Magazine article The Spectator

He Had a Little List

Magazine article The Spectator

He Had a Little List

Article excerpt

WILDE'S LAST STAND by Philip Hoare Duckworth, 16.95, pp. 250

At the end of May 1918, with the Ludendorff offensive bringing the German army daily closer to Paris, British newspapers were, as ever, agog with sex and politics. Noel Pemberton Billing, an Independent MP, was defending an action for libel brought by the exotic dancer Maud Allan. Allan was about to perform in Oscar Wilde's Salome, and The Vigilante; Billing's small-circulation paper of extreme antiGerman, anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual views, had published an item entitled `The Cult of the Clitoris', implying that all involved, including the audience, must be homosexual. The piece was written by an American called Harold Spencer, recently discharged from the army as insane after a period of cloak-and-dagger work in Albania, and no one in court, it turned out, knew what 'clitoris' meant. The case was presided over, with staggering carelessness, by the Acting Chief Justice, Darling. Billing and Spencer claimed that the German High Command had a dastardly plan to corrupt the British war effort through syphilis and sodomy. There was a Black Book of 47,000 names -- later raised to 53,000 - of homosexuals in high places. Spencer claimed he had seen this book in Albania, and Billing's mistress that she was shown it by two officers who had since, most unluckily, been killed. The perverts included Margot Asquith and Darling himself. Characteristically losing all self-control in the witness box, Lord Alfred Douglas blamed the current decadence of British life on his one-time lover Oscar Wilde, `the greatest force for evil . . . during the last 350 years'.

Billing packed the courtroom with wounded soldiers who cheered all references to slackness in the prosecution of the war, and in spite of the nonsensical evidence and Darling's hostile summingup, won the case. Some years ago Michael Kettle, in Salome's Last Veil, suggested that there was a serious political dimension to this farce. Lloyd George was under heavy pressure from his generals for more troops, while engaging in secret peace negotiations in Holland, and the military wanted to smear what they considered an inept and pacifist government. But the plotting and counter-plotting was extremely murky, and Asquith surely took the right attitude when he remarked that this nine-days' wonder was only for `persons of low intelligence and high credulity'.

Billing's triumph was short-lived - the war was soon over and the issue forgotten, though Maud Allan's career never recovered. A failed actor, failed inventor, failed aircraft manufacturer, Billing, who had a monocle apparently grafted into his right eye-socket, is a classic example of the frustrated artist who turns to extreme politics for his revenge. …

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