The Glamour Boys: The Secret Story of the Rebels Who Fought for Britain to Defeat Hitler

Chris Bryant

Bloomsbury, £25

WHAT a frustrating book this is – there’s so much wrong with The Glamour Boys, and so much to praise. It could have been magnificent; instead it’s slightly infuriating.

The book sets out to tell the story of the gay MPs who challenged appeasement in the 1930s, and rallied around Churchill to face down Hitler. It’s by Labour’s Chris Bryant – the first gay MP to celebrate his civil partnership in Parliament.

The premise of the book is that in the pre-war years a group of gay MPs, sneeringly dubbed “the glamour boys” by appeasers, were in the vanguard of those facing down the Third Reich. They included Conservative MPs such as Ronnie Cartland, brother of the famous romance writer and 1920s socialite Barbara Cartland.

Having seen what the Nazis were doing to their gay friends and lovers in Germany – arresting them, sending them to concentration camps, murdering them – they knew Hitler must be stopped.

In theory, this should be a great slice of social and political history – delivered by the perfect author. But this book about war is at war with itself.

The final result feels as if Bryant tried to splice two separate non-fiction works together: the story of life for gay men in the pre-war period, and the story of the political battle against appeasement.

Both are fascinating topics, both deserve to be written about well – but Bryant makes a bit of a mess of it.

One page will take you deep into the world of gay men in the 1930s – the joy, the parties, the fear of arrest, the dread of blackmail and violence, the tragedy of lies and love being forced into the shadows – and the next page will leap, without almost any subtlety or segue, into the political machinations of Churchill versus Chamberlain.

Bryant just tries to cram too much in: there’s a veritable blizzard of names, dates and places – more fitted to a conventional history book, than the jaunty, gossipy tone this book adopts. In one paragraph alone I counted 12 characters – too much for any reader to process intelligently.

This book could and should have worked – it doesn’t require a literary genius to take an historical subject like appeasement and give it a fresh perspective, in this case through the lives of the gay MPs who opposed Chamberlain.

But Bryant, like many famous authors, appears to be a writer in need of a good editor advising: slow down here, tighten up there, this bit is confusing, and do you really need that section?

This is a problem that seems to be growing ever more persistent in British literature.

Novelists, once they make their names, are allowed to turn what should be tight works of fiction into unnecessary door-stoppers. The same now seems to be true of non-fiction.

Both sections of Bryant’s book – the life of gay MPs, and the fight against appeasement – are excellent in their own ways, and for that alone the book is worth your money.

The problem is the sloppy surgery in stitching these two sections together.

Where the marks of the needle and thread should have been invisible, we get a Frankenstein’s monster – and like the monster, the book becomes lumbering for its lack of finesse.

In terms of revelation and entertainment, it’s the story of gay life before the Second World War which is, almost inevitably, the more powerful. We all know the story of appeasement, at least somewhat. However, though most of us think we’re wonderfully progressive and clued up on what happened to the gay community before homosexuality was eventually legalised, the best sections of this book prove us bitterly wrong.

First, let’s pause to remember that it wasn’t until 1967 in England and Wales – and even later in Scotland and Northern Ireland, 1980 and 1982 respectively – that these nations of ours decided to stop sending people to prison, and criminalising fellow human beings for the simple natural act of falling in love and having sex. What a stain on our history – and what a reminder that we still have to keep fighting so that all of us are treated with the same level of respect.

When Bryant takes readers into the secret world that gay men – and women – had to inhabit in both Britain and Germany, he’s at his very best. It’s wonderfully evocative, and deeply harrowing, as we confront hate and fear.

The book takes on a nightmarish

feel when the Nazis take power,

changing the liberal Berlin depicted in the film Cabaret, the only

European city where gay men and

women could live their lives with

anything approaching the same

freedoms as the straight community,

into totalitarian hell.

What doesn’t quite work, in terms of the book’s grand concept, is the idea that so many of the anti-appeasement contingent of the House of Commons were motivated primarily by their sexuality – that by seeing what Hitler was doing to gay men in Germany they were prompted to face down Nazism.

I’m sure this was a motivating factor, but there’s not enough meat put on the bones to validate that idea, and as a reader I was left wanting more and thinking that these MPs decided to take on Hitler quite simply because they were good people, regardless of their sexuality.

Bryant really excels too when he’s bringing to life the personalities on both sides of the appeasement battle. Nancy Astor, for instance – today remembered as a trailblazer for feminism – comes across as the most vile snob and rank anti-Semite imaginable. The book is also a reminder of just how close this country came to simply caving in to the threat of Nazi Germany.

The final pages, charting what happened to these men during the war against Hitler, is especially moving after all the reader has gone through with them in their struggle to protect humanity and democracy.

No matter what motivated these MPs – their sexuality, their conscience, their bravery, or most likely all three – we owe them a debt that can’t be repaid. Bryant’s book, regardless of its flaws, acknowledges that debt fulsomely.