October 12, 2007
Alone in an enclosed space with a not-yet notorious nine-bobber MP, FRED WEHNER insists propriety ruled.
This is a sorry saga about an Indian Summer with ruined seaside fun and marooned media and lots and lots of beer. Oh, and about a very prominent politician I think I’ll code name Fourpy, 4P for short, in order to protect Jeremy Thorpe’s identity.
First I insist on making it kick-arse clear that there is no what you might call fervent male bonding in this story. For in 1974 at the start of September, 4P’s naughty homosexual he-nanigans might have been known to some, but not to the whole world. And certainly not to me. Got that?
Britons are enjoying a bit of a late warm-up this particular summer and have swarmed to the shores, most abundantly along the south coast. There is also a general election looming, causing somewhat of a blasted botheration, don’ch’know, to the hoity 4P, queer as a fourpenny bit, who... hell, let’s just call him by his right name.
The Right Honourable John Jeremy Thorpe, Member of Parliament for Devon North, leader of the Liberal Party, has a remedy: he switches his campaigning from routine inland venues to unscheduled stumping at the seaside. The speeches on the beaches. With a frightfully good chance this time around of some serious success, what-what, he intends to snaffle those votes. And the populace had better jolly well understand that they can’t escape him just by going on hols.
Thorpy also wants as much media coverage as he can get, and he believes he’s secured that with the time-honoured elixir used to superb effect to bribe Fleet Street’s pushover denizens. Beer.
So there, as my colleagues and I arrive at the start of this adventure, is a coach waiting for us, and on the back seat the Seductive Sauce of Ruination. Several cases of the stuff.
I remember feeling miffed right then. Knowing you’re a bunch of boozy old cynics is one thing but having someone else identify you as such... how dare he!
And just beer? We’re not all gutter-press guzzlers. Where’s my sipping scotch?
But anyroad, pop off some bottle caps and away we go
The whereabouts of the Great Man himself? All at sea, we’re told. His next appearance will be at Bournemouth, and, sure enough, as we huddle by the pier a hovercraft swiftly rounds the cove and runs up onto land. Panicked holidaymakers flee.
Sandcastles are flattened, deckchairs overturned. Anyone buried up to his neck gets a free blow dry, an industrial strength zephyr that almost hurricanes the hair right off his head. Little Johnny runs back to mummy, drops his ice cream and now his whine is louder than that of the hovercraft’s engine.
Out trips Jeremy looking fabulous in yellow oilskins, wearing a matching sou’wester and a great big political smile like the front of a 1959 Vauxhall Victor and waving a great big fabulous political wave. But only to the brave souls who didn’t run: The Few.
How to win over the electorate, eh, by buggering up their holidays.
Fast forward to a day in 1975 when a Great Dane named Rinka is shot dead right before her master’s eyes. He is Norman Scott and what follows is an icky tale of pillowbiting and attempted murder that grips the nation. The most oft-quoted line that registers top on Britain’s National Sniggermeter comes from a love note Scott has received from his paramour that reads: ‘Bunnies can and will go to France’. The sender? The Right Honourable Member for Devon North.
Thorpe’s khaki malarkey is out in the open now. I’m doorstepping his ritzy West London address along with the gang and it’s not a pretty sight. One of our number moons the house (remember, we’re the beer-belching oaves of the Low Press). When a telegram boy arrives another hollers out to him at full volume: ‘Tell him you’re fifteen and you’ll be all right!’
Poor old Jeremy, allegedly not in his home although everyone knows he is. He’s hearing all this. Must be doing some major-league squirming, and not the kind he enjoys.
Among our merciless Fleet Street rabble is snapper Mike Maloney from the Daily Mirror who’s just come up from Devon where another mob is staking out ‘Miss’ Scott. High jinks there too, it seems. The coquettish former male model has emerged from his cottage, Mike says, wearing a frilly blouse, cheerily and cheekily serenading the gathered newshounds. To the tune of You’re The Cream In My Coffee he’s substituted his own lyrics: I’m The Queen In Your Copy (You All Write About Me).
Enough already! Enough. I’ve had it up to here with homosexuals!
