Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong

bcThis is the second book, in as any months, that our group has read that has a powerful mother. The context of the book is more interesting than the content – the lovers don’t do very much and the insensitive lead character is surely a stereotype. If Lan Yu was the main character it would have been psychologically more interesting. One of our members has a Chinese husband who read it online in China at the time of ‘publication’.  He thinks that the introduction in this book is worth reading because it gives some background as to the context in which it was written and how it was intended to be received by the reader.  At the time of it being put online the internet had taken off in China and gay networks established themselves across China and at that time people could express themselves in relative anonymity. Many novel length stories (built up in episodes) appeared in the chatrooms. It enabled fictional characters to act out many of the issues facing gay people at the time whilst the general population (including the emerging middle class) remained largely ignorant of the concept of ‘gay’ as opposed to ‘homosexual’. It also became an expectation that these stories would have a sexual content to them, indeed, to the Chinese gay man on the net, this was often the main hook into the story; the sexual exploration. Indeed, to many men with homosexual inclinations, the main aspect of their sexuality was one of play and pleasure and so this exploration of a doomed love affair and conflict with Chinese family values would have possibly stood out. Sean has quite a few friends who themselves wrote semi autobiographical series onto the net with varying levels of skill. But even the poorest of stories may have been read or at least clicked on by many thousands of people.  He liked the flawed nature of the ‘I’ character: he was honest and confused and not that nice in comparison to the noble savage from the countryside. The pace of the story was good too.  Many Chinese gay men looked for ‘love’ abroad partly not to end up in one of these relationships where they are just the man on the side, a pleasurable add-on to the normal family structure. Whether that was out of the frying pan and into the fire in many cases is up for debate! It reminded him a little of thoughts of Victorian England in this sense.

The translator was criticised for not improving the banality of some of the text, its prosaic descriptions –  but is it the job of a translator to make a purse out of a sow’s ear?

Do we get cliff-hangers because it was serialised?

The importance of reciprocity is strongly evident.

It’s quite erotic but it’s really about love, not sex.

It ends in a church with statements about God being all-loving and the question as to why he doesn’t love gays.

I had to look up ‘myrmidons’ = a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly.

Was the writer a woman? Surely, if so, she would have concentrated on the characters rather than their context.

Myers (the translator):

“It defined a generation.  For many gay men in China, reading Beijing Comrades was a powerful experience because it was one of a small number of texts in which they could see themselves reflected.”

While the plot isn’t groundbreaking — cold and affectless Handong initially sees Lan Yu as a cheap fuck, he falls for him, and then life inevitably intervenes — the story was hugely influential.

“Most of the fictional works from late-1990s China are tragedies, and this perhaps reflects the feeling of the hopelessness of gay relationships, that gay relationships were something that could not last,” says Myers. In the book, Handong never fully embraces his homosexuality. He marries a woman, the beautiful and ambitious Lin Ping, but he spends the entire marriage fantasizing about Lan Yu. Within 18 months, he is divorced and alone. As Handong says, “I didn’t completely stop sleeping with women. I went to bed with them not because of physiological need, nor even because I liked them, but because of a need that was psychological: I wanted to prove to myself that I was a normal man.”

“Normality” is culturally defined, and though it ceased to be considered a mental illness, homosexuality still exists in a gray area in China. Official government policy is typified by the three nos — no support, no opposition, no promotion — which is loosely analogous to the now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” of the U.S. military. Clinics offering cures for homosexuality still exist, though they are under increasing pressure from activists and are being forced to temper some of their more extreme practices.

In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the LGBT community, while far from receiving the visibility and legal recognition common in the West, is vibrant. This year Shanghai Pride, though parade-less because of government regulations forbidding mass gatherings, took place across a series of venues. It included a fun run, lectures, and a queer film festival. LGBT activists are agitating for greater rights and have seen some small legislative victories — Chen Qiuyan, a student, won a case in August over the description of homosexuality in textbooks. While not ending in victories, other cases, such as the one brought by the activist Xiang Xiaohan after he was unable to register his LGBT charity, are notable for being heard at all.

China is still not an easy place to be out, and many choose not to come out to families or colleagues. In a recent survey by China-based NGO WorkForLGBT, which asked nearly 19,000 LGBT people whether they were out, only 3% of men and 6% of women identified as completely out. However, half the men and three-quarters of the women said they had come out to friends. This shows that private tolerance exists and that people are able to carve out spaces in their lives where they can live freely.

