Norman Scott still has nightmares about the moment a hitman tried to blow his brains out. He can feel the cold metal of a gun barrel at his forehead; he can hear the sound of the trigger clicking as the weapon failed to fire.
"I can hear that noise in my hair, him trying to make it work," he says. "It was absolutely terrifying. I still do have nightmares about it. I've got a lovely life now but it suddenly does happen and it's very frightening." Moments of everyday life have a terrifying resonance. "I can jump out of my skin at the weirdest things."
In his early twenties he had become the sometime lover of Jeremy Thorpe, the charismatic leader of the UK's Liberal Party, 11 years his senior, who Scott claims raped him, manipulated him and then urged associates to get rid of him. For more than a decade they continued an on-off affair of mutual and self-destruction, until Scott's demands for Thorpe to acknowledge him collided with Thorpe's vaunting ambition and the need to protect himself at a time when homosexuality was still illegal or, after its decriminalisation in 1967, fatal to a political career.
In October 1975, it was later alleged, Andrew "Gino" Newton, a pilot known as "chicken brain" to his friends, was recruited as a hitman during a drinking binge in a Blackpool nightclub. After first confusing Barnstaple with Dunstable, he lured Scott to a meeting on Exmoor, claiming he was trying to protect Scott from another killer. Fearing for his safety, Scott took his Great Dane, Rinka, along with him. Newton shot the dog, then allegedly turned the gun on Scott — but it jammed. "The dog shouldn't have been there," Scott remembers now. "Had the dog not been there, that bullet would have killed me."
In the court case that followed in 1979 Scott was dismissed as a liar and Thorpe was acquitted of conspiracy and incitement to murder after one of the most disgraceful summings-up in English judicial history, where the judge issued an outspoken character assassination to the principal witness from the bench.
At that point, to the public, Scott was someone whose claims were so outlandish that they must be suspect. In a television dramatisation of the story made in 2018, A Very English Scandal, he was portrayed as a weak and comedic figure, even if the series did accept a lot of his version of events. That bleak moment on Exmoor was played for laughs, as a comedy of errors and incompetence by Newton.
Now, though, Scott has written a book, An Accidental Icon, that makes painfully clear that his story is one of tragedy as much as farce. In this version the Thorpe affair is a tale of a sexual predator targeting a young man, who was already vulnerable as a result of abuse at home. It is then the story of an establishment circling the wagons to protect one of its own. Policemen suppressed evidence that could have incriminated Thorpe. Politicians and judges routinely disbelieved Scott and loaded the dice for the MP.
Scott is a character of far greater complexity than his public image. He first met Thorpe in 1961. Thorpe's trial was in 1979. In 1969 Scott married a woman with whom he had the first of his two children. When Stephen Frears, the director of A Very English Scandal, visited Scott at his home in Dorset to listen to his life story, he concluded: "We've got the wrong bloody film. There are four more films about Norman in this."
Scott recounts this with pride, perched on a sofa in the cosy sitting room of his grade I listed farm cottage with dogs and rare breeds of poultry running together in the yard outside. A tack room is adorned with saddles and reins, and the rosettes he has won as a horseman, the occupation he kept returning to throughout a turbulent life.
When Ben Whishaw won an Emmy for his portrayal of Scott in A Very English Scandal, he said: "[He] took on the establishment with courage and defiance that I find completely inspiring. He is a true queer hero and icon." In the book Scott says he "loved" Whishaw's performance, but he tells me: "He was made to be a very gay Norman. I've never minced in my life. I'm not that sort of guy." Still, Scott liked the way Whishaw humanised him for the public. "The series was a cathartic thing. It did change people's attitudes. They saw me as a stronger person. I am a very strong person."
His dearest wish is that his account of the scandal finally be believed. Even before I turn on my voice recorder, he looks me in the eye and says: "This is not 'my truth', it is 'the truth'." Twenty minutes later he returns to the point: "I do tell the truth, I always have. That is what was so awful, continually being called a liar. It's so wonderful that now it has been proven to be true." Much of it has. No one seriously doubts the affair or the assassination plot. If Scott has arranged the rest of it into a convenient narrative, that is what victims often do around traumatic events.
