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Monty, an even nobler warrior than suspected

'The juxtaposition of sexuality and patriotismis almost as explosive as the connection between patriotism and race'

By David Aaronovitch

28 February 2001, The Independent

So, was Bernie a Bertie? Stand back and wait for incoming. The juxtaposition of sexuality and patriotism is almost as explosive as the connection between patriotism and race. I know this because every now and again (two or three times a week) someone writes to me on the subject of Europe to tell me that I am deluded. But, strangely though the subject is clear and distinct enough there are two nearly universal insinuations that these correspondents make. The first is that my part-Jewish ancestry has something to do with my cosmopolitan comfort with supra-nationalism (as in "your compatriot, Menachem Begin", for which many thanks Mervbow at America Online). And the second courtesy of several e-mailers is that most of us Frog-lovers are in fact homosexuals.

Interesting, as my psychotherapist friend says. Somehow both foreignness and gayness disrupt the psyches of our fellow Englishmen, particularly those on the political right. It follows that nothing can confuse and upset them more than discovering that their own martial or national heroes are not quite as patriotic or straight as they believed. You can raise foam from the mouth of a europhobe simply by quoting Churchill's many and unambiguous speeches recommending the creation of a European political entity, armed forces and all. And it seems you can make them very, very unhappy by even suggesting as the biographer Nigel Hamilton did this week that Field Marshal Montgomery, victor of Alamein, might have been a repressed homosexual who formed emotional attachments to several teenage boys.

Hamilton has already written a well-received trilogy on the life of Monty, and there's precious little in any of his three books about the soldier's sexuality (note the use of this word rather than the phrase "sex life"). But now he feels enabled to draw upon letters that have previously been unpublished and which indicate, Hamilton believes, that Montgomery had crushes on boys and, in the case of a Swiss boy, Lucien Trueb (12 in 1946 when the two met), that Montgomery was passionately in love. Though stressing that he had no evidence of any physical contact, Hamilton revealed that he himself, as a boy (he was son to Montgomery's press advisor), had had a Platonic though "homoerotic" relationship with Monty. And this sexuality was, Hamilton thinks, a key to Montgomery's soldiering.

Outrage has followed. "Hamilton is only writing this book in the hope of getting some headlines," said Monty's son, David, predictably. Another biographer of Montgomery's, Alistair Horne, opined that the book was mere "psychobabble". But by far the longest and most revealing repudiation of Hamilton's thesis came in the pages of yesterday's Daily Mail, in an article headlined, "Why can't they leave our old heroes alone?"

The man asking this question was Stephen Glover. All of Mr Glover's work feels a little as though it has been written in the communal room of a Surrey nursing home just after breakfast, and this was no exception. His view was that Monty was not a poof, or a boy-lover, or even a repressed poof or boy-lover. Rather (and despite not having read the letters) it was far more likely that a sinister explanation for Monty's innocent jottings had been "implanted" in Hamilton's mind by "all he has seen and read and experienced in our sordid modern world". This helped Hamilton to misconstrue his own so-called "homoerotic" relationship with the Field Marshal.

It was unkind of the Mail sub-editors to undermine Mr Glover by locating this paragraph right next to the revelation, in the neighbouring gossip column, that a 1985 anthology of recollections of Monty, Monty at Close Quarters, had been "known in the trade" as "Monty at Hindquarters".

But this is rhetoric, so let us get back to the argument. Which (according to Mr Glover) is that modern psychology and Freudianism have sexualised everything, turning us into adjuncts of our genitals. They'd done it to poor old Lewis Carroll, who innocently photographed naked young girls, and he wouldn't be at all surprised if "some crazy American professor" wasn't poised to suggest something rum about old JM Barrie. Too late, Stephen, too late! It was done 21 years ago, only he wasn't American or a professor.

As for the Field Marshal, in 1963, when Glover was a boy at school in Worcestershire, he told his readers, Monty had come on a visit, and had stood behind the boys at chapel, without groping a single one of them. This eye-witness evidence of straightness was supplemented by Glover's own experiences. At this school there had been several "bachelor" masters who were splendid teachers and inspiring men. "The boys felt something close to love for them," Glover wrote, "but only as one might do for a cherished and indulgent uncle. Sex was no part of it [my italics]. Of course there was the occasional homosexual teacher, prowling about with gaunt and anguished features, but such men were readily identifiable and of an entirely different ilk."

Rarely in British journalism can there have been three such unconsciously revealing sentences laid one on top of the other. Glover's own prejudice about the sadness of being homosexual is obvious. How unfortunate that he didn't have, as I did, a gay English teacher who, far from looking "gaunt and anguished" or having the even slightest tendency to "prowl", disguised himself as a rotund, florid hedonist with a bow-tie and positively bowled himself down the corridors.

Then there is his blithe assumption that all his classmates experienced life in exactly the way that he did. How does he know, for example, that none of them had homoerotic feelings for their masters? Or, indeed, for their uncles? It is interesting (my psychotherapist friend leans forward at this point) that he denies even the possibility. The shutters are up around the nursing home; Dunthinkin is settling down for the night.

And the bachelor masters themselves. "Sex was no part of it", declares Glover. Unless he is once again the custodian of other men's souls, he can't possibly know this. Most sex doesn't actually happen, and for most of us, I suspect sexuality (as opposed to our "sex lives") is a complicated business. You don't, for instance, have to be a Freudian to realise that the breast is a highly ambivalent body-part, involving as it does both mothers and female lovers. So is it not entirely possible that some of the Worcestershire masters did indeed fancy their young charges, or have other feelings about them, yet did nothing about it?

A clunk-click association between sexuality and sex is a tendency of both the puritan and the pornographer. They both want to reduce sexuality to a set of mechanical propositions, one to condemn and the other to profit. But it may just be (and I haven't seen the letters either) that Montgomery was an even greater hero than Glover thought he was. Glover's objection springs in part from his own obvious discomfort with homosexuality, so he can't see what others may see that a Monty who felt drawn to boys, and yet refused to act upon his desires, was an even nobler warrior than history has so far suggested.


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