Driberg, Thomas Edward Neil, Baron Bradwell 1905-1976, journalist and politician, was born at Crowborough, Sussex, 22 May 1905, the youngest of the three sons of John James Street Driberg, of the Indian Civil Service, and his wife, Amy Mary Irving Bell, of Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire.
His father, who had been born in 1842, died when he was fourteen. As his brothers were already adult when he was born, the formative influence on his childhood was his majestic, clinging, and not totally lovable mother, under whose tutelage he grew up in lonely and genteel penury at Crowborough, a town which came to symbolize all he found most death-dealing in British bourgeois life. His inevitable adolescent rebellion took the twin forms of riotous Anglo-Catholicism and the delights of homosexual seduction, which he discovered, somewhat prematurely, at the age of twelve, playing then, as always, the active role. At the age of fifteen to these he added the third of his lifelong ruling passions by joining the Communist Party.
In 1918 he went to Lancing College on a scholarship. Although hopeless at games and a natural rebel, he was a success at school, rising to be deputy head boy. Unfortunately one of his sexual adventures came to the notice of authority. He left under the traditional cloud, took private tuition, and won the third scholarship in classics at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1924. He never sat for his finals, since he went down in the summer of 1927, under another cloud which had little to do with his undistinguished performance in classical honour moderations. During this time however, he rapidly identified himself with the aesthetes, whose upper-class and bohemian lifestyle stood for all that Crowborough was not. He joined the editorial board of Cherwell, then at the height of its réclame, and wrote poetry which was commended by (Dame) Edith Sitwell [qv.]. At the same time he was an active member of the Communist Party. During the general strike he volunteered for work at the party's headquarters; he spent one vacation as a cub-reporter on the communist Sunday Worker, in another he earned a few pounds as a pavement artist operating in Russell Square.
Down from Oxford, gifted with good looks, literary ability, smart friends, and no money, and determined under no circumstances to live at Crowborough, he found employment, satisfying to his nostalgie de la boue, in a Soho café, which doubled up as a brothel whose speciality was fat girls. From this he was rescued by (Dame) Edith Sitwell [qv.]. Appalled by his descriptions of the life, she gave him an introduction to (Sir) Beverley Baxter, then managing director of the Daily Express; he, in his turn, in 1928 found him a niche in the organization as assistant to the gossip columnist Dragoman. Here he attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbook [qv.] who suppressed the Dragoman column, and gave Driberg the freedom of a column of his own, These Names Make News, under the signature of William Hickey, the name of a gossipy eighteenth-century diarist. Here he widened the content of the column from the trivia of the merely rich and fashionable to cover the haute bohème of his friends, with sympathetic mention of contemporary experiment in the arts and increasingly explicit left-wing criticism of the establishment. Although the column was designedly written in the jerky style derived from Time, it was nevertheless meticulously literate, to the despair of sub-editors, but with the result that the Hickey column maintained a literary standard unsurpassed since then.
With Beaverbrook he maintained a permanent love-hate relationship, later made explicit in his Beaverbrook: A Study in Power and Frustration (1956). There were violent rows; but Beaverbrook allowed him political latitude; gave him considerable sums of money; and once when he was faced with a criminal charge (on which he was acquitted) paid the legal expenses, and contrived that no mention of the case should appear in the press. In 1943, however, he was dismissed after a disagreement with Arthur Christiansen [qv.], the editor. He then transferred his column to Reynolds News, and later wrote regularly for the People and the New Statesman. But it was in the Daily Mail he pulled off in 1956 the scoop of his career; an interview in Moscow with Guy Burgess. He also made frequent appearances on radio and television.
By this time he was in Parliament. In 1942 he stood at the Maldon by-election as an Independent. This was made possible by the fact that he had, the year before, been summarily dismissed from the Communist Party because the party caucus discovered that he was an agent of MI5, to which he had been recruited in the late 1930s. He was returned by an overwhelming majority in what had become his home constituency; for in 1938 he had bought Bradwell Lodge, a fine Regency house in the district. This remained his chief home until 1971; and here he entertained generously, with fine disregard for the class or moral repute of his guests.
At the 1945 election he retained the seat—but this time as an official Labour candidate—and represented the constituency for the next ten years. From 1949 he was annually elected to the national executive, rising to chairman in 1957-8. Despite this eminence, he lost the seat in 1958; but next year he won in Barking, which he represented until his retirement in 1974.
An outstanding back-bencher, with a high reputation as a constituency MP, the hero of the young left and the way-out (for he was always on the side of the young and championed the socially least acceptable causes), he was too maverick to be trusted by the party establishment with whom he had several brushes, notably when he was severely censured in 1950 for gross neglect of parliamentary duties by taking three months off to be a war correspondent in Korea. Moreover, as rumour of his sexual mores had become widespread, it is not surprising that he never attained Cabinet rank. Possibly in the hope that his chances of promotion might be increased by the semblance of respectability conferred by matrimony, he married, on 30 June 1951, Mrs Ena Mary Binfield, daughter of Myer Lyttleton, with the full panache of pontifical high mass at St. Mary's, Bourne Street. Despite the valiant attempts of his wife to keep the marriage afloat, it collapsed almost from the beginning. Though never formally separated they lived increasingly independent lives. Mrs Driberg—she refused the title from socialist principle—died in 1977.
Retiring from the Commons in 1974 Driberg was created a life peer in the following year under the title of Baron Bradwell, of Bradwell-juxta-Mare. Although he enjoyed the dignity, he played only a minimal part in the Lords in the nine months that remained to him. He was unused to the conventions of the upper chamber; he was in poor health, and preoccupied with writing his memoirs, an unfinished version of which was published posthumously in 1977 under the title Ruling Passions. On 12 August 1976 he had a heart attack in a taxi, and died in St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington. A funeral requiem was sung at St. Matthew's, Westminster (in whose clergy house he had lived for three of his last years). His body was interred in Bradwell church and within sight of the house which he loved possibly more than any other object in his life.
His personality was more than life-size, both better and worse than most men's. He showed a paradoxical mixture of extreme left-wing convictions and upper-class social attitudes. He was a convinced monarchist; permissive in morals and pedantic in etiquette; a liturgist; a gourmet; a collector of old books; and a patron of the avant-garde in painting and drama; a terrific tease. He was lovable and exasperating. He had hundreds of friends and none to whom he opened his inmost heart. He was voracious for experience and invariably disappointed by it; arrogant, and yet with a deep self-hatred which induced him to leave dispositions that at his memorial service, in place of the conventional panegyric, a friend should preach an anti-panegyric exposing and excoriating his vices.
Tom Driberg, Ruling Passions, 1977
Contributor: Gerard Irvine