Handong narrates the book, and thus controls how we see him. He is a man accustomed to carefully managing his relationships and everything else he touches. He lets us see his control begin to crack, when his love for Lan Yu surprises and even frightens him, and our understanding of his panic catches us off guard. Unlike most control freaks in literature, he earns our empathy. – See more at:

One blog said:

China is, to me, a very contradicting country. Apart from Korea, I can’t think of many countries that have changed so much over such a short time period, yet stayed the same in other aspects. Family is China’s cornerstone. It seems there is nothing quite as important. Coming from a Confucian background, it is moreover expected from the children to honour and please their parents. The highest goals are to marry, have children, take care of the parents, and have a good job and reputation.

You probably already see the problem with that. Now bring into account China’s (now abandoned) 1-child policy and you can imagine how much more pressure lies on the only-child.

 Handong’s and Lan Yu’s love story is as beautiful as it is ugly, as hopeful as it is hopeless

In comparison to Western culture, it seems that ethics like honesty, faithfulness, and integrity are of lesser importance. It is way more important how things look like than how they really are, and help is taken in any form possible. It’s a constant bargaining in favours and being connected to important people is an advantage that is used for personal gain and protection.


Beijing Comrades is among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels. It is also a pathbreaking work of what may be called tongzhi or gay fiction from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It came into being when a young Chinese person living in New York City—absorbed by the world of the Internet, lacking direc­tion in life, and bored by the titillating but artistically vapid Chinese-language gay erotica available at the time—decided she would try and write her own homoerotic fiction

The author’s choice of pen name, Beijing Tongzhi (liter­ally, Beijing Comrade),8 may have been an auspicious one, for it likely helped to attract an intended audience while escaping notice of those who would wish to impede the novel’s circu­lation. Consisting of the Chinese characters for tong (same) and zhi (will, aspiration, or ideal), the word tongzhi was widely used in the socialist era (and earlier’) as a signifier of revolu­tionary camaraderie,” equivalent to the English word comrade or Russian word tovarisch.

Hastily executed and with no shortage of typos, this sexually graphic e-novel bursts with an exuberant and spirited amateurism that, far from blem­ishing the novel, is precisely a part of what makes it a pleasure to read.

Even the urban topography of China’s capital city is hazy and elusive; an underground gay quanzi (circle) is hinted at but never directly shown. Indeed, most of the place names in Beijing Comrades are fictitious,

Eventually we broke up. From then on I had a different girl on my arm every week and the inventory of notches on my bedpost grew. I quickly learned that there was nothing partic­ ularly difficult about getting girls. The hard part was getting rid of them.

“I’m not a girl,” he said, putting down his drink and standing up to leave. Somehow that impressed me, but I was also annoyed that he was leaving so early. Whatever. The whole night had been a waste of time.

Lan Yu smiled with a kind of calm resignation. “You businessmen don’t know a thing about friendship.”

“Wake up, Lan Yu! Business isn’t about friendship, it’s about profits.”

“What if it’s someone from outside the business world? What if it’s a friend?”

For the first time in my life I didn’t have an answer. Lan Yu must have sensed this because he kept going.

every time I had sex with my wife, I thought only of him. My hands caressed her soft white skin, her thick, heavy thighs and breasts. She was so gorgeous, so loving, but none of her beauty provoked my desire, and when I closed my eyes, it was Lan Yu I saw. There were times when I almost managed to trick myself into believing it was him I was touching: dark and firm, a radi­ant sheath covering a strong back and two broad shoulders. Only then would I slowly start to get hard.

There were some things I wouldn’t let myself think about: the touch of my tongue against his neck, the euphoric excite­ment he showed when I kissed him. These thoughts were off limits, outside the scope of the fantasy world I allowed myself to create during sex with my wife. I couldn’t do those things with Lin Ping, and trying them would have caused nothing but disappointment and grief. She wasn’t Lan Yu. She would never be Lan Yu.

I forced myself to have sex with her, but it was nearly impossible for me to come. Each time, I had to close my eyes and think about having sex with Lan Yu or, sometimes, with other men I had seen on the street that day, usually with Lin Ping on my arm. Only then was I able to climax. Pretty soon I started asking Lin Ping to let me fuck her on her hands and knees like I used to fuck Hao Mei. It worked at first, but in time even that wasn’t enough. More and more, I found myself jerking off when she wasn’t around, fantasizing about the men I wanted to be with.

