Nigel Nicolson, the son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, went up to Balliol in 1935. In his account of the atmosphere of the place, the undiluted masculinism of college life is shown to have been deliberately encouraged by the dons and willingly entered into by the students: ‘We took our cue from the dons, who discouraged heterosexual love as irrelevant to our purpose in being there, and treated girls as blue-stockings who could not be expected to understand our male society’. Of course, to discourage heterosexuality is not quite the same as to encourage homosexuality; but at Oxford they often seemed part of the same process. Only a few innocents were shocked, for whatever reason, by the long-established celebrations of maleness that university life involved. One was the future prime minister, Edward Heath, a friend of Nicolson’s: ‘Once we went for a walk along the banks of the Cherwell and came to the spot, known as Parson’s Pleasure, where undergraduates had for centuries bathed in the nude. Ted had never heard of it and was shocked. “Why,” he said, “anyone might come along. Girls might come along,” and nothing would reassure him’.1 Heath was a grammar school boy. His reaction to Parson’s Pleasure – by Oxford standards apparently so prim – is to a large extent a matter of background and class. The attempts that Nicolson made to ‘reassure him’ are not specified (Girls don’t come this way? Girls don’t shock? Girls don’t matter?), but what is clear is that the very fact that Heath, whatever his own sexual orientation, introduced ‘girls’ into the equation, is what stigmatises him as an outsider. By Oxford rules – unwritten but cemented by extensive precedent, like the British constitution itself – certain pleasures, whether innocent or not, are inviolate. Their continuance is understood. The presence of shockable girls would say less about the source of the shock than about the facile shockability of girls. The pleasure of the parson, whether derived from merely watching or actually taking part, is paramount.
Another future prime minister, Harold Wilson, seems to have been similarly bypassed by the supposedly prevailing ethos of 1930s Oxford. Wilson was at Jesus College, considerably smaller and poorer than the likes of Christ Church and Balliol. A friend and contemporary later said to Wilson’s biographer: ‘We were very naïve and innocent. … For example, I don’t think I had ever heard of homosexuals when I was an undergraduate, and Harold may not have either. I had no idea that spies were recruited at Oxford’.2 Not that this should come as a surprise: espionage was, after all, a secret service; and homosexuality was still, for the most part, a love that dared not speak its name. Although Wilson would later preside over a mildly reformist Labour government, he absented himself from the vote on the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill (6 February 1966), so as not to have to vote either way on the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts. At the time of the 1974 general election, Gay News judged that, of the three leaders of the main political parties – Labour’s Wilson, the Tories’ Edward Heath and the Liberals’ Jeremy Thorpe (of whom, more later) – Wilson was the least sympathetic to the question of gay rights.3
Richard Crossman, who would be Harold Wilson’s Minister for Housing and Local Government, and later his Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, was better informed and better placed, as an undergraduate, not only to notice but also to take up the gay social and sexual opportunities the university offered him. Not only did he enjoy himself homosexually at that age—in his diary entry for 23 May 1929 he described a feverish Easter holiday in Cornwall with a young poet: ‘He kept me in a little white-washed room for a fortnight because his mouth was against mine and we were completely together’—but in later life when prominent in public life he openly acknowledged that aspect of his past. As his biographer puts it, ‘Dick never sought to conceal the fact that in his early years at Oxford he had operated predominantly as a homosexual. Given the circle, dominated by W.H. Auden, which he had chosen to infiltrate, it was hardly likely that it would be otherwise’. At Christ Church he competed with Auden for the affections of the heterosexual Gabriel Carritt.4 Auden did have a sexual relationship with Crossman, but on one occasion at least, Stephen Spender failed to seduce Crossman. Just as Spender was making his move, Crossman uttered the immortal lines: ‘You know, Stephen, since I met you my life’s entirely altered. When I first knew you I used to masturbate and I used to read pornographic books. But now, after being with you, all that’s stopped. I don’t masturbate and I’m absolutely pure!’ This successfully dampened Spender’s ardour.5 However, a further attempt must have been successful: for when Crossman died in February 1975, Spender recorded in his journal memories of ‘a reading party at Crackington Manor when I had a slight “affair” with Dick which was compounded of passion and lust on both sides, and was not in the least serious’.6
1 Nigel Nicolson, Long Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p.66.
2 Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p47.
3 Stephen Jeffrey-Poulter, Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present (London: Routledge, 1991), pp 74, 111.
4 Anthony Howard, Crossman: The Pursuit of Power (London: Cape, 1990), p.24.
5 John Sutherland, Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography (London: Viking, 2004), p.100.
6 Stephen Spender, Journals 1939-1983 (London: Faber, 1992), p.294.