Labor MP with a Knack for Gossip, Sex - and espionage?(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Labor MP with a Knack for Gossip, Sex - and espionage?(BOOKS)


Byline: Martin Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Of all the odd ducks ever to grace the benches of the British House of Lords in the 20th century, there can have been fewer characters more genuinely strange than Baron Bradwell of Bradwell juxta Mare in the County of Essex. But his perch upon the red benches at Westminster was only the last act in a life filled with improbabilities. Better known throughout his seven decades on this earth as Tom Driberg, he was a mass of contradictions.

Longtime member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which he joined in his teens, he was also a passionate adherent of the most High Church form of the Church of England. Neither of these convictions interfered with his being a high-paid gossip columnist for the Express Newspapers, whose proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, a right-wing Tory, was also the subject of a rather problematic biography by this longtime employee.

A Labor Party MP from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s, he was - in Parliament as in his journalism - as much a scourge of Labour as of Conservative governments. The most promiscuous and predatory of homosexuals (but no pederast), he was married for the quarter-century before his death, an alliance detailed in this biography as one of the oddest and unhappiest marital unions ever.

All this - and there is more - obviously makes for a rich subject for biography and Francis Wheen, author of a recent life of Karl Marx, has made, if not the most of this embarras de richesse, at the very least a pretty decent job of it. After a rocky start with a polemical, opinionated, even bitchy, introduction, which might put some readers off, the text of the biography itself is lively, often judicious, and generally sound. Best of all, it lets Driberg speak for himself as much as possible and his distinctive voice - in journalism, political speeches, and letters - adds an extra piquancy to an already tasty dish.

Mr. Wheen begins his narrative with Driberg's death in a London taxicab in August 1976. Driberg had partially completed the autobiography which would appear the next year entitled "Ruling Passions." Although it was to date one of the frankest homosexual biographies and created quite a stir, not least among those who feared being named (sexually) in it, there might have been still more shocks had Driberg lived a little longer. Ever "the soul of indiscretion," the erstwhile author of the William Hickey column in the Daily Express was truly a world-class gossip. The trouble is, that he was also one of the greatest fantasists ever.

Biographer Wheen does an admirable job of trying to sort the wheat from the chaff in Driberg's tall and lowlife tales, but is, understandably, not always able to come to a definitive conclusion.Those who love rooting around in muddy waters will find the whole process vastly enjoyable; those who find it distasteful will probably not want to read a book about Driberg anyway.

This is not to say that "The Soul of Indiscretion" is merely a frivolous, gossipy book nor that the life it chronicles was without serious significance. Mr. Wheen is clearly charmed by his subject, occasionally even delighted by him, but he is also sometimes exasperated by him. On the whole, he is a realistic judge of where Driberg stood politically. But on the vexed issue of whether Driberg was actually a Soviet agent, Mr. Wheen may let his subject off too easily.

Certainly, Driberg made no secret of his pro-Soviet sympathies, but after all sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight. In the end, Mr. Wheen thinks Driberg was too unreliable and untrustworthy to have been a likely candidate to attract the attentions of the KGB. …

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