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. (What about Guy Burgess, one is tempted to ask surely more endowed with every bad quality possessed by Driberg?)
Yet certainly Driberg was capable of the kind of surprises that would not have gone down well with the Soviets: for instance, his sympathetic, firsthand reporting from Korea of the British troops fighting there. (Indeed, his staunch support of the Anglo-American position in the Korean War stands in stark contrast to Mr. Wheen’s perfervid and hostile account of this UN-backed conflict.) Since this book was originally published, new accusations more or less credible have surfaced about Driberg’s spying activities. Would they have changed this biographer’s judgment? It’s hard to know, but I suspect not.
The chapter on Driberg’s marriage to the equally devout socialist Mrs. Ena Mary Binfield in 1951 is a fascinating study of Driberg at his most contradictory, puzzling, and unaccountable.
He must certainly have been one of the worst husbands on record: neglectful, nasty, vituperative and totally unwilling to give of himself in any way, including sexually. Indeed, he even managed to portray himself as a victim when he excoriated her for attempting to “pounce” on him during their honeymoon. Did he marry merely to provide a chateleine for his country house? Perhaps he was attempting to cloak his disreputable private life in a measure of respectability for political advantage.
Mr. Wheen’s exploration of his motives and conduct as a husband are a model of judicious deduction from the sources available. Ena’s letters, reproduced at length here, must induce sympathy even in the most stony-hearted of readers and Mr. Wheen has brought to life a woman known previously only as the butt of a cruel joke by Winston Churchill, who famously quipped, when told of Driberg’s marriage to a less than beautiful lady: “Well, you know what they say, buggers can’t be choosers.”
Tom Driberg’s life is fascinating at least in part because of the people he knew and Mr. Wheen does an excellent job of acquainting us with how such varied characters as Lord Mountbatten and Mick Jagger came to figure in this most unusual of 20th century political lives. Driberg himself stands out as a most unpleasant man, as unappealing when he is a schoolboy friend of Evelyn Waugh as when he is a denizen of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.
If he was himself unhappy and his constant self-pity shows that he clearly was he managed whether in his columns or in person to entertain most people.
His contributions to political and public life were not great, but in his private life he definitely had a talent to amuse, something which he continues to do in the pages of this colorful and fluent biography. Indeed, he could entertain the most unlikely people, as in the incredibly obscene crossword puzzles which he produced for the British publication Private Eye in the last years of his life.
The winner of the 2-pound prize for a particularly lubricious puzzle in 1972 was a Mrs Rosalind Runcie, wife of the-then Bishop of St. Albans, later Archbishop of Canterbury in the Thatcher years. There’s truly no end to the surprising circles into which Driberg’s life and pen could propel him.
Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.
THE SOUL OF INDISCRETION: TOM DRIBERG, POET, PHILANDERER, LEGISLATOR AND OUTLAW
By Francis Wheen
Trafalgar Square, $16.95 paper, 452 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN