I’ve just finished reading John Preston’s terrific book on the ‘Jeremy Thorpe affair’. I only managed to catch the first episode of the BBC’s production but it whetted my appetite and reawakened my interest in the scandal so I bought the book.
What a great read! I will watch the BBC’s production and I don’t want to pre-judge it but I’ll be surprised if it goes into the detail which is in the book. I was born in 1966 so whilst I have a faint memory of the scandal, whilst I remember hearing about it when it was headline news, I didn’t know about the names/characters involved, besides Thorpe, Scott and Peter Taylor (defence counsel). I didn’t realise, for example, before I read the book, that George Carman was defence counsel (nor was I aware of what Carman’s excesses!!), that the Jeremy Thorpe trial catapulted him into the legal world’s stratosphere, nor did I know that David Napley was Thorpe’s solicitor (as Lord Goodman was not a criminal lawyer).
I had heard the name ‘Peter Bessell’ before I read the book but I knew nothing about him: his thought processes were disastrous! He was a social, political and entrepreneurial train wreck. Ok, his decision and actions were usually well-intentioned – immoral, criminal, but well-intentioned – his heart was usually in the right place but it often blinded him to what the difference was between right and wrong. Again, I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read the book but, suffice to say, whilst Bessell made some dreadful decisions in his life, I was left feeling sorry for the guy. He fell under the spell of Thorpe and, to all intents and purposes, he sleep walked through most of their ‘friendship’.
I was going to say that Bessell was a weak man but, as the author, intentionally or otherwise, makes clear, that would be disingenuous. He was, only in part, weak but, at the same time, he showed immense strength of character. It didn’t matter how many times he hit the canvas, he always got straight up, dusted himself off and got on with life and living. I think he became inured to life’s punches. He was inspirationally stoic. He had one heck of a thick skin! I think he ‘got it’ at the end of his life, I think, at the end, it’ll have become clear to him where it all went wrong, what he’d have done differently if he’d had his time again. I don’t know if the same can be said of Thorpe.
For the record, without saying too much, whilst Scott was the victim (I think we can drop the word ‘alleged’), he was, IMHO, no angel. Thorpe meeting Scott was the nail in his, Thorpe’s, coffin – both of their coffins (for Scott, almost literally!) – but, for Britain, it was a fortuitous meeting. If they hadn’t met, Thorpe might never have been exposed, he might have become the Prime Minister and the thought of a man with his faults and character traits being PM, or just continuing to have the power and authority he had in life before his crash, that’s chilling!
As I wasn’t, at the age of 12/13, particularly au-fait with British politics nor particularly up-to-speed with the inner workings of Parliament and Whitehall, this book shocked me (even by today’s low standards of British political life, it shocked me!). I don’t want this book review/recommendation to be a ‘spoiler’ so I’ll not go into too much detail though I expect that, just as everyone knew, before they watched ‘A Night to Remember’ or ‘Titanic’, that the ship sank, I think I can fairly assume that everyone reading this knows that Thorpe was found ‘Not Guilty’.
There’s an old adage, “Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done”. I guess there are people who think that this principle was satisfied in the case and people who think the opposite. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read the book but I can tell you that the author does not sit on the fence!
The book is well-researched and the author has clearly spent many, many hours in the company of people who knew, some who were related to, the personalities/characters involved. The book is not written in the abstract, it throws a spotlight not just on ‘the Jeremy Thorpe Affair’ but on the idiosyncratic, mind blowing, ‘disconnected from the world everyone else lived in’ political ‘Establishment’ at that time. As I sit ‘penning’ this book recommendation, I am ready to launch into a tirade but I shall resist the urge. The ‘Jeremy Thorpe Affair’ is a microcosm of the British political/social scene at that time, a textbook case which illuminates British political / ‘Establishment’ ‘industry practice’ in the 60’s and 70’s.
You could be forgiven for thinking, having read up to this point in my book review, that the author’s work is a heavy, academic, political tome, a case study for university politics students. I’m sure that if they are studying this period, they would find the book illuminating but the style is more of black comedy. I did LOL (come on, surely you all know by now – ‘laugh out loud’) at times but, such as is in black comedy, the titters were inappropriate! Remember, this is the ‘Jeremy Thorpe’ affair, alleged attempted murder, and then some… However, the story, the personalities, the relationships – social, family, sexual, romantic, political, cultural, ‘Establishment’ – are such that one reads it with incredulity, such incredulity that it’s easy to forget that it all happened, that it really happened. The behaviour/conduct/thinking of some of the characters is so bizarre, so mind boggling, that it’s hard NOT to see comedy in it.
In essence, the 1960’s and 70’s political environment, the ‘Establishment’, was completely disconnected from reality. Well, it was their reality but only theirs! The ‘big guns’, the big characters – and Thorpe was one of them! – many of them lived outrageous lives, outrageous by the standards of ‘ordinary’ society norms. So, when the two societies met, came together, the clash was explosive and the author illustrates it clearly, brilliantly, beautifully!
I now look forward to watching the BBC production and comparing it with the book. Even if you have seen the TV production, I wholeheartedly recommend that you read the book.