So re-enter the Time Machine, backpedal to the coastal campaign a year earlier.
We’ve bumbled along northward, stopping every few miles to witness each time afresh the shock and awe of unsuspecting holidaymakers as Thorpy executes his commando-style raids. Like wildebeest scenting a lion at the water hole, most quicken their pace, moving inland as he begins his speechification – and it’s the same rehearsed rhetoric every time.
Now we’re in Brighton and every one of us needs to file some kind of story, uninspiring though it is. Thirty minutes later we’re back, about to board our coach – but all that’s left is an empty space. It’s gone!
What happened? Did the hovercraft eat it?
My coat’s on that bus. And my briefcase. My long-time Daily Mirror buddy Ronnie Ricketts is very worried about his belongings - his passport’s among them. The others are dismayed: they could at least have been bequeathed the rest of the beer.
We call the coach company and learn that it’s headed back to base in Eastbourne, so two taxis are commandeered and the chase is on.
At the depot the driver protests it wasn’t his idea to discard us gentlemen-of-the-Press in Brighton, it was Mr. Thorpe-sir’s. The man had cared not a fig for his Fleet Street retinue. Having jettisoned his hovercraft, he had sashayed aboard and, over the impassioned pleadings our driver now claims to have lodged, given the command to drive on and the Press are such a hardy breed they can look after themselves and since Mr. Thorpe was the one paying for the bus etc. etc... Yeah yeah yeah. Where was he now? Gone to catch the London train.
Frenzied taxi rides again. We all make the station with minutes to spare. And there, lounging contentedly in one of the train compartments, we discover the Right Honourable Member for Devon North whose most recent action, wouldn’ch’say, has proven just a trifle less than honourable, what-bloody-what!
He peers over his half-moon specs, disguising his surprise at seeing us by announcing: ‘Find yourselves some glasses, gentlemen.’
He’s got a nerve. Here he is supping fabulous champagne with two rather better-class fellows whom I don’t remember seeing on the bus and who identify themselves, grinning, as The Taimes and The Telegrah-ph.
Oh la-de-dah. So, I see, Mr. Thorpe has chosen to cozy up to the conservative side and leave the hoi polloi in the Brighton dust. We have readers too, I remind him, quite a few. And that’s the story I believe they would care to read.
And where does he suppose our belongings might be? Up on the rack, he says, he was going to ‘make sure’ they were returned to us. Oh yeah? Well, at least he didn’t just toss our clobber into the sea – it’s there. I’m relieved-stroke-peeved.
To me, I suggest, still ranting angrily, it’s clearly a case of ‘a pox on the plebian press’. Ronnie frantically shoeing my shin at this point and muttering something semi-loudly about the Daily Mirror considering itself neither poxed nor plebian. Bung a couple of condescending cases of brewskis over to the wallies, I continue, because I’m on a roll now, and I don’t even drink beer. It’s an insult.
‘What do you drink?’ The well-rehearsed political smile again, and then quickly to one of his companions: ‘Can you find the Daily Mail a glass?’
Well, as it happens I’m not so easily bought, not with a glug of champers. ‘No thanks.’
‘My goodness,’ the MP sighs heavily and dramatically, rolling his eyes and sagging his already-low jaw down further in mock sadness. ‘We do appear to have upset the Daily Mail, don’t we. How can I possibly make it up?’
‘How about answering a few questions?’
In an instant, the Right Honourable Member proposes we go into the adjacent compartment and we do, just the two of us, Jeremy and Freddy and at this point it becomes rather imperative in light of future revelations that I stress once more loud and clear in the most emphatic and irrevocable of terms that we only talked, and talked only about his campaign and nothing else, you understand. Nothing. I am not now nor have I ever been (apologies to Senator Joe McCarthy, 1954) a member of the Libertine Party.
By the way, that train ride yielded a long, productive chat, all the way in to Victoria. Not France. No, he never called me Bunny
Copyright © 2007 Fred Wehner is a former Fleet Street journalist from the London Daily Mail who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Georgia 21 years ago. This piece was published on a website based in Malta.