Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Michael Bloch’

Closet Queens

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th June, 2015

imageimageCloset queen” was a somewhat derogatory term much in vogue in Britain after the Second World War to describe homosexuals who kept their sexual orientation secret, not least politicians and other men in public life. The need for secrecy was obvious, as until 1967 male homosexuality was illegal (unlike lesbianism) but many politicians, in particular, remained in the closet long after that, fearing that revealing their true nature would jeopardise their careers. Some, such as the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, nonetheless continued to satisfy their instincts, even recklessly. According to Thorpe’s biographer Michael Bloch, who has now published a new book, Closet Queens (Little Brown, £25), the danger of illicit encounters explained much of their attraction, even though exposure sometimes led to men’s downfall, blackmail or even suicide. Inevitably, a book that involves a romp through more than a century of British political history means that some of the characters who appear in it get cursory coverage, while others get their due. Though stories about outrageous figures such as Tom Driberg will be familiar to many, other elements, such as the intense friendship between Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland will not. The thing that really holds the book together is the thread of changing public attitudes (fortified by legislation) which led to a situation in which the current House of Commons has over 30 “out” gay and lesbian MPs. However, one shortcoming for me is that the book brings together a motley cast, many of whom I would not consider to have been closet queens at all, either because they were open about their sexuality (like the pioneering Chris Smith) or because they were genuinely bisexual. Though the book is an enjoyable and often amusing read, largely avoiding prurience, Bloch never really comes to terms with the reality and complexities of bisexuality, which in my opinion is our age’s “love that dare not speak its name”.

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Michael Bloch’s Jeremy Thorpe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th March, 2015

Jeremy Thorpe 1Thorpe biographyJeremy Thorpe was the Liberal Party’s most charismatic leader since David Lloyd George, whom in many ways he tried to emulate. I first met him when he came to speak at the Oxford Union while I was Secretary of the university’s Liberal Club and I was dazzled by his wit, his talent for mimicry and his genuine interest in everyone he spoke to. All those charms, and more, are evident in Michael Bloch’s magisterial biography (Jeremy Thorpe Little, Brown £25), which means that the reader gets a good idea of the substance of the man before his catastrophic downfall in 1979, when he was a co-defendant in a trial on a charge of conspiracy to murder. The supposed target of this plot was the sometime model and horseman Norman Scott (né Josiffe), with whom Thorpe developed a most unfortunate relationship, which he then spent many frustrating years trying to shake off. His constituency association in North Devon adored him, as did much of the electorate until his disgrace — and even after that, many friends and political acquaintances stood by him. Very soon after the trial — at which he was acquitted — it became obvious that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but it is tribute to his fortitude (one might even say his cussedness) that he lived for another 25 years, mostly confined to the beautiful house in Orme Square which his second wife Marion received as part of her divorce settlement from Lord Harewood with trips to their other two homes in North Devon and Suffolk. Marion’s loyalty to Jeremy was quite extraordinary and is rightly acknowledged as such in Michael Bloch’s book. Neither Jeremy nor Marion were particularly happy about the book’s being written, and having read it in draft nearly two decades ago, Jeremy insisted that it not be published while he was alive. That was a pity in many ways, as he could not have wished for a fairer and more scrupulous biographer, who over 500 impeccably researched pages gives a brilliant picture of the man, warts and all, critically but ultimately affectionately.

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Mount Pleasant

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th August, 2009

Today I went out to Reigate for the day, to have lunch with my fellow biographer Michael Bloch at Mount Pleasant, a retreat for people involved in the creative industries (disconcertingly described as an ‘artists’ rest home’ in most directories of charitable organisations) which enables writers, potters, architects and the like to stay at an extremely modest price in a rather beautiful, substantial house in Surrey’s stockbroker belt, with wonderful views of the Surrey hills from its gardens and dining room. I have been there for Sunday lunch on several occasions over the past decade or so, though never to stay. To write, I need to be in my upstairs study at home in Bow, the curtains drawn and the cat snuggled up by my feet. But Michael has for years been one of the institution’s most assiduous repeat visitors and I can see the attractions of the mini-country house lifestyle, where the everyday concerns of preparing food, making beds and so on evaporate, while one can just write, think, read or walk in the surrounding countryside. Mount Pleasant was generously endowed, but it has inevitably been hit by the economic crisis of the past year. One just hopes that it can continue to offer the tranquility and inspiration it has done for so many for so long.

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