It was one of those rare mornings when Lan Yu and I awoke in the same bed. We were at Tivoli. He had told me the previous night that he was looking forward to sleeping in late because he didn’t have to be at work until eleven. I woke up before him and got out of bed to look out the window at the beautiful fall scenery. Then I turned back toward the bed to look at Lan Yu, who was still asleep on his stomach. He loved that position. Right cheek pushed up against the bedsheet-covered mattress, a tiny pool of spit quivered in the lower corner of his mouth. He rolled onto his back, using his foot to push the blanket down to the base of the bed, and I noticed that the underwear he’d put on before going to sleep had somehow disappeared. He was naked now except for the calm serenity that enveloped him after the untamed frenzy of our lovemaking the night before. For a long time I stood there by the window, scrutinizing him and wondering if I was really going to do what I thought I was going to do. Quietly I stepped across the floor back to the side of the bed and gently pulled the blanket up to his chin.

Thoughts raced through my mind as I looked down at him. Did I really want nothing more from him than his body? Was I with him for no other reason than to satisfy my sexual desires? If I ended our relationship, would I be losing anything?

Well, let me tell you something,” he continued. “It’s not worth it, okay? A man only gets so many chances in this life­time to get serious in a relationship. And when he does, he damn well better be sure there’s a future in it. It has to lead to some bigger picture. Family. Kids.” He lit a cigarette. “But you know what? With this kind of thing, there is no bigger picture. This is it! You can’t even tell people about it without ruining yourself.”

“We had nothing. No recognition from the outside world. None of the pressures keeping couples together, but all of the ones keeping them apart.”
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Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

jtAre we to believe that if it wasn’t for Norman Scott, Thorpe would have formed a coalition with Heath and there’d have been no Thatcher?

To some of us, 600 pages seemed a bit daunting at first, especially since the subject doesn’t interest some very much and one member had never heard of the subject, but it was so well-written that I on wanting to know what happened next.

It was long suppressed by the subject – until his death, said I was ‘a fair cop.’ A fortnight after Jeremy Thorpe’s death in December 2014, Michael Bloch’s long-suppressed biography of the former Liberal party leader was finally released. Bloch began his research over twenty years ago, conducted hundreds of interviews in 1992-94 with Thorpe’s contemporaries, colleagues and lovers, and had surprisingly amicable discussions with the man himself.

It begins by seemingly dismantling a character for whom the author clearly had a high regard.

His family had coat of arms from namesake but unrelated family. This fed his fantasies at many low points of his life.

He had Irish low church (Anglo-Catholics were a thing of horror to them) forebears, one a policeman, another ordained without a degree but with the gift of the gab, with poor health and who was a windbag in parliament.

Thorpe took advantage of friends and then discarded them

Born in 1929, he was from boyhood an incorrigible show-off. He got a kick out of misbehaving and evading detection; and on the rare occasions when he was caught, perfected the trick of stout denials of his guilt.

He was accomplished at getting out of games at school, then national service

He was not a committee man but brilliant working on his own

Homosexual acts were illegal when Thorpe was coming to prominence and gay politicians ran the triple risk of blackmail, nasty criminal penalties and career ruin. Even when the law was repealed, many more years had to pass before any politician could come out as gay and hope to survive. Yet it was one of the hypocrisies of that era that so long as they were reasonably “discreet” about it, gay politicians could enjoy a successful career, even a glittering one. An influential figure on the Labour benches was the prodigiously promiscuous Tom Driberg. The Tory ranks included the bisexual Bob Boothby who pursued liaisons with characters from the criminal underworld at the same time as having an affair with the wife of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan.

When Thorpe became leader of his party at the precocious age of 37 his secret was already widely known at Westminster because he was far from careful. He was compulsively promiscuous and all classes were represented in his choice of partners “from heirs to peerages to rough proletarian youths”. He boasted to friends that he had seduced TV cameramen, footmen at Buckingham Palace receptions, even policemen on duty at the House of Commons. He played with fire by sending compromising letters, often on House of Commons stationery. At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.” His main taste was for men younger than himself and from less privileged backgrounds whom he might dominate in the guise of playing a protective role. When he became leader, he promised anxious colleagues that he would curb himself and get a wife. He did get a wife, cynically telling his press secretary that he thought it would boost the party’s poll rating, but he did not curb himself. During his engagement, he bragged of having sex with “a New York street boy he had picked up in Times Square and taken back to the Waldorf Astoria”. Even Driberg, whose recklessness was legendary, urged Thorpe to take care after hearing gossip about the Liberal leader from rent boys that they both used. Michael Bloch indulges in some psychological speculation about why Thorpe had such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”.