There is still an air of innocence about Scott, a slight vulnerability that was all too often exploited by others. The first to do so was his mother. Widowed before he was born, Ena Josiffe (the surname of her second husband, a violent man) never told Norman who his father was. He was "never close" to his elder siblings and writes that he "always felt like an outsider in my family". He was "four or five" when she began to sexually assault him.
He tells me: "It happened. I had to write what I wrote because I think it made me the person I am — not to a good degree. The important thing was that when this thing with Thorpe happened most people would go home to their family and I couldn't, because I couldn't go back to my mother. That was the last thing I wanted to do."
"This thing with Thorpe" started when Scott was just 21, training to do three-day eventing, and Thorpe visited the yard where he worked. The Liberal MP for North Devon and a rising star in parliament, Thorpe was secretly having a homosexual affair with the yard's owner, Brecht van der Vater. Thorpe offered Scott help if he was ever in trouble. In 1961, when van der Vater took his national insurance card, apparently to keep him beholden, Scott sought out Thorpe at the House of Commons.
Thorpe invited him to parliament. By then Scott was dosed up on primitive antidepressants. "I was still very heavily on medication, very old-fashioned drugs like librium. I was swept along by him."
In their first sexual encounter, Scott has always said, Thorpe raped him with the MP's mother in the room next door, calling him "bunny" because he looked like a "frightened bunny". "I was full of drugs when he first raped me," Scott says. "I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't tell anyone." Thorpe, Scott says, promised he would recover the national insurance card or get Scott a new one. He never did. As a catalyst for the scandal, this has always seemed strange. "It's only strange to you because you're younger," Scott says. "It was really important. You had to have a card with stamps on it stamped every week. He kept saying he would frank them and never did."
Scott has always seemed to me a frustratingly fatalistic character in the key years of his life, bound to train tracks he could not see a way of escaping. "He had got me." Why didn't he flee? "Where could I have gone? I don't think I could have taken a different path. I was caught by him." I find it very difficult to understand why Scott couldn't have applied for a new card without having to rope in Thorpe to help him, but this is so ingrained in Scott's world view that, these days, questioning his damaged mindset amounts to victim-blaming.
What did Thorpe get from it? Was it just sex? "Yes, that was all it was. In those days I was quite attractive." Not perhaps even that. In the book Scott says it was about power and control for Thorpe, not lust or desire. "He loved the fact that I was in his thrall," he says now. "It was cold and dispassionate, but I didn't know. I was the age of a 15-year-old when I was 19, totally unsure of people and life." Thorpe, I suggest, was a psychopath. "I do truly think he was," Scott says.
If it had ended there it would have been just another sordid Westminster story of a powerful man abusing his position with an impressionable victim years his junior. This stuff still goes on. Even in the week this magazine went to press, the Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmed Khan, was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 2008. Politics attracts ambitious narcissists and risk-takers who are out for what they can get.
As the 1960s went on, Scott harassed Thorpe for his national insurance card and the book recounts how Thorpe began visiting him weekly for sex, occasionally taking him to his club, where he met luminaries such as the BBC boss Lord Reith.
Thorpe became Liberal leader in 1967 and married the following year, but even then Scott was visiting him at his Whitehall flat. Scott is adamant that Thorpe's wife, Caroline, (who died in a car crash in 1970) knew of his homosexuality, as did the MP's mother. Thorpe then arranged for Scott to be paid a retainer via a fellow Liberal, Peter Bessell, one of several officials who sought to contain the dangerous liaison from hurting their leader.
By the 1970s the relationship was more off than on. Scott attempted suicide, carving "INCURABLE" into his arm with a knife. He underwent gay conversion therapy (unsuccessfully). He was beaten up. He slept rough in a gents loo. The brakes on his car failed. When he went to Cannon Row police station and claimed someone was trying to kill him, he told them about his relationship with Thorpe. He produced letters from Thorpe, famously including references to Scott as "bunny". They confiscated that potential evidence.
'People believed I was a fantasist'
A doctor he trusted drugged him and removed more paperwork relating to Thorpe from his possession. "I trusted him," Scott recalls. "It was a huge shock. I always felt the whole world was against me."
"People believed I was a fantasist," he says. "Even Jack and Stella, my best friends, thought I was totally barking."
The flipside of all this is the accusation that in seeking to get Thorpe to acknowledge and help him Scott was attempting to blackmail the politician. I do not even get the chance to put this to Scott before he answers the charge unprompted: "This thing about the blackmail; I have never blackmailed anyone in my life. It's just appalling. How could I have blackmailed anyone when I had given all the letters to the police?"
It is easy to see how Thorpe felt hunted, but the double life was one of his construction, not Scott's. The pressures started coming to a head in February 1974, when Thorpe's Liberals secured more than six million votes and were close to joining a coalition government with Edward Heath's Conservatives, a deal that would have secured Thorpe a cabinet seat. The Liberals lost votes in the second election that year, but the proximity to power seems to have prompted Thorpe to try to put an end to the nuisance of Scott. In Thorpe's committal hearing Bessell later testified that Thorpe told him: "We've got to get rid of him … It is no worse than killing a sick dog."
As the scandal became public after the bungled Exmoor execution, Scott doubted he would get justice. When the alleged hitman, Newton, went on trial in March 1976 he was only found guilty of possessing a firearm with intent to harm and sentenced to two years in prison. He served just one. "We weren't allowed to mention Jeremy Thorpe's name [in the case]," Scott says. "How can that have been a fair trial?" The instruction came from the judge but was reinforced by Scott's own counsel. Newton's lawyer made homophobic comments, telling the jury that many homosexuals have a tremendous "propensity for malice". Yet, in October 1977, after his release from prison, Newton finally came clean, co-operating with a newspaper article headlined "I was hired to kill Norman Scott".
Another man, Dennis Meighan, told the police he had also been offered £13,000 to kill Scott. He was given a prepared statement to sign, which made no reference to Thorpe, and he did not give evidence at Thorpe's later trial. However, in May 1976, Bessell, who had been paying the retainer, spoke to the press. Thorpe resigned as Liberal leader the next day.
Mockery in court
When Thorpe went on trial in 1979 it was Scott who bore the brunt of proceedings. "It was my trial," he says. "It really was." The courtroom "rocked with laughter" when he described Thorpe raping him. "I don't think today that anyone would laugh."
Mr Justice Cantley's summing-up was, even then, so ridiculously biased that it was immediately satirised by the comedian Peter Cook. The judge described Scott as "a hysterical, warped personality … a spineless neurotic character … a fraud … a sponger … a whiner … a parasite". Cook had him telling the jury to "retire to consider your verdict of not guilty". Scott says Cook spoke to him before the monologue. "It was great but I didn't like 'the player of the pink oboe'," a euphemism that, in comedy lore, was given to Cook by Billy Connolly.
Recalling the real case and the judge's remarks, Scott says: "When I came out I said to the reporters, 'If that silly old man, looking like a spaniel with his wig, were to come out here and say that, I would have him straight back in there for libel.' He did libel me. It was appalling, the things he said about me. I think he was totally anti-gay, but I think there was more to it than that."
He has nothing good to say, either, for Peter Taylor, the lead prosecutor, who did not ask the most basic questions or seek out evidence that would have undermined Thorpe's lies that he was not gay. "The reason being that he knew he was in line to be lord chief justice," Scott claims. "He never spoke to me. He never came to see me once." Taylor was made lord chief justice in 1992. He died in 1997.
During the Thorpe trial Scott once again came face to face with Newton, the alleged hitman, in the lavatories at the court. "He came in and washed his hands. It was a horror. He looked at me in this weird way. I went into a cubicle and cried my eyes out."
All this has left Scott with a deep distaste for the establishment: "All lying and looking after their own and looking after him. I don't have anything to do with authority. I live here very quietly."
And the cover-up, if such it is, continued until recently. In 2014 Meighan went public to say he had also been hired to kill Scott. In 2016 Gwent police were called in to investigate the alleged cover-up. A year later their probe was closed and they pronounced that Newton was dead. Scott says he found him alive, living under a new name, with a little simple googling. In 2018 the police admitted Newton was alive but still said there would be no further action.
Scott has nothing printable, given the libel laws, to say for David Steel, who eventually replaced Thorpe as leader of the Liberals. Steel has always denied that he had any idea Thorpe was either gay or plotted to kill Scott. (Later he used a 2018 Newsnight interview to call the revelations that Cyril Smith was a serial abuser of boys "scurrilous hearsay".)
'Nothing has changed'
"I think the moment you walk through the door of parliament and up into St Stephen's Hall you become corrupt," Scott says. He doesn't like Boris Johnson. "Nothing has changed at all since that time. Everyone lies."
Early in the interview Scott says to me: "I hope we're not just going to talk about Jeremy Thorpe. I think there's so much more than Thorpe in it [the book]." This is the conundrum of his life. One of the most poignant sentences in the book comes where Scott, a gifted horseman, contemplates life's untrodden paths: "I might have found employment with a reputable dressage trainer and ridden for Britain in the Olympics and he [Thorpe] might have become prime minister."
For him the events we are familiar with are not what gave meaning to his life, but the very thing that sent it spiralling off course. His interest in horses was used against him too. "I was just called a 'stable boy' by the press." The term has undeniable homophobic overtones, the role he was assigned in public opinion. "I was never a stable boy, I was a working pupil learning dressage so I could three-day event."
What he seems to feel now is contentment. His marriage was a disaster, lasting just a year. But he is strangely nostalgic about those times. "The Sixties were great, apart from Thorpe," he says. It was a time when, by his own account, he was not very discerning about who he got into bed with. His lovers included the artist Francis Bacon and a former lord mayor of Dublin. "It was the Sixties," he explains. "Free love …" He looks wistful.
In what is a somewhat convenient conjunction of recollections, on the night Newton nearly shot him dead he sought solace in the arms of a woman, their only night of passion, who then bore him a daughter, Bryony. She and her four children now live nearby and he dotes on them. "I have a life and have had a life for years," he explains. "I've got a wonderful daughter and four beautiful grandchildren. I'm so lucky. I'm much healthier than most 82-year-olds."
There is a darker, sadder side too, however. His wife, Sue, bore him a son, Benjamin, whom he saw once when he was three years old, again when he was 19 and now not at all. He began to write the book, he says, "years and years ago as an open letter to my son, because I was never allowed to see him as a child. We had a horrid divorce and in his eyes I was dead."
Scott was not banned from seeing his son, but the terms of his access were strict and included a probation officer implying he was a threat to Benjamin. "I was given half an hour four times a year. Would you go to see a little boy at three years old, four times a year, with a probation officer there 'in case I harmed him'? How could I go and see him? I couldn't." I have two young daughters, one of them is three. I would have gone, I tell him. "I had this absolutely forbidding wife and mother-in-law, nobody would speak to me," he replies.
When Sue took her own life in 1986, long after they had parted, Benjamin found the letters and presents that Scott had sent him throughout his childhood, unopened. They met again but soon fell out. There is now no contact between them. It is Scott's biggest regret. "He's gone. He has now written to my publishers saying he wants everything removed from the book. He has no right to ask that. He has changed his name. People won't even know it's him."
Does he now hope Benjamin reads the book and understands? "I truly don't know what I feel. A reconciliation would be 'jolly nice', but I don't think it will happen."
There is that element of fatalism again. But the book is ultimately his attempt, finally, to seize and control the narrative of his life. There are holes galore in it. While he remembers some events in HD detail, the mystery of how he supported himself is never quite answered. He wants us to believe everything. By the end of our time together I have ceased to care whether every line of the book is "the truth"; the importance to Scott is that this is "his truth". In his eighties he has finally pulled that jammed gun away from his head and shown that there were other chapters in his life worth writing.
• An Accidental Icon by Norman Scott is published by Hodder & Stoughton
Written by: Tim Shipman
© The Times of London