Ten years ago it was the Profumo case. Today’s hot retro scandal is the Jeremy Thorpe trial: sex, politics, Sunbeam Rapiers and a pin-striped establishment reacting badly to gossipy lovers. With most of the tragic farceurs safely dead, this can now be dished up without fear of libel.
John Preston did well from his history-novel hybrid A Very English Scandal, which became a BBC TV drama. Michael Bloch produced a more authoritative biography of the former leader of the Liberal Party. Now Norman Scott, the stablehand and male model who was Thorpe’s Adonis and whose Great Dane Rinka was killed on Exmoor by a bungling assassin, has produced his memoirs. Norman’s Gloria Gaynor moment has arrived. What took him so long?
The book is subtitled How I Dodged a Bullet, Spoke Truth to Power and Lived to Tell the Tale. People who boast about speaking truth to power are often self-promoting obsessives. At the end of Thorpe’s 1979 trial for incitement to murder him, Scott was described by the judge, Mr Justice Cantley, as “a hysterical, warped personality, a fraud, sponger, whiner, parasite — but, of course, he could be telling the truth”. By the wonders of British justice, whose blindness must be a source of pride to us all, Thorpe was acquitted. This book allows us to consider whether or not that old buzzard of a judge was on to something.
From Bad to Worse
Scott, an illegitimate child, was born Josiffe, in Sidcup, in 1940 but dropped the surname after Thorpe told him it sounded Jewish. When he was four his mother would hold him face down, pull down his pants and push her finger roughly inside him — “The abuse continued for several years.”
Ten years later he ran into trouble for pinching a bale of clover hay for his horse Listowel. His mother attended the magistrate’s court in a black astrakhan coat, accompanied by her friend, the singer Dorothy Squires. She disowned him, so the boy was sent to a remand center. Listowel was returned to the Blue Cross, never to be seen again.
Scott, leaving school at 15, hoped to join the Household Cavalry. It turned him down owing to “a foot injury”. He worked instead at various stables as a groom and riding instructor, never staying long in any job. He lost his virginity to a girl called Geraldine but attracted advances from men. These “shocked and disgusted” him. Dressage, not undressage, was his thing and he went to work for a three-day event rider, the Hon Brecht Van de Vater. Scott gave Vater his national insurance cards, which proved entitlement to benefits. He never saw them again.
You and I, without a diary, might find it hard to recall events from half a century ago. Scott seems blessed with a cinematic memory. At times Preston might almost be acting as his ghostwriter. One evening in 1961 a black Sunbeam arrives containing a lean, dapper, slightly sinister figure in homburg hat and black coat with fur collar. Astrakhan strikes again. The man in black is Thorpe, then a young Liberal MP for North Devon. He and Vater share a single bed, something that puzzles our innocent hero.
Nor does Scott smell a rat when Thorpe chats him up at the stable door and urges him to make contact if things ever go wrong with Vater. Some months later, after a spell of psychiatric care and some drugged, chaotic escapades in Oxford, Scott duly toddles off to Westminster with his Jack Russell, Mrs Tish. Again, the scene is presented in vivid detail, a dynamic Thorpe sweeping Scott and Mrs Tish off their paws, promising to solve all those pesky national insurance card problems.
To have such lucid recollection of this and subsequent events despite gobbling industrial quantities of Largactil, Tuinal, Librium, Antabuse, Mogadon and gin is a medical and literary miracle. Another of Scott’s weaknesses was for the vichyssoise at the Reform Club, where Thorpe dined him on “many” occasions.
Far-fetched as much of it reads — I believed about half of it — the story is a romp, acquiring a mesmeric impetus as Scott’s life staggers from one mishap to the next.
Norman Scott’s Gloria Gaynor moment has arrived. What took him so long?
He is ravished by Thorpe for the first time when they stay at the house of his mother, Ursula, a bulletproof Mary Whitehouse lookalike who quickly sniffs out Scott as trouble. The act of penetration (in those days still illegal) is so violent, with Scott biting the pillow in agonized silence, that Mrs Tish cowers in a corner.
Thorpe, one of life’s five-times-a-night men, calls Scott “poor frightened rabbit”. Was it sadism that drove the Liberal politician or a “reckless daredevil” lust for danger? One day he pushes Scott into the bushes of the garden of Selwyn Lloyd, the chancellor, near the Mall for a quick grope.
Names are dropped. Scott meets Lord Reith, the Earl of Snowdon, the heir to the Guinness fortune Tara Browne, “the internationally famous interior designer David Mlinaric”, “the world-famous prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn” and Lady Longford. “We would discourse on all manner of subjects,” Scott writes, his prose suddenly strangulated by grandeur.
Why does Scott presume Thorpe will pay for his welfare stamps? If the lack of national insurance cards is such a disaster for him, why does he not apply to the authorities for replacements? How, during his long spells of idleness, does he earn his money? One moment he is so poor that he is pinching stale bread from people’s duck houses. The next he is receiving private care at the London Clinic or dandying about in shoes from Sid’s of Sloane Street or cavorting in black tie at Bayreuth with some new lover. Of these, male and female, there are several, including Francis Bacon and a former lord mayor of Dublin.
Scott buys a house in Wales and then “gives it up”. Just like that. The story has more holes than a string vest. And yet it is strangely gripping, particularly when we reach the alleged plot to bump him off, silencing an embarrassment to the Liberal Party leader. The hit man, Andrew “Gino” Newton, is a mustachioed, pipe-sucking villain in sunglasses, worthy of ’Allo ’Allo!. On hearing that Scott is in Barnstaple, he goes initially to Dunstable.
The book becomes a bloodbath of reputations. Three Liberal grandees, David Steel, Emlyn Hooson and Lord Byers, accuse Scott of being a common blackmailer. They turn white when Scott shows them documentary evidence to support his claims about Thorpe. Among the editors who try to stitch up Scott is, oops, the sainted Harold Evans, of The Sunday Times.
The prosecution lawyer at the Thorpe trial, Peter Taylor, is written off as little more than an incurious stooge. He later rose to become a generally admired lord chief justice. Nor do the book’s editors quite escape the curse of Norman. Among several errors is a claim on page 305, just as Scott is accusing others of inaccuracies, that Auberon Waugh once edited Private Eye.
This book will no doubt make money, but Scott is a disaster magnet, a force field of ill fate. Alongside Listowel the horse and Rinka the doomed Great Dane, a tortoise is dropped on the floor and has its shell broken after young Norman catches his mother in flagrante with a telephone engineer. Mrs Tish the Jack Russell is executed for killing some ducks. Acquaintances lose their businesses and their marbles.
Scott is one of those scroungers who keep being sick in guest rooms. Each time another kindly soul offers him shelter, you want to shout: “Don’t have anything to do with him!” A Welsh widow who shows him affection is so driven off the rails that she commits suicide. Scott leads police to the cottage where her body has been rotting for two hot weeks. The description of her bedroom windows becoming black with flies is a rare moment when bleak horror cuts through the nostalgic japery.
Did Thorpe and Scott have a love affair? On Thorpe’s part, at least, the term seems unsatisfactory. “Arrangement” would be more accurate. Thorpe found physical release but showed almost no affection. It ended for good in early 1975 after Scott, drink having been taken, drove to see Thorpe in Devon and contrived to bash into the house. Thorpe’s wife refused to let him through the front door and Scott heard her shouting to her husband: “It’s your nut!” Scott would later conclude that Thorpe was behind the attempted murder. He writes: “I failed to bring Jeremy to justice.”
Quentin Letts is the political sketch writer for The Times and a theater critic for The Sunday Times