A Very English Scandal:?Sex, Lies And A?Murder Plot At The Heart Of The Establishment
by John Preston
What happens when an Eton dandy falls for a socially inadequate dog-loving male model, who either won’t or can’t take ‘no’ for an answer, buggers him surreptitiously while his monacled mother sleeps in the next room, only to find himself years later unexpectedly leading the Liberal party? A self-made calamity of such epic proportions that nothing short of murder will resolve it. That at least is the premise on which John Preston revisits the Jeremy Thorpe ‘trial of the century’.
Despite the difficulty of researching a case in which most of the participants are now dead, Preston brings his waspish wit to bear afresh on the remarkably inept attempt on the life of Norman Scott by Jeremy Thorpe, aided and abetted by serial bankrupt lay-preacher and Liberal MP Peter Bessell – this book’s chief witness – who should have known better than to risk what was left of his reputation by having anything to do with such a dangerously hair-brained scheme in the first place.
It’s fair to say that no one, except possibly David Steel, and gay rights pioneer Leo Abse, comes out of this sordid little affair with any credit. Aside from Bessel himself, a weak and vain man “with a fondness for mohair suits … and a faint resemblance to Humphrey Bogart” the cast of characters includes fat paedophile Cyril Smith, Thorpe’s irremediably terrifying mother Ursula, whom you suspect may be the reason all of all this happened in the first place, a sozzled George Carman QC, desperate to make a name for himself, policemen so thick they themselves should have been locked up for the public’s safety, Andrew Newton, the world’s worst shot, and of course his intended victim Norman Scott, one of the few people still available (at the time of writing) for interview.
This may explain why Scott’s troubled story is given undue prominence and why he largely escapes the opprobium he undoubtedly deserves for not severing ties with Thorpe and Bessell before they hatched their evil plan to do away with him on Bodmin Moor. Earlier conversations about “the ultimate solution” had centred around breaking Scott’s neck and dumping him in a Florida swamp. “‘It’s quite easy to break someone’s neck,’ said Thorpe nonchantly. To prove his point he stood up and put his arms around (Bessell’s) neck. Taking hold of his elbow with his other hand, he jerked it sharply upwards. At this point Bessell wondered for the first time if Thorpe might have gone mad.” For the first time? A more responsible friend would have rung for an amulance several chapter ago, but responsibility, and accountability hold no sway in Preston’s narrative.
Much of Preston’s story is just that, narrative. Brilliantly written though his story is, it can’t possibly be anything else. Preston wasn’t there, and relies instead on details. By attributing attitudes, motives and emotions to a dramatis personae no novelist could have dreamed up he sets out to convince the reader that his version of events happened, as he claims they did. And for the most part he succeeds with aplomb. Who needs to embellish a story when the facts that are known are so unbelievable they can only be true?
At one point an unhappy Scott visits a doctor who claims to cure homosexuals of their ‘disease’ by sending them to sleep for a week. After signing a consent form Scott was given an injection which promptly knocked him out. “After a week he was woken up, given a cup of tea and discharged. Later that evening he visisted a pub, picked up a man, went home and had sex with him. “The so-called cure, he concluded glumly, hadn’t worked.”
Neither did the assassination attempt on his life. Instead Newton, hired for the hit, succeeded only in shooting Scott’s great dane, Rinka, promting Auberon Waugh, keen to cause Thorpe as much embarrassment as possible, to stand for election in Thorpe’s North Devon seat on a dog-lovers manifesto. His election leaflet carried the promise “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof woof!” George Carman secured an injuction against publication on the grounds it might prejudice Thorpe’s trial. If this sounds incredible i’’s nothing compared to the establishment stitch-up that secured Thorpe’s acquittal. You’d like to think it couldn’t happen nowadays, but history, as they say, has a way of repeating itself.
Preston’s book is peppered with screaming, laugh-out-loud-moments, not least the time a constituent sent Thorpe a turd in the post. Thinking it was paté Thorpes secretary threw it out. “It wouldn’t have kept over the weekend,” she tells Jeremy. It’s also desperately sad, that so many lives containing so much promise should have been wrecked over what began as little more than an opportunistic fumble between consenting adults.
If you don’t have space in your holiday luggage for a biography, a history, a political memoir, a thriller and the blackest of comedies, then pack A Very English Scandal instead. It’s all that and more. Extraordinary.