Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tom Driberg, _Ruling Passions_

I PROPOSE AS a general rule that you are in for a treat whenever you pick up the autobiography of anyone who crossed paths with Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s. Waugh's own A Little Learning, likable as it is, is not even the cream of the crop, considering the set includes Anthony Powell's To Keep the Ball Rolling, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave, Harold Acton's Memoirs of an Aesthete and the even better More Memoirs of an Aesthete, Henry Green's Pack My Bag, and the volume under consideration here.

Tom Driberg's name was familiar to me from reading about London in the 1920s and 1930s. I knew he was a gossip columnist and  therefore likely to have known just about everyone, but I had no idea--we get glimpses not only of the people you would expect (Brian Howard, Guy Burgess, Edith Sitwell), but also of Aleister Crowley (Driberg tells a great story about a trick played on that Prince of Darkness), Nikita Krushchev, Dwight Eisenhower, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aung San--that is, the father of Aung San Soo Kyi. He was a one-time member of the Communist Party and a High Church Anglican; he was a gossip columnist and a member of the House of Commons.

Your having known everyone scarcely suffices to make your autobiography interesting, of course; you have to be able to write.  Driberg can really write. His prose has that bracing cocktail of Oxford erudition plus journalistic brio that the writing of the late Christopher Hitchens had--always graceful, never dull.

Driberg was also an out gay man at a time when that was a tricky and not exactly legal proposition. He mentions the "twofold theme of this book--that it is possible for a practicing homosexual to do an adequate job in public life, but that if it is known that he is homosexual he will be subject to discrimination." This theme does appear intermittently, though without being fully developed--Driberg died before the book was finished, and perhaps there would have been more on this twofold theme had he lived longer.  But its frankness (and lack of sentimentality) about Driberg's personal life makes the book all the more appealing and worthwhile.

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