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Jane Kelly’s book review: Dead dogs and Englishmen

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A Very English Scandal by John Preston, Penguin

Who could have thought that a man’s ruin, an attempted murder and the shooting of a dog could be amusing? But John Preston’s book about the Thorpe affair is a cross between Evelyn Waugh and an Ealing comedy, drawing on English character at its worst, and most hilarious.

Take Peter Bessell, Liberal MP, Methodist lay preacher and Lothario, Thorpe’s adoring lackey with a ‘fondness for mohair which caused him to shimmer slightly when he stood near an electric light’.

Preston gives us Bessell’s view of Thorpe: ‘We were both wilful, quick to take offence, capable of arrogance and incurably sentimental.’ Adds Preston pithily: ‘And each in his own distinctive way was a colossal chancer.’

With that introduction to the two men, we are into a work which has the pace of a racy crime novel. The cast of English grotesques is enchanting: ‘The Honourable Brecht Van de Vater,’ who in 1961 procured the stable lad Norman Scott for Thorpe. ‘With his tweed suits, club ties, Land Rover, horses and spaniels, he gave the impression of being a well-heeled English gentleman. In fact everything about him was a carefully constructed charade.’



That description fits almost everyone in the book. There is a photograph of Thorpe on a campaign bus being squashed by Cyril Smith. The Rochdale MP was seen as a northern buffoon, his paedophilia concealed for another twenty years. Thorpe comes over as a witty, charismatic egomaniac. On Princess Margaret’s marriage to Lord Snowdon, he quipped: ‘What a pity. I hoped to marry one and seduce the other.’

He realised he had to marry to look convincing in public life. There’s a wedding photo and under it a quote from Thorpe: ‘If it’s the price I’ve got to pay to lead this old party, I’ll pay it.’

Preston relishes the rich absurdity of the situation which led Thorpe, an MP and Privy Counsellor, to the Old Bailey accused of the attempted murder of his gay lover. Scott never used blackmail but tried endlessly to get Thorpe to acknowledge him and return his missing National Insurance card. He whined about how badly he’d been treated and claimed to have letters from Thorpe, but hardly anyone listened to him. When his claims finally made it into the press in 1976, Thorpe panicked and formed a cunning plan.
Enter more unlikely characters: John Le Mesurier, known as ‘John the Carpet’, who ran a cut-price carpet company, Dennis Meighan, a dealer in antique guns, George Deakin, a millionaire from renting out slot machines, and Andrew ‘Gino’ Newton, also known as ‘chicken brain’, a small-time pilot from Blackpool. They were all approached to help solve the problem of ‘a nuisance who had to be silenced,’ as Preston adds mischievously, ‘for the good of the Liberal Party.’
On October 23, 1975, Scott, already scared by mysterious death threats, met Newton who was posing as a minder hired to protect him. Newton drove him on to Dartmoor, shot Scott’s Great Dane Rinka, then allegedly tried to shoot Scott but the gun jammed and Scott ran away. His words when he met an AA patrolman, ‘Someone’s shot my dog and tried to shoot me’, led to a case that became known as the trial of the century.

Preston’s detailed descriptions based on thorough research create a picture of an England that has probably vanished. Thorpe’s homicidal desperation originated in the time before 1967 when homosexuality was illegal. But Preston notes that after his first appearance in court he tucks into steak pie and jam roly-poly, like any good public school chap. Probably Judge Sir Joseph Cantley, ‘with a face almost as red as his robe’, was having the same.

Preston suggests that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones, a close friend of Thorpe, appointed Cantley. It was known that Cantley had remained a virgin until the age of 56 when he married the widow of another judge, still espoused 19th century sexual morality and would see lewd allegations from the lower orders as intolerable impudence.
In his farcical summing-up, Cantley called Scott ‘a crook, fraud, sponger, whiner and a parasite’. Then he adding: ‘But of course, he could still be telling the truth.’ He didn’t say much about the men accused of Scott’s attempted murder, except that Newton probably never paid his income tax and Deakin was the sort who had a cocktail bar in his living room. All four defendants were acquitted, but Thorpe was a ruined man.
One wonders if characters like Thorpe, Bessell and Cantley are still out there. They’ve probably been homogenised out of our now Puritanical culture, which may be just as well for justice but is a sad loss for the gaiety of public life.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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