Some of Bloch’s new revelations concern the Dorian Gray figure in Thorpe’s youth, Henry Upton. Upton was the sadistic heir to a peerage, with a string of homosexual convictions and tabloid exposures, who disappeared from a boat off the Sussex coast in 1957. An eminent art historian claimed that Upton was killed at Thorpe’s instigation in order to cover up thefts of money. (Bloch is careful to say that the claim was unsubstantiated.)

We thought that the author would blacken Scott’s name but Scott does this all by himself – writing a 17 page letter to Thorpe’s mother ostensibly about lost luggage.

The judge at Thorpe’s trial termed Scott “a neurotic, spineless creature, addicted to hysteria and self-advertisement…. He is a crook. He is a fraud, he is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

It was thought that a wife should stand by husband with homosexual tendencies

The author’s Thorpe is not all black: credit is given to his political achievements where it is due. He helped found Amnesty International. He was a passionate voice against Ian Smith’s racist minority rule in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa. He supported the abolition of the vicious laws against gays, so he wasn’t a hypocrite in that respect. His most significant contribution to history was to help Ted Heath pass the legislation taking Britain into the Common Market. Without Liberal votes, it would have been lost. Bloch also makes a persuasive case that Thorpe, an inventive electioneer, was a pioneer of modern campaigning. For a period before he was ruined, he swept his party off its feet and charmed a fair bit of the country, presiding over a Liberal revival which took the party to a level of popularity it had not seen for half a century.

Hypocrite Cyril Smith refuses to share a stage with Thorpe.

The judge at the Old Bailey showed how the establishment protects its own.

Not for the first time, you wonder what it is, exactly, that the Liberal Party stands for. Chamelions?

Thorpe’s reference to the insularity of the UK is even more relevant now in the light of Brexit.

Empire Jack’s sword means little compared to the sword from the Peterloo massacre carried about by Ramesy McDonald, as recounted in Fame Is The Spur by HowardSpring

Thorpe using money to build a bridge over a duck pond seems like an omen of later expenses scandals.

The book is ingeniously constructed but repetitive – that overbearing mother appears too often and some judicious editing wouldn’t go amiss.


In Ursula’s drawing room there was a table draped with a large damask cloth under which two small boys could disappear and not be seen: Jeremy called this his ‘secret house’ and would sometimes lure a friend there, where they would engage in such intimacies as small boys are capable of. On at least one occasion this happened while a fashionable and unsuspecting tea party hosted by his mother was taking place in the room beyond. Thus from earliest childhood Jeremy experienced the thrill of forbidden pleasure in reckless proximity to a conventional world, with the risk of exposure and disgrace adding to the excitement.

but always aimed to know just enough — an assessment which might apply to the whole of his career.

Nor was he much of a reader, usually preferring to ask a friend what was in a book than look at it himself.

At this critical stage of his emotional development, he fell entirely under the powerful influence of his mother, who drummed into him that he was the most important person in the world, that he could do no wrong, that he should exploit every opportunity to advance his career and that he must succeed at all costs. In years to come, he would often rebel against her pos­sessiveness; but the egotism, ambition and ruthlessness she had implanted would never be far away.

In so far as he exhibited any serious romantic feel­s, it was towards older women such as Megan Lloyd George ther than his contemporaries. If he ever seemed to be getting close to a female undergraduate, as he did to Ann Chesney when they were both involved in the OULC, the relationship was likely to arouse the destructive attention of the one who was long to remain the principal woman in his life — his mother.

for at least some of its aficionados at the time, homosexuality also represented an exciting and conspir­atorial world. The idea of operating clandestinely outside the normal scheme of things lent a bohemian spice to life, and there was an element of thrill inherent in the risks involved, ‘like feasting with panthers’. Homosexual circles, obsessed as they were by secrecy, loyalty and code language, had something of a masonic air. Homosexuality could also overcome barriers between classes: gentlemen traditionally sought pleasure with working-class youths such as guardsmen, often to the benefit of both parties.

