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Norman Scott interview: “I never loved Jeremy Thorpe, but he could be enormous fun”

The Liberal leader was tried for conspiracy to Scott’s murder in 1979 in the biggest political scandal of the 20th century. Now his former lover is settling some scores.

By Kate Mossman

Norman Scott’s house is so old, so much part of the earth, that it has a lot of the outside inside: riding boots and milk-churns in the hallway; the smell of horses and dogs. It is a medieval longhouse on Dartmoor, squat and dark with a roof of black thatch. A flight of ancient steps runs up the outside to a small oak door halfway up the wall. There is a heart-shaped hole in the oak, hewn by Scott himself, while a carving above the entrance misdates the place by 200-odd years. Even the muck pit out front is Grade II-listed. When English Heritage came down to assess it, eight people turned up in smart shoes. “They all wanted a glimpse of Norman Scott,” he says. He made six of them wait in the road.

The man whom Private Eye alluded to as “Mr ‘Sweetie’ Roughtrouser” picks his way across the farmyard. Scott was once the lover of Jeremy Thorpe, who became leader of the Liberal Party in 1967, and was at the centre of one of the 20th century’s biggest political scandals after a hitman tried to shoot Scott on Exmoor in 1975. Four years later Thorpe, a married man, stood trial for conspiracy to murder – an apparent attempt to silence Scott, who was accused of blackmailing him over their on-off affair. Though Thorpe was acquitted, it was the end of his career.

At 82, Scott is tall – 6ft – wiry and rather powerful. Three white cats, all pregnant by the same gentleman caller, curl around his feet as he walks towards me. There are four tiny Affenpinscher dogs, and two tiny ginger Shetland ponies, too. Scott likes big dogs – like the Great Dane, Rinka, killed by the alleged hitman Andrew Newton before his gun jammed – but he’s not allowed to take on a rescue dog at his age. He wants one he can ride out with – he can go 15 miles on the moor without reaching a road – and his Affenpinschers’ legs are too short. Not that he can ride at the moment: on a recent trip to London, celebrating the publication of his recent memoir, An Accidental Icon, Scott bust an Achilles tendon walking the full length of Kensington High Street and back again.

His stiff legs suggest a lifetime of horses, and the traces, perhaps, of older accidents. At a riding school in Ireland in the 1960s, Scott fractured six vertebrae falling off a nervous mare called Miss Kop and was left unable to raise his arms. In an image burned into the mind from his book, he refused to recover in hospital, instead tying sacks around his legs and moving about the yard on his knees, dragging pails of water. Scott always wanted to work, while Jeremy Thorpe kept him like a rent boy, on a retainer of £5 per week.

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The ancient house feels more like a church than a dwelling place. The walls must be 4ft thick: one room is crammed with stained glass and stone bosses. The tang of woodsmoke emanates from a huge fireplace in the living room, fashioned from three granite slabs, rough and heavy as a tomb. A fertility symbol above the fire was carbon-dated to the 11th century: the orange embers look as if they have been burning forever. There are two deep, velvet sofas and every surface is covered in photos. There is Scott’s late friend April Ashley, the first trans model (“She went to a horrible place to get it done – but Vogue only used April for their underwear shoots, because she had the most beautiful body and legs”). And a photo of Ben Whishaw, who played Scott in the 2018 BBC One drama A Very English Scandal.

Of Whishaw, he says: “He is a lovely friend. We met at the Golden Globes. He called me a ‘queero’, which was rather sad; hero would have been nice! And gosh, I don’t want to hurt people. But no, I can say it. He did his job, and people loved it, but it wasn’t me. I’ve never been that camp, mincing queen. I wouldn’t run after a Great Dane in that silly way. I’d say [he barks], ‘Come here!’”

Scott’s eyes are sharp. His speech is quick and smart; you wonder how many other grandfathers would punctuate a sentence with an ironic, Wayne’s World “not”. He pours two goblets of sweet white wine. “Whatever you do,” he says urgently, “please promise, please make clear, that I was never, ever a stable boy.”

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He tells me he fell out with John Preston, who wrote the book on which the BBC drama was based. “You may think it’s a good book. I don’t! He came down every week for months. I gave him lunch, wine, cooked, I told him everything, and he then didn’t give me a penny! Well, he did in the end. Oh, and he gave me a pair of trousers! I said, ‘Those are very nice trousers you’re wearing,’ and the next time he came, he brought me some, well cut.”

Preston gave you his trousers? “No, they would never have fitted me, the little squirt!”

He thinks the television drama, written by Russell T Davies, was too camp on the whole. “If you’ve seen any of his things, they are very gay, camp, and that just isn’t me. He came here four or five times and he didn’t get me. They made it into a black comedy, but it isn’t. It’s somebody’s life.”

