Cambridge Was a Hotbed of Homosexuality and Michael Portillo Was a Good Looking Boy; Gays Stalked Corridors of the All-Male College

Article excerpt

THE Cambridge college, Peterhouse, and homosexuality have walked hand in hand since long before Michael Portillo first graced its doors.

Students at the oldest and most right-wing Cambridge college used to send Valentines to the dons.

All male until 1985 - when its resistance to female scholars finally crumbled - life in Peterhouse in the sixties and seventies had all the trappings of Brideshead Revisited.

Behind its thick oak doors, young men with little sexual experience, were together for long hours and some of the most outgoing gays would stalk the courtyards in search of prey.

It was this environment that grammar school boy Portillo walked into in the early 1970s when he was 18.

And for many commentators, the only surprise yesterday was that it took so long for him to admit to his previous "homosexual experiments."

He had been at Harrow County Grammar, where he was a friend of chat show host and satirist Clive Anderson. He left Anderson behind, but was joined at Peterhouse by another school chum, Nigel Sheinwald, now a high flyer in the Foreign Office.

Other young men who were to befriend the "big and awkward looking Spaniard" included media executive Simon Marquis and Nick True, now an aide to Lord Strathclyde in the House of Lords.

At Peterhouse, Portillo fell under the wing of his tutor and acclaimed historian Michael Cowling.

It was Cowling, an intellectual influence behind the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s, who first urged the young Michael to think seriously about politics.

Cowling was as right wing as they come. His belief was to let those born to rule get on with it - preaching a type of Conservatism which was at odds with the more progressive government of Edward Heath.

Portillo is known as a man who likes to have heroes, historically and politically and the impressive Cowling became one.

His teaching style attracted him with one contemporary describing Cowling as "vampiric" in his ability to lure young men under his wing.

This was partly because he preferred to teach at night, and also because he enjoyed "drawing blood" in the fierce verbal fencing and rigorous testing which appealed to Portillo. …