(It must, however, be noted that Jeremy was always sympa­thetic to the campaign to change the law on homosexuality in which, as will be seen, he became active after his election to Parliament

At the time of Princess Margaret’s wedding to Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Thorpe sent a friend a postcard: “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”

such a “craving for dangerous adventure” and conjectures that he had “a subconscious longing to be caught and punished”. Or maybe he just liked a lot of sex.

In the autumn of 1966, a young man called Bill Shannon was loitering outside an antique shop on the King’s Road when he noticed a tall, saturnine figure in a dark suit. “Looking for anything in particular?” the stranger said. They went back to the man’s flat in the heart of Westminster and had sex. The man then got out a camp-bed and invited Shannon to spend the night, and the next morning handed him £3. A few nights later the man picked him up again. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “A very nice gentleman,” Shannon replied. The man pointed to the mantelpiece, decorated with photos of himself and various eminent political figures. He was, he explained, an MP. A few months later, he was elected leader of the Liberal party.

Like Jeremy, Bessell was a showman and extrovert, witty and imaginative, an elegant charmer with a theatrical touch who enjoyed intrigue and danger. He indulged in a promiscuous heterosexuality hardly less dan­gerous in terms of career and reputation (particularly among the God-fearing Cornish) than Jeremy’s homosexuality: he kept a wife and family in Cornwall and mistress in London, and was a compulsive and accomplished seducer of women. He was a fan­tasist and in this respect went further than Jeremy: he developed a habit of telling everyone what they most wanted to hear, caus­ing many to regard him as a liar, hypocrite and mischief-maker. As a lay preacher who practised little of what he preached but had a power to hold audiences, he was also seen, by those who knew the truth about him, as a crook of the Elmer Gantry variety. His sense of fantasy was particularly marked when it came to his busi­ness career: he was not without talent, and set up a number of successful small enterprises (including the felt-tip pen and vend­ing-machine companies of which Jeremy became a director), but he overreached himself by launching a series of wildly ambitious transatlantic schemes which he hoped would make him rich but merely landed him in debt. The fact that he managed to hold off his creditors for so long was a tribute to his persuasive powers. (He looked to his political career to help rescue him from his business troubles, writing to a creditor that `the letters MP are worth more than stocks and shares …’)

If you are in public life you are more vulnerable and must not put yourself in a position where you can be subject to blackmail or other pressures. Peccadilloes which might be acceptable for a pri­vate citizen can become a great danger to security with a person in public life.

That day I gave birth to this vice that lies latent in every man.

“Bunnies can (and will) go to France. Yours affectionately, Jeremy. I miss you.”

Had he not done any of these risky things, it is unlikely that Scott could have done him much harm. Jeremy turned the affair into a drama because, consciously or unconsciously, he wanted a drama. It was almost as if he had a psychological need to sustain a threat to his career, which provided him with a challenge and gave him a thrill of fear.

Between (Heath) and Jeremy there had long existed the mutual mistrust of the dedicated plodder and the brilliant lightweight, the repressed introvert and the flamboyant extrovert.

This country has been in retreat since the war — retreat from over­seas possessions, overseas commitments and many of the responsibilities it accepted abroad. There are some who would wish to go further and turn this island into one with a siege economy. The time has come to end that retreat, to reverse it, to advance into Europe.

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Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

cq(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Bloch is a Freudian who believes that all men, from Churchill down, are sexually ambiguous, and that the strenuous heterosexual endeavours of politicians like Sir Alfred Milner and Lord Curzon were “fuelled by a degree of repressed homosexuality”. He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”. The word “rumour” crops up frequently. Churchill may have been more at home in male company, but evidence for the proposition that he was bisexual is slender. Likewise, there is no evidence that Edward Heath ever had a sexual relationship with anyone. Edward Boyle is said to have “never showed any discernible romantic interest in anyone of either sex”. In which case, one might ask, what is he doing here?

He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”.

According to the author, the Macmillan government, which balked at decriminalisation, “contained more closet queens than any other of the century”. Macmillan’s 1959-60 cabinet “included a homosexual or bisexual foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, colonial secretary, health secretary and minister of labour, and was presided over by a prime minister who was rumoured to have been expelled from Eton for homosexuality”.

