Sunday, 19 August 2007

A great man

I have known some distinguished people in my life. One who stands head and shoulders above the rest as a truly great man was the first Lord Brabazon of Tara [1884-1964]. I met him only once, in the late 1950s, but my vivid impression of this man’s larger-than-life personality, and deep humanity, has never left me. [A Kodachrome colour photograph of John Theodore Cuthbert Moore-Brabazon (1884-1964), taken by JCA Redhead (1886-1954) during World War Two is reproduced above.]

I was at that time very involved in campaigning for reform of the cruel and unjust laws which criminalised all male homosexual behaviour. Lord Brabazon, I knew, was sympathetic, because he had made a moving speech in the House of Lords in favour of reform. Also, as a pioneer of motoring – as of aviation and many other innovations and sports – he had been a friend of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s father, and it was the prosecution of Lord Montagu for homosexual offences which had resulted in calls for reform which led to the appointment of the Wolfenden Committee. Their report formed the basis of our campaign.

In his House of Lords speech Lord Brabazon had courageously – even daringly – alluded to the ‘glamour of love’ which comes over two people and makes all things seem natural and normal. “And what we have to get into our heads, although it is difficult, is that that glamour of love is just as much present between two homosexuals as it is between a man and a woman. Perhaps that is a terrible thing, but it exists and we cannot get away from it. We are all born not all the same.”

To say this to his fellow-peers in 1957 struck me as incredibly brave and honest. It spurred me on to wish to meet him. A business colleague of my Father’s was a golfing friend of Lord Brabazon’s so, greatly daring, I asked for an introduction. Lord Brabazon invited me to call at his offices in Berkeley Square, where I told him of the work I was doing and asked for his support. He promised to do what he could to stimulate parliamentary action, and after my visit wrote to me:

“Thank you very much for coming to see me and for giving me the opportunity of having such an interesting talk with you.

“I have already tried to galvanize Frank Pakenham [later Lord Longford] into action and I ought to get hopping next week.

“Please remember that you will always be welcome here and that I can do all I can to help over this difficult question.”

Alas, I never saw him again but our only meeting is indelibly etched in my memory.

Subsequent to my visit, Lord Brabazon and Lord Pakenham saw the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir [formerly Sir David Maxwell Fyfe], an implacable opponent of reform, who held out little hope of constructive government action but did take on board some of out concerns about the operation of the existing law. Lord Brabazon kindly wrote me a detailed confidential account of this interview, concluding: ”although it is not very exciting, it does mean that the debate that took place is not just dead and buried.”

In my reply I said: “I do feel it is deplorable that there is still such a huge gap between the respective medical and legal ivory towers and a more everyday common-sense approach to the human aspects of these problems…..Thank you so much for all you have done and are doing.”

The following year, I wrote to Lord Brabazon again sending him examples of the ongoingly haphazard administration of the law and the inconsistency of sentencing policies being applied in different courts. He responded that “the examples in your letter made me boil with fury” and said he would again ask Lord Pakenham to go with him to the Lord Chancellor to urge at least administrative reforms. As I commented in Quest for Justice, “The vision of ‘Brab’ boiling with fury filled me with awe!” I still have the originals of his letters, with his personal signature, as cherished items in my files.

So who was this man, remarkable in his generation for compassionate wisdom? He tells his own story with inimitable verve in his autobiography The Brabazon Story [1956], penned by himself without any ‘ghosting’, and including some fascinating photographs. Coming from a distinguished Anglo-Irish family, he had the good fortune to be not only an outstanding sportsman but to have participated in and known personally the pioneers of the three great inventions that transformed the life of the twentieth century – the automobile, the aeroplane, and electricity. Even as a schoolboy at Harrow he was fascinated by that then rara avis the motor car, and at Cambridge, where he studied engineering, he became great friends with, and acted as mechanic for, the pioneer motorist the Hon. C.S. [‘Charlie’] Rolls, the co-founder, with Henry Royce, of the world-famous Rolls-Royce company. Motor racing became the great ambition of Brab’s life and with Rolls he drove in many of the famous pre-1914 races, winning the Circuit des Ardennes in 1907.

They both were also keenly interested and involved in early aeronautics – first ballooning, and then the development of aeroplanes. With hindsight, Lord Brabazon wondered – even in the 1950s! – whether it would have been better for humanity if flying had never been discovered, because technology had so outstripped political wisdom. But in those optimistic pre-1914 days the early pioneers believed that they were promoting something for the world’s good. Brab was among the earliest aviators, holding the Royal Aero Club’s first British pilot’s certificate [Rolls obtained the second]. He made the first flight by an Englishman in 1909, winning the Daily Mail £1,000 prize for the first all-English machine that could fly a mile. Very sadly, C.S. Rolls, having become a national hero by successfully completing the first cross-Channel non-stop return flight in June 1910, was killed the following month in an air crash at Bournemouth. He was only 33.

In the 1914-18 war Brabazon made an important contribution to aerial photography, and in the post-war years was closely associated with Lord Trenchard in developing the Royal Air Force as an independent branch of the armed forces. He was an MP for many years, being Winston Churchill's Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Air Ministry in the early 1920s, and holding office during the second world war as Minister of Transport and later of Aircraft Production. He was a keen golfer and winter sportsman, doing [and sometimes winning] the Cresta Run frequently into his seventies. He was also an enthusiastic yachtsman. He relates his experiences and memories of all his sporting, political, and business activities and friendships with great gusto, dispensing some sage advice along the way. In his ‘Afterword’ he warns against having a one-track mind:

“Take to your heart as many subjects as you can, especially if they are original and new...The fun of being in at the beginning of any new development will remain with you all your life, however big and specialised the subject may become…As you go through life, many disappointments will come your way. Have as many interests and hobbies as you can gather together. Then the whole castle of life will not come tumbling down when something goes wrong; only an outhouse falls.”

Words of wisdom from a remarkable man.


lavenderblue said...

You never fail to amaze me.
I will read this quite a few more times before passing comment......but,you know, one thought foremost in my mind is - 'Do YOUNG people realise that had it not been for you,your friends and supporters,they would still be being imprisoned for what, thank god, is now accepted as natural'.

Emmett said...

AN Edwardian worthy of the very best sort. I thought to recognise the name from all my boyish reading about the wars. But, truly, what a breadth of mind and heart! Thanks you, anticant, for this memoir.