If Scott’s book is anything to go by, there was indeed some poetic licence taken. Would the show have been enjoyed as much had Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant, raped Scott that first night in his mother’s house, as An Accidental Icon claims? All Thorpe’s sexual advances, Scott writes, were motivated by violence: a change would come over him; he gave Scott the nickname “Bunnies” because he looked so frightened before their first encounter. But in Davies’ version, the seduction rather recalls Uncle Monty’s scene in Withnail and I, with Grant in an embroidered gown, and a giant, almost radioactive tub of lube.

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It was just one of several changes that shifted his story into farce. On screen, Newton’s gun was fired haphazardly; in Scott’s book, he describes the barrel against his head. He recalls it now, tracing his right temple with two fingers.

The problem is, the way Scott tells his story – and the way he told it at the Old Bailey in 1979 – is funny, almost compulsively so. He is big on absurdity (“I mean, I read my book,” he tells me. “And I was exhausted! I had to have a drink!”), but in person he uses more detached expressions when describing the reality of rape, abuse or madness: it was “horrid”, “horrible”, “wicked”, “well, awful, you know?”. “I always laughed at myself, and at situations, and that’s how I’ve managed,” he explains. “But that’s not to say my story is a comedy: it’s just me laughing.”

He has been back to the spot on Exmoor where he was nearly executed just once. It is 30 miles away – the ground peaty and soft, where Dartmoor is rough and rocky. Newton had already dug a grave for him, he says.

A clock chimes delicately on the sideboard. A landline rings – one of his friends, you imagine, calling to say they’ve read his new book. Everyone in the village knows Scott, but “not everyone likes me”. He used to goad the locals in the 1980s with a Lib Dem sticker on one of his gates. But for every person he alienated, there seems to be another who has gone to astounding lengths to show him kindness. The house was given to him in 1985 by a friend, a lawyer, “one of the few people who was on my side”. Scott has to give it back when he dies, but it’s his first permanent home (he has slept in lavatories and phone boxes).

You wonder where he got all this stuff, how he amassed and transported things when he moved so much – just as you wonder how he managed always to keep animals: the Jack Russell, Mrs Tish, who accompanied him to parliament; his two whippets, who began modelling around the same time he did (they were featured in Harper’s and Queen magazine, posing with a young Cary Elwes).

Scott filed such a large book to his publishers that they granted him another 10,000 words. He says he would go riding every day and return having remembered more things: “I have a very retentive memory.” But in 1979, as the trial of Thorpe progressed, he says he started to forget things. “I rather gave in, and thought, ‘Well, I’m never going to win,’ so I let a lot of stuff go” – as if all his life he had been making mental snapshots, compiling evidence, just as he collected Thorpe’s letters, and took them here and there in suitcases – to Switzerland, to Ireland, to the police.

He seems to have felt some peace after the trial, despite Thorpe being acquitted of conspiracy to murder. Perhaps it was simply because he’d been heard: he had literally shouted the words “my homosexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe” in the witness stand. If the motif of his life was people trying to stop him talking – a policeman once dashed his head into a wall – then the scandal, and the press attention, were enough, you suspect, to relieve some of the pressure in his head. Just after the shooting, he cooked a roast for six reporters, and played football with a group of press from Japan.

But you misrepresent him at your peril: “Seriously, I wasn’t going to have you here today,” he tells me, “because of what happened with the last three articles. I’ve had some pretty horrible journalists. Why do they just read Wikipedia, or old books written when I’ve been too ill to question?”

Not guilty: Jeremy Thorpe is mobbed by the press outside the Old Bailey, June 1979. Photo by Clive Limpkin/ANL/Shutterstock

Some reviews of Accidental Icon by near contemporaries bear a whiff of older attitudes to Scott and what he stood for. Lynn Barber wrote, in the Telegraph: “This is his first full autobiography. And, frankly, it seems to justify the judge’s verdict of ‘a hysterical, warped personality’.” Scott says, “Oh, I destroyed her on Facebook,” with a flash in his eye. “Shall I find it for you? Should I do this?” He pads out of the room.

I cast my eyes about: there is a family of Staffordshire porcelain spaniels on the windowsill, and a photo of a rather beautiful teenage boy on the sideboard, milking a cow.

He returns with an iPad and scrolls through his Facebook page, then reads what he wrote of Barber: “I would have thought she must be a contemporary of mine, age-wise, seeing her photograph, and therefore knowing how things were at the time. But perhaps she forgets: I’ve noticed this in others of my age. But Ms Barber, I have been blessed with a very retentive memory, and surprise, surprise, all that you have read is true. Those who scorn please carry on, it matters not a jot. I wonder how you would have fared if you were living my life.”