Some of the behaviour documented here, whether the perpetrators were gay or heterosexual, would have been scandalous or distasteful in any era. Loulou Harcourt was said to have tried to seduce all four children (male and female) of a friend, colleague and fellow bisexual. Labour’s Tom Driberg spent a lot of time cruising public lavatories. Ian Harvey, a foreign office minister, was found in the undergrowth in St James’s park with a guardsman. Labour’s former secretary of state for Wales, Ron Davies, had his celebrated “moment of madness” on Clapham Common. Not forgetting the murky business surrounding Jeremy Thorpe and the alleged attempted assassination of his gay lover.

This book is the product of 12 years research. Many biographers left out any papers which hinted at homosexuality so there isn’t much to go on.

It isn’t as gripping as his Thorpe book.

It seems that the authorities often turned a blind eye to homosexual activity except for times when a puritan stirred up persecution.

Although David Maxwell Fyfe was opposed to relaxing laws against homosexuality and blocked Wolfednen’s reforms for 10 years, he was liberal on other issues, e.g recommended limiting the death penalty’s scope

For those who blame religion for homophobia, it is worth noting that Queensbury, who persecuted Oscar Wilde, was an atheist.

One of Churchill’s boyfriends appointed bishops.

Balfour, who mucked up the Middle East, was a masochist.

My father adored and canvassed for Lord Hinchinbrooke as MP for South Dorset up to 1962. It turns out that he bordered on being a paedophile.

Lord Boyle, the vice-chancellor of my university, comes across as pleasant as I expected.

It is to a gay, Jewish liberal, Hoare Belisha, that we owe the Highway Code, zebra crossings and diving tests as well as his famous beacon.

Though closeted, most of these MPs supported law reform.

Many of them were Anglo-Catholics.

The author perpetuates the myth that local authorities ‘promoted’ homosexuality in the run up to Section 28

The Gay people I know today, including my former MP, seem quite adjusted and normal indeed some are very boring. Many people seem unaware or uninterested in how very difficult it would have been pre 1967.

In 1958, Churchill said about a minister who had been caught with a soldier in the bushes of St James’s Park: ‘On the coldest night of the year? It makes you proud to be British’

” George Brown says to Harold Wilson, ‘Harold what are we going to do about the Homosexual Bill?’ – ‘Pay it of course’.”


Gossip about secret homosexuality has always invited prurient curiosity.”

Here…for what it is worth, is my survey of homosexual, bisexual and sexually ambiguous British politicians of the last century. I have cast the net wide, including some who managed to be fairly open about their tastes while avoiding trouble, others who led complex double lives, often married with children, and some who to a greater or lesser degree repressed their sexuality, along with some who seem to have been genuinely bisexual, and some who would normally be considered heterosexual but who had homosexual pasts, or who exhibited a strong vein of platonic homosexuality in their relationships with young men. (I have also included a few who had no discernible sexual feelings – though who knows what lurked in the hidden depths?) Inevitably, the result is more a bird’s-eye glimpse of the subject than a through-going analysis: much remains shrouded in mystery; bricks have had to be made with limited straw; cautious use has sometimes been made of oral testimony whose value can be difficult to assess.

“that failing acquired by most of the Egyptian officers, a taste for buggery”.

the Führer “is certainly a homosexual”, and that his failure to rise above the rank of corporal in the First World War was due to his “very pronounced perversion”. To many, this later explained Hitler’s surprise appointment of his handsome architect, Albert Speer, as Minister for Armaments. “Tell Speer I love him,” Hitler informed Field Marshal Milch.

As all homosexual activity between men was illegal in England until 1967, and continued to attract intense social disapproval for a quarter of a century after that (the annual Social Attitudes survey suggested that half of the population still considered it to be ‘always wrong’ as late as 1993), this was something that Thorpe, like so many others, had to keep secret from the world at large. Any public exposure of his sexual activities, apart from putting him at risk of criminal prosecution, promised to spell the ruin of his political career amid circumstances of the utmost disgrace. He therefore led a double life

Thorpe developed as a clandestine homosexual were not dissimilar to those which made him such an effective politician. These skills may be said to fall into four categories: (1) quick wits and sharp antennae; (2) acting ability — enabling one to dazzle the public with show­manship, and cover up and dissemble where necessary; (3) a talent for intrigue and subterfuge (surely a necessary part of the equipment of even the most ‘virtuous’ politician); (4) a capacity for taking calculated risks, allied to an aptitude for dealing with threatening situations. Another factor in Thorpe’s story was that there seemed to be a psychological link between the thrill of ‘feasting with panthers’ (as Oscar Wilde described the dangerous allure of casual homosexual encounters) and the general excitement of politics.

the very fact that they were actors, risk-takers, intriguers, etc. would tend to draw them towards the profession.

many of the century’s educated at all-male boarding schools, which (while officially proscribing homosexuality on pain of expulsion) fostered intense and often sexual friendships among their pupils, and also provided training in `playing the game’ (which from the closet-queen point of view meant breaking the rules and getting away with it).

