strange tale of murder amongst an elite set of cliquey American students, it became an instant cult classic and made a star of its then youthful and seemingly mysterious author Donna Tartt.

But readers eager for more from Tartt would be disappointed. Her follow up The Little Friend didn’t appear for another full decade later and like many follow ups to successful debuts, disappointed many when it did.

Now a full decade has passed again and Tartt has finally delivered a third book. Does it deliver the goods?

The short answer is: yes. Impatient fans are owed no apology. This is, in fact, a huge book (over 700 pages), and a hugely involving saga which follows its lead character Theo Decker from his mother’s death in a terrorist attack in an art gallery through the next decade of his life during which he becomes drawn towards the world of organised crime. This occurs largely as a result of The Goldfinch itself: a small (and genuine) portrait taken by Decker from the gallery at the time of the attack.

Despite this very 21st century subject matter and its American setting, this has something of the feel of a Victorian epic, for example, Dickens’ David Copperfield. Anyone expecting another Secret History will be disappointed (and rightly so! Why not just read the original again?). But Donna Tartt has undoubtedly triumphed again: for this is a classic in its own right.

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Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

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Question: How do you follow something like the Harry Potter Saga?

Answer:  You don’t. It’s impossible.

Arthur Conan Doyle scored a huge success with his most famous creation Sherlock Holmes but was continuously frustrated when his other achievements were largely ignored. Enid Blyton’s adult fiction never achieved the widespread success and popularity of her books for children. Douglas Adams was constantly dogged by the question “when are you going to write another Hitchhiker book?” Helen Fielding has yet to escape the shadow of Bridget Jones.

And J.K. Rowling will always be best known for Harry Potter. But with her first post-Potter novel, she certainly does an admirable job of making a name for herself in the field of adult non-fantasy fiction.

The Casual Vacancy centres on Pagford, a town awash with secrets which are all brought to the surface by a particularly ugly parish council election precipitated by the untimely death of thoroughly decent member, Barry Fairbrother. Although set up almost as a 21st century Barchester Towers, surprisingly little attention is focused on the election itself with Rowling devoting most of her attention to the town’s cast of sometimes unlovely characters.

Such issues as internet porn, class warfare, casual racism, rape, drug abuse, domestic violence and civic corruption are all handled deftly by Rowling. No one who has read the Harry Potter books will be surprised to see Rowling can juggle a labyrinthine story-line and a large range of characters. What is more surprising is that with both this and her more recent crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) she has entered the world of adult fiction with such confidence and success.

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Book review: The Quarry by Iain Banks

ImageYou may have heard already that The Quarry is a very sad book. It isn’t.

Well, okay. It is a bit sad. One of the main characters is dying of cancer, after all. It’s also very sad that the author Iain Banks was dying of cancer when he wrote it. This was apparently a strange and tragic coincidence. Banks was only diagnosed when he was quite close to finishing the book. It’s also sad that as he has now died, this will be his last ever novel. But the book itself is, for the most part, not a sad one.

The narrator is Kit. Kit is eighteen and lives with his father Guy in a remote country house which backs onto a quarry. Kit is in some ways like Frank, the “hero” of Banks’ 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory. He lives an isolated existence with his father and is very “different” from most other people. But there the similarities end. Unlike Frank, Kit has normal sexual appetites. He has Asperger’s or something like it, a fact not mentioned specifically until quite far into the book although obvious from the start. He is also (unlike Frank) not homicidal and his father is the one dying of cancer. The action centres on a farewell visit by a group of Guy’s old Uni friends, one of whom may or may not be Kit’s mother. There is also an added mystery (another “quarry” for the characters to search for). Where is a missing tape? Why is it so important and what is on it?

As he demonstrated with Stonemouth, Banks is good at writing about younger people. Kit is a convincing (socially disabled) teenager and even the other characters are well below Banks’ age when he died (fifty nine). Banks has always done reunions, piss ups and lively political discussions well and there are plenty here.

“Look me in the eye, you twat, and tell me you weren’t tempted to vote for him (Boris Johnson),” says one character. “Especially against Ken; you’re more of a Blairite than that lying, war-mongering scumbag is himself.”

Kit is also a master of HeroSpace, a brilliantly realised World of Warcraft-type game as convincing as any of the fictional games Banks created as a backdrop to Complicity, The Steep Approach To Garbadale or in the Culture novel The Player of Games.

The book doesn’t stint on the cancer either. Kit describes the disease: “Cancer makes bits of you grow that are supposed to have stopped growing after a certain point, crowding out the bits you need to keep on living, if you’re unlucky, if the treatments don’t work.” This is as succinct and precise an explanation of cancer as any I can think of. Kit also muses that wiping another person’s bottom is (once one overcomes the initial disgust) more practical than everyone wiping their own .“I can’t see this catching on though,” he concludes.

This is ultimately a great send off for a Scottish writer as great as Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson, a science fiction writer in the class of HG Wells and a political writer in the class of Orwell.

Iain Banks. You will be missed.

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