I wonder how you would have fared if you were living my life. Sometimes, when you are with someone who has had a long and strange existence, it is hard to believe that this is the same body in front of you, all in one piece. Here, for the record, is a brief rundown of what has happened to Norman Scott. Sexual abuse as a child; time in a remand centre; periods spent in mental hospitals; multiple suicide attempts; month-long sedations by kindly doctors; conversion therapy, of which more later; repeated rape; a monumental amount of casual sex; addiction to prescription medication; homelessness; delusions; police brutality and attempted murder. After the Thorpe trial, Scott lost so much weight that there were rumours he had Aids.

It was his mother – a widow with six children – who sexually abused him, as a child of four or five. He sometimes gets flashbacks in his upstairs bathroom. “She only did that for a few years,” he interjects, “and it stopped once she started meeting men. I think she just used me as a sex toy.”

It is striking to hear him say “just”, I say.

“Well, I have to, you know?”

In Thorpe, it is tempting to say he found an echo of his mother – the confusion of a charismatic protector turned abuser. But he would not necessarily make this connection himself: Scott does not do therapy speak, and says simply that she made him flinch; she meant nothing to him. The book is full of his struggles with depression, but when I ask about his mental health he draws back a little, saying he has no black dogs whatsoever. He adds: “I suppose I’m still as batty as I was! But no, I am bloody strong. I’m a very honest, strong person, and if people don’t like it, it’s very easy to walk on. But they should walk on knowing that I’m a truthful person.”

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He is tormented by the distinction, made by some, between “his truth” and “the truth”. In An Accidental Icon, after failed attempts to work in France, Ireland, Switzerland and Wales, he returns to Devon where he “unexpectedly” found himself – quite unexpectedly, he insists – in Thorpe’s constituency (“With no other option, I stayed”). According to Scott, he turned up at Thorpe’s house in Cobbaton one night in 1974 in order to claim his National Insurance card (Thorpe’s wife Marion shouted, “Your nut is here!”). Scott says that Thorpe had promised to supply him with one after he left his with a former employer: it never materialised – a way of keeping him powerless and dependent, Scott thinks. But as far as the authorities were concerned, each attempt to pin down Thorpe was a pretext for blackmail.

“And if you’re going to ask me – I know you’re going to ask me – ‘Why didn’t you just go and get another card?’” I am not. The National Insurance card was Scott’s obsession, his idée fixe. He left a lover in Ireland – the “love of [his] life” – in one attempt to retrieve it.

“The most important thing, always, was my card! It sounds crazy, because the young don’t even know what it means nowadays.” Scott says he doesn’t get the full state pension even now, because his stamps weren’t paid by Thorpe.

“There were two things about Jeremy Thorpe: one, he lived on a knife-edge of danger; and the other, he was inherently mean, when he wanted to be.”

Then his tone shifts. “But no, honestly. Look, how lovely is this?” He casts his hand around the room. “And because it’s lovely, I just adore it. And I’m so lucky… People can’t quite understand how it is that if I’ve got very little money, I live in such a place. But that’s nobody’s business but mine.”

Norman Scott was an illegitimate child who left his secondary modern in Bexleyheath at the age of 15. He spent time in a remand centre, after stealing a bale of hay for his horse. Thorpe gave him access to a new world, and in many ways, he stayed there. He says he slept with Francis Bacon in the 1960s, and breakfasted with a young David Bowie. He had – he gestures to a spot over his shoulder – an armchair given to him by Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West. He brought it back from her villa in Florence and held on to it – only recently disposing of it in a skip when Michael, his partner of 25 years, said he didn’t care for it. Michael is an artist who lives 60 miles away in Crewkerne. “I think he’d have liked a lot of my life in the past to go.”

Scott was “wowed” by Thorpe and by parliament, he tells me. He would regularly watch Thorpe speak in the Commons from the Strangers’ Gallery. “There are no statesmen today,” he says. “At least – God, am I really going to say this – Thorpe was a statesman, you know? I’d see him talking to Rab Butler: he was a statesman. I saw Clement Attlee, looking like a little rat, walking through the Commons. He was a statesman, too.”

Today’s Westminster is a very different world from the one Scott dipped his toe into. “Not just my toe!” he says. “I mean, you respected it. It’s much worse now. I certainly won’t vote Conservative, and I always had done. It won’t improve until Boris goes. I think he’s terrible. You know, I knew them” – he means the Johnsons – “when they lived over on Exmoor. That father was a real martinet. He treated them like dirt. I’m sure they hunted them! I mean, chose which one to chase out over the moors. No, they’re horrible. Horrible.”