In the not so distant past, to describe anyone (let alone a public figure) as a homosexual was a slur, and a book dedi­cated to so describing a whole group of people would have been regarded as potentially libellous in the case of the living, a cruel attack on those who cannot answer back in the case of the dead, and altogether in poor taste. But now that, in most Western societies, homosexuality is generally accepted as a normal preference, and psychologists usually consider that an element of it resides in us all, it is surely time to try to under­stand the strain of ‘closet-queenery’ which runs through recent political history and has made a significant (and by no means entirely negative) contribution to it. And it implies no disrespect to these often brave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

Churchill had written: ‘State intervention … in the form of statute … will never eradicate evil. It may make it more dangerous for the evildoer. But such a policy, while not decreasing immorality, only increases its ill effects … The state should protect [its citizens] from harm, and must govern men as they are and not as they ought to be:)

In old age (they were born and died in the same years), Maugham is said to have asked Churchill whether he had ever had a homosexual experience, and allegedly received the reply: ‘I once went to bed with Ivor Novello: it was very musi­cal. If such an event took place (or, indeed, horseplay with fellow cadets at Sandhurst) we may assume that it was inci­dental, and Churchill was surely a virtual stranger to physical homosexuality: for that matter, he seems to have had a low sex drive and is unlikely to have engaged in much serious cohab­itation with his wife except as was needed to produce their offspring. Yet emotionally, he was clearly drawn to men rather than women, a fact which needs to be borne in mind when assessing his complex personality: the closest relationships of his life were with members of his own sex, even if they stopped short of the physical.

Although Browning’s obsession with teenage boys was well known (when he later became a Cambridge don it was an open secret that he frolicked with young soldiers and sailors), Curzon remained devoted to him after his disgrace, often accompanying him on continental holidays, and later having him to stay as a viceregal guest in Calcutta and Simla.

Curzon might therefore have been expected to take a rel­atively tolerant view of homosexuality. However, as Viceroy he was bizarrely obsessed with the prevalence of what he called ‘abominable practices’ among the princely rulers of the native states, which he regarded it as his mission to stamp out. This topic took up an inordinate amount of space in his cor­respondence with the Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton, a broadminded man who was frankly puz­zled by Curzon’s obsession. When Curzon opined that the cause of this ‘horrible taint’ was the custom of early mar­riage – ‘a boy gets tired of women at an early age, and wants the stimulus of some more novel or exciting sensation’ ­Hamilton dared to suggest a simpler explanation: that what Curzon regarded as ‘unnatural vice’ was ‘for the Indian upper orders, a natural pleasure. He warned Curzon against treat­ing the princes like ‘a set of unruly, ignorant and undisciplined schoolboys’. But Curzon was not to be deflected from his moral crusade. When the Maharajah of Ulwar, despite being ‘an active youth and splendid polo player, was found to be ‘infected with this virus, he was deprived of power in his state and ‘placed in the hands of a British officer under a strict system of discipline and control. When the Maharajah of Jodhpur was found to be indulging in ‘dissolute orgies at the palace … a carnival of unnatural vice, Curzon decreed that ‘he be treated like a confirmed drunkard or madman, writing to Hamilton that ‘far the best thing is that the boy should die. Similar sanctions were taken against the rulers of Bhurtpore, ‘a confirmed sodomite, and Bharatpur, who was suspected of having murdered the objecting father of one of his catamites. When Queen Victoria expressed her fondness for the Maharajah of Holkar, who sent her charm­ing telegrams on her birthday, the Viceroy hastened to disillusion his octogenarian sovereign with the news that this ruler was ‘addicted to horrible vices. Curzon’s naive solution to this ‘problem’ was to set up a Cadet Corps to train young native princes to serve as his bodyguard. When he first inspected the Corps at their headquarters at Dehra Dun in 1902 he was delighted. Its tone and spirit [writes his latest biographer] seemed admirable, and he believed its well-born apprentices were as enthusiastic … as if they had been English public schoolboys. Unfortunately it soon transpired that the Corps shared another trait popularly associated with public schoolboys: It was fortunate that the inevitable scan­dal did not break until after the Delhi Durbar of 1903 in which the Corps had played a prominent role. Richard Davenport-Hines, noting that Curzon’s descriptions of the `depravities’ of the princes contain a mixture of ‘effulgent dis­gust and prurient relish, sees his behaviour as an attempt to `overcome his own femininity’ through `fury at the sexual ambivalence of others … There were no open and honest memories of Eton; no realisation that what he feared most were the feminine traits in himself’

