Sunday, 8 June 2008

Tom Driberg primer

Tom Driberg had a fascinating life, leading an exciting continent-spanning career in which he knew many of the best and most interesting people. But, as far as this blog is concerned, our particular interest is going to be the consequences of the revelation of his almost fanatical devotion to sucking strangers off in toilets, and so adding one tiny sexual activity more to the acknowledged facts of life.

When it comes to toilet-trade, nowadays Joe Orton is the unabashed king of cottaging. But it was the publication of Driberg’s posthumous memoir “Ruling Passions” in 1977, that first pushed the goings-on in the nation’s public conveniences under the populaces’ nose. Tom Driberg was such a prominent figure of mid/later 20th Century that his memoirs were guaranteed to be a significant event. He had been a Member of Parliament and been one of the hearty beasts of the Labour Party, he had been a successful journalist and columnist, and he moved in every social circle imaginable. Peers, the great politicians and writers, leading criminals and homosexuals, Fleet Street hacks and satirists, Communists and clergymen – Driberg knew and mixed with them all. However, the general public did not know the half of this. Of course, certain more respectable circles tired to overlook Driberg’s less salubrious contacts; while those on the more criminous side of the divide who benefited from Driberg’s acquaintance also sought to avoid broadcasting this fact for Tom’s sake. So on both sides there was a policy of managed silence and discretion, let alone taking into account those powerful figures in politics and the media who could protect him. Tom himself was the very soul of indiscretion, which was why he got others to protect him. This was why Driberg’s homosexual and voracious cottaging (which nearly got him arrested on numerous occasions) had remained an open secret for so many years. Those who knew knew, everyone else didn’t. Cottage was something that grubby little men you didn't know got arrested for, and it was reported in rather veiled language in the backpages of the newspapers, so no-one really had to know what was going. No-one nice and polite really had a chance to be offended by unseemly knowldge

In his last years Driberg began to write his memoirs, thereby giving the willies to many leading public figures, but he died in 1976 before he could properly finish them. Then in 1977 the existing manuscript was published as “Ruling Passions” to multitudinous horror. In it he revealed not only that he was a practising homosexual, but quite shockingly how he went about practising it. Like the dullest biography of any major politician, it was only to be expected that “Ruling Passions” would be plastered over the review pages of the country’s foremost newspapers and magazines. What wasn’t expected was that amid so much typical recounting of early political and social adventuring and the swell of 20th century history, would be threaded so much avid recounting of past lavatory pick-ups. Cottaging might have been a grubby secret, but it was now a grubby secret familiar to everyone who picked up the newspapers and magazines for the next couple of weeks.

Because it was so blatantly and scandalously newsworthy, it was now one more weapon in the arsenal of comedians and cartoonists, where previously it would have been beyond the pale (I have some censored cartoons relating to the Jeremy Thorpe affair to prove this). This acknowledgement of cottaging is Driberg’s great bequest to British life. When Orton’s biography and journals were published, Driberg had already played the role of John the Baptist as regards the strange mating habits of consenting males in toilets.

Where too often representations of homosexuals in the ‘70s in Britain were either refined aesthetes who knew Wilde, Gide and assorted Bloomsburries, or else fey, swishy overly-styled but unsexual creatures (as seen in Puns 1 and Puns 2), suddenly gays come out of the Water Closet. Some small veil of taste and reticence had been forever ripped away and some new area for rough comedy was now available. Whatever the links between homosexuals and toilets may have been in some minds previously, Driberg made it a common coin.

Tom Driberg (22 May 1905 – 12 August 1976)

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