I ask him about the former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel, whom he visited armed with love letters from Thorpe. To this day, Steel denies he had any knowledge of Thorpe’s sexuality, or the plot to kill Scott: he was elected leader of the Liberal Party after Thorpe stood down.

“What a prat!” Scott says. “In very large letters, he is a dick. He got where he got through me, in a way, because he knew the real truth about Jeremy, because I told him.”

But of Neil Parish, the Conservative MP who stepped down in April after watching porn in the House of Commons, Thorpe says, “I felt rather sorry for him. I’m sure they’re all doing it, really.”

[See also: “I didn’t want anyone to know it was me”: on being Joni Mitchell’s “Carey”]

How does he feel about being described as a “disaster magnet”, as he often is? One woman with whom he had a relationship later took her own life; another drank herself to death. “It sounds as if I’m a car crash, and I have the most lovely life – and would have had, had I not met all these…” he breaks off. Then it comes again. “Would any of these people have lived my life and survived?”

“The Me thing” has helped his case, Scott says, referring to the #MeToo movement: respect for the establishment is critically low, while the exploitation of vulnerable people by the powerful dominates the conversation. Attitudes to homosexuality have changed most of all. “Though I don’t know how much, really,” he says. “It’s like racism: at home, I’m sure, people are still as horrid as they were.”

Still, the BBC presenter Evan Davis interviewed him at the Charleston Festival on 19 May; Graham Norton had him on his radio show; and Whishaw called him “an icon”. It’s about as far away as you can get from the moment in 1979 when a neighbour in his former Devon home, leaving a Sunday service in the village church, told a BBC journalist that if she had a gun she would shoot Scott herself.

“I don’t honestly think I ever loved Jeremy Thorpe,” he says now. “I was in his thrall. It’s so awful to say that about someone who’s done what he did to me, but when you were with him, he was enormous fun.”

Scott still thinks he would not have been gay, had he never met Thorpe. “I’d have been a wonderful father and had lovely children riding ponies. But it didn’t happen, and I made quite a good fist of being gay! That’s awful. A fist of being gay!”

Yet sex with Thorpe became the sex he wanted? “Yes, but it hurt so.”

He struggles to recall the time a friend paid the equivalent of £4,000 for him to undergo gay conversion therapy with a Dr Fahey in Dublin. He was heavily sedated. “I can remember two Irish girls taking me to the loo. I can’t remember anything, but was I hypnotised? How mad am I, but I was in this state of so wanting to not be gay.”

When did he come to terms with it? “Just in the mists of time somewhere,” he says wryly, waving his hand.

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Scott has two children: a son from a brief marriage in 1969, and a daughter from an encounter with a friend, on the night of his attempted murder. His daughter lives not far away, and he has a relationship with her and her four girls.

I ask him when he felt that he had finally grown into himself and he answers immediately: just after his son was born. But he is not referring to a scene of domestic happiness. His wife Susan had post-natal depression (“I was going to say post-traumatic stress disorder, living with me!”) and he paints a picture of himself hoovering while she lay in bed, with the baby under one arm, then jumping in a taxi to go off modelling in London, with the baby wrapped in a crocheted blanket.

“That’s when I felt so happy. Because I had somebody who needed me – and he needed me totally. That’s why animals have always been so marvellous, because you’ve got to care for them, and they never turn on you: they always love you. That little boy loved me. It’s so sad that he doesn’t want me now, but that’s life. But he did want me then.”

Scott began An Accidental Icon as an open letter to Benjamin, now in his fifties. His access to his son was limited to 30 minutes, four times a year. Susan cited his gay lovers in the divorce papers, though he says she knew about Thorpe before they married, and others, “along with a window dresser from Harrods”.

After her suicide in 1986, Benjamin, aged 18, came to see his father. Scott goes to the dresser and fetches me the photograph of the young man milking the cows. Shortly afterwards, he says, he was duped by some News of the World journalists, who published details of his children, and Benjamin cut him off. He now lives in Ibiza under another name.

Scott picks up his iPad again and shows me an internet genealogy site. An entry for Benjamin, a faceless head and shoulders, Scott says, had been revised to read: “Benjamin Scott: died 18 November 1969” – the day he was born. “How could anyone be so cold?” Scott says. “To do that to your father. Well, it’s another car crash, isn’t it?”

I leave him to have some lunch. He closes the taxi door, and thanks me for coming.

“I just feel that I’m fair game for people, sadly,” he says. “But I hope every time – get ready for this – I hope, every time, that I’ll read the right piece about me, you know. That someone gets me.”

“An Accidental Icon” is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato