A Death in London

Your son didn’t kill himself. He was murdered…. He was strangled or suffocated, then slung up on that hook by his own belt. Last of all, his murderer painted his lips, dressed him in a woman’s underclothes and spread out pictures of nudes on the table in front of him. It was meant to look like accidental death during sexual experiment; such cases aren’t so very uncommon.”

There was half a minute of silence. Then [Sir Ronald Callender] said with perfect calmness:

And who was responsible, Miss Gray?”

You were. You killed your son.”

—P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

When the body of Stephen Milligan, MP, was discovered in similar circumstances on Monday, February 7, at his London home, there were several friends and colleagues who (like P.D. James’s detective Cordelia Gray) suspected murder. Maybe they half remembered the thriller in question. Or maybe they remembered the case of Jonathan Moyle, a British journalist who was found dead in his hotel room in Santiago in 1990; a specialist in the arms trade, he was thought by some to have been murdered and sexually framed, perhaps by agents of Iraq.

Milligan was found naked except for nylon stockings and, according to early reports, a garter belt. He had a black plastic trash bag over his head, electrical wire (“flex,” as we call it) round his neck and attached to his foot, and—as later emerged—an orange (a satsuma) in his mouth. Many of his friends seem to have thought that to be found this way you have to be gay, which they were pretty sure Milligan wasn’t. One thought it suspicious that he would have chosen to seek sexual fulfillment in the kitchen (which was drafty and had a tiled floor). Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times, also a friend and former colleague, believed that Milligan would not have heard of erotic self-strangulation, let alone indulged in it. He set six journalists on to the story, hoping to find an explanation.

This public search for a reason for such a death had an interest and urgency that went beyond the prurient—although there was that element too. I noticed how many people writing about Milligan would say, “I knew him” or “I didn’t know him” or “I only knew him in such and such a way,” as if every writer knew that every reader wanted to know exactly, not approximately, what kind of a man it is who ends in this bizarre way.

Early in the week it was established that strangling yourself in pursuit of sexual pleasure was not normally a gay foible: you could still say that Milligan was straight. And it soon emerged from concerned articles in the press that transvestism too was a straight activity—happily married, sexually fulfilled men might still enjoy dressing up in drag for private relaxation. A flurry of rumor linking Milligan with a bisexual black soccer star was also soon disposed of. So Milligan didn’t have to have been gay.

John Major said that he must have been pretty unhappy and miserable, but others said no. Indeed, his cousin, a judge, made a point of contradicting the prime minister. A theory that he was lonely was met with an emphatic assertion that he was gregarious. If anyone said he must have been kinky, there was someone else to say that he was a normal middle-of-the-road bloke. Understanding was in an impasse.

The Conservatives had been particularly appalled on hearing the details of the death—quite apart from any personal feelings they might have had—because it took them back thirty years to the Profumo scandal. If this was 1963 all over again, that meant the government was on its last legs. Milligan’s was the seventh sexual scandal to hit this government during its short life (there has been another since), and it seemed perhaps to reinforce the image of the Tory MP as being a sexual gourmand of a weirdly specialized kind. One minister went down in public myth as having enjoyed making love in Chelsea football club colors. The story turned out to be a tabloid fabrication, but it sticks in the mind, just as the Milligan case has stuck in the mind. It is hard to talk about it without someone soon making a joke.

It sticks in the mind, but it also preys on the mind. Like so many other people, I knew Milligan. He was in my year, in my college at Oxford, in the late Sixties. I knew him in the way one knows a prominent figure from a totally different set. His lot did everything that our lot utterly despised. They were Young Conservatives. They were forever getting elected to this or that post—the Junior Common Room presidency, the Oxford Union hierarchy, things that would look good in the political Lebenslauf. To my set, Milligan was a prize bore, perhaps the prize bore of the college.

I say all this plainly because while others have written about how much fun he created around him, nobody seems to have liked to say that he was a figure of fun. But this must be part of the profile. In my memory he is laughed at, ragged by his friends and pleased by the attention this implies, while the rest of us laugh from a distance in a less pleasant way. In Parliament, his extreme loyalty to the government of which he was a very junior member earned him the nickname Millipede. A part of his job had been to defend Major’s “Back to Basics” campaign, which had been widely thought to include strident reaffirmation of family values. To anyone not of his set, it would seem characteristically clottish to strike out in defense of family values and end up as the greatest embarrassment to the government’s moral campaign.

At the close of the week that had begun with Milligan’s death, the Sunday Times published its investigation into his last hours. The team had found nothing to contradict the version that he had died by his own hand in the course of a lone sexual act. In admitting this, Andrew Neil confessed that he felt he had let Milligan down. He had wanted, like P.D. James’s Cordelia Gray, to prove murder in order to rescue his friend’s reputation. But it struck me as sad, and unimaginative, to think that the only way to rescue your friend from obloquy is to try, as it were, to have him murdered.

As long as you take the line that the kind of death Milligan met (it is estimated that two hundred people die that way every year in England) was an occupational hazard in an essentially hedonistic pursuit—“that’s the way they get their kicks”—then it’s true you won’t get away from the obloquy. Many of the papers explained the technology of the death—the starving of oxygen to the brain, the possible injection of amyl nitrate into the satsuma, or alternatively the use of the fruit to keep the mouth open—in terms which implied that this was all just a very specialized way of getting a remarkable orgasm.

Missing from such explanations was any notion of what the “bizarre” act represented. It represented a death. Whose death? A woman’s death? Certainly the notion of a woman was involved, just as in the death of Jonathan Moyle there was a female element and an infantile one too (he was found wearing a diaper). If people who achieve orgasm in this way both represent a death and run the risk of enacting it, the compulsion seems to be something other than hedonistic.

In P.D. James’s book, the act of self-strangulation was referred to as “sexual experiment.” No doubt, initially, there is an experimental phase, in which the unfortunates who are doomed to repeat this act find out what it is they want to represent, where, and how—in Milligan’s case, it was on the kitchen table, with three stockings, one on each leg and one on the right hand, the black trash bag on the head, and the “flex” manipulated by the foot. But once the scenario is established it ceases to have the quality of an experiment, and becomes instead a guilty compulsive ritual.

What the meaning of the ritual was would be highly difficult to elucidate, both because of the intense private shame involved (which had its counterpart in the intense public dismay of the Tories), and because the dead man has shredded the evidence, leaving only such clues as are held in common with other known cases of the same pathology. In any case, with the best will in the world, the speculations of psychoanalysis about such an obsessive secret ritual will always be vulnerable, because they are dealing with the workings, the furious ratiocinations of an infantile mind. Why should these seem anything other than pathetic and obscure when written out en clair, supposing such a decoding to be possible? The upshot is that at the center of a political scandal lies an event to the highest degree incomprehensible.

And this reminds one of a saying by John Major in another context, that as a society we should be prepared to understand a little less and condemn a little more. That was the direction in which he had hoped to lead us, away from the cancer of “understanding” and toward good old robust, healthy condemnation. But week after week the Tories have to turn around and ask for understanding, as love-children are discovered and marriages hit the rocks, as further rumors threaten, as the press rings up the victims on the till. Each case has its human victims, the shell-shocked wives, the relatives, the friends, and most cases share this distinctive political color. It is as Tories that these people are most vulnerable. It is the culture that they have done much to create by which they stand condemned.