Curzon showed a similar attitude to the case of Sir Hector Macdonald, a Scottish hero who had risen from the ranks to become the general commanding the army in Ceylon, and who in 1903 was accused by white settlers of indulging in orgies with ‘temple boys’: after returning to London to explain himself to the military authorities, he committed suicide.

A cartoon by Max Beerbohm shows him looking isolated and out of place in the House of Commons, a tiny, refined, foreign figure surrounded by coarse, fat, baying Tory MPs.

I have known many homosexuals in the course of my life, in this country and abroad; and some of them are my friends … Down the centuries they have played a large part in the development of … western civilisation. As artists they can depict and interpret emotion … perhaps better than anyone else; but in their own lives they shrink from it. With rare exceptions they are by nature promiscuous. They like to pick each other up, casually, in bars, clubs and Turkish baths. They enjoy sex in its cruder manifestations; but the enjoy­ment is transient … They don’t believe in a past, or a future. They live for the day, and even for the hour. Many of them are attracted by the ritual of the Church, and by the per­sonality of Jesus – no nonsense about family life there; but few of them are religious in depth. They call themselves ‘gay, and so they are, for they are nearly always good company; but basically they are not happy. Homosexuality is equally prevalent among what used to be called ‘the higher and the lower orders’; and sometimes these are attracted to each other. This is known in homosexual circles as ‘plain sewing: They are addicted to blackmail [sic] . . . It is because they have played, and always will, an important part in shaping all our lives … that I have done and written so much about them. The trouble is that, to a considerable extent, and much against my will, I share their general outlook on life.

Enoch Powell (1912-98) was one of the most brilliant politi­cians of his generation, considered by some to be more than a trifle mad. He was the only child of primary school teachers in the Black Country; like Edward Heath (who was to be his hated rival) he was a mother’s boy, though his messianic fervour prob­ably derived from his father’s Welsh ancestry. He also resembled Heath in showing early promise as a musician — though Powell gave up his beloved clarinet in early youth because (as he later put it) he feared it might release passions he could not control. At Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was an outstanding classical scholar, he fell under the influence of the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman: he admired Housman’s collections A Shropshire Lad (which was covertly homosexual) and Last Poems (which was overfly so), and wrote poetry in a similar style throughout his life. Powell (again like Heath) was a solitary and self-absorbed character with few social graces who shunned inti­macy with his fellow human beings; but in old age he confessed to Canon Eric James, a former Trinity College Chaplain, that he had been in love with a fellow male undergraduate at Cambridge (probably Edward Curtis of Clare College), and that this infat­uation had inspired love verses published in his First Poems. CI love the fire/ In youthful limbs that wakes desire … ‘) In 1937 Powell was appointed Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, from where he wrote to his parents, with astonishing frankness, that he was repelled by his female students, while feel­ing ‘an instant and instinctive affection for Australian males between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. This, he added, might be ‘deplored, but it cannot be altered; and it therefore had to be ‘endured — and (alas!) camouflaged.

When he was invited to contribute an entry to Who’s Who, she had to stop him giving as his recreation ‘to diaphtheirein tous neous’ (ancient Greek for ‘the corruption of young men’).

However, while the Fabians were relaxed about alternative sexual preferences, the British labour movement as a whole was deeply rooted in the fierce Evangelical Christianity which also spearheaded the crackdown on homosexuality during the Victorian era. Radical reformers such as W T. Stead and Henry Labouchere who sought to clear the streets of child prostitutes saw homosexuality as an equivalent scourge: hence the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of (heterosexual) consent from thirteen to sixteen, incor­porated the `Labouchere Amendment’ which criminalised virtually all homosexual behaviour between males as ‘acts of gross indecency.

iave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

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