McGinty recounts an incident in which Jeremy Paxman and Robert Harris, reporting on the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, were obliged to cohabit under canvas (or under whatever passes as a modern tent fabric). Paxman did the orthodox thing and “snuggled into his sleeping bag fully clothed”, while Harris “unpacked a pair of striped pyjamas, a dressing gown, and a pair of slippers, then, once suitably dressed in all but a Willie Winkie nightcap, settled down to await the Sandman’s arrival with a hardback biography of Gladstone”.
Amusing, endearing, eccentric – but not at all raunchy, and no one appears to have suggested that Paxman and Harris indulged in the slightest bit of hanky or, for that matter, panky.
Same-sex tent-sharing is boringly normal. On any given weekend, hundreds of Vangos, Hillebergs and Terra Novas will be occupied by bloke–bloke or woman–woman pairings, often miles up secluded glens. Think what opportunity that allows – but never is there any suggestion of it being more than a companionly and load-sharingly effective way of tackling the following day’s climb, canoe journey, or mountain-bike adventure. (And so what if it is more than that? The Gay Outdoor Club is as respectable and well-regarded as any other outdoor-recreation organisation.)
This kind of thing has been going on for years. Take Hillary and Tenzing on Everest in 1953 – or, for that matter, the neglected-by-history team of Bourdillon and Evans, who almost made it to the top three days earlier. They shared tents, and quite possibly snuggled together for warmth, but no-one has ever questioned their motives.
Similarly, after Doug Scott and Dougal Haston reached the top of the same mountain in 1975, there wasn’t any suggestion that Everest the Hard Way – the title of Chris Bonington’s celebrated account of the expedition – was intended to convey any double-entendre or innuendo.
Had anyone hinted at an ulterior motive to Don Whillans when he and Bonington shared a tent during their attempt on the Eiger Nordwand in 1962, the Whillans fist would surely have been employed as a rapid and vigorous right-of-reply.
In more modern times, and away from the mountains, were Ben Fogle and James Cracknell at it when they spent 50 days together – often naked, gadzooks! – while rowing across the Atlantic in the winter of 2005–06? Nope. Yet what is a two-man boat if little more than a pair of decidedly adjacent water-beds?
Anyone, male or female, who has done any even vaguely serious outdoors stuff is likely to recognise this. My own experience is probably typical. For several years in the mid-1980s I was often to be found up some dark glen squeezed inside a ridiculously small Saunders Dalomite tent with my main hillwalking companion of the time, a big, bearded Aberdeen University engineering postgrad who subsequently, for reasons best known to himself, moved to Surrey.
(Actually, I know the reasons, and they’re perfectly reasonable: the earning of a decent wage and the love of a good woman. But Surrey??! It’s not really the place for one who has gazed on Suilven in the sunset.)
Looking back, it’s a puzzle quite how the two of us managed to live in such cramped confines for weekend after weekend. We were both over 6ft tall, and all manner of camping clutter had to be stashed somewhere – rucksacks, stoves, spare clothes, maps, the dog-eared pocket edition of The Joy of Sex (oh, hang on…).
Not a single thought of the rumpy-pumpy variety ever crossed our minds – nor, as far as I’m aware, did any of our friends regard us as gay when they saw us packing the car of a Friday evening. And anyway, the combined effects of uncleanliness, swarms of midges and those 1980s-style scratchy woollen balaclavas would surely have served to discourage any night-time grapplings and entwinings, even had we been so minded.
The only untoward incident I can recall from those nights spent together came deep in the Cairngorms when my friend – who was prone to sleep-talking – suddenly sat upright in his sleeping bag at 3am and groaned “Oh no! Not the rectangular pit!”, before lying down again and starting to snore. It was weird and more than a tad unnerving – what the hell had he been dreaming about? – but erotic it certainly wasn’t.
So, to return to the Rt Hon William Hague and the now-unemployed Mr Myers, would there have been anything like the same kerfuffle had they been discovered sharing a tent at, say, the Red Squirrel campsite in Glen Coe?
Yes, I know it’s not usually the case that one of the partners in a camping duo is the holder of a great office of state. And yes, I know the twin-room incidents are viewed, by some observers, as examples of political naivety and/or Yorkshire thrift.
But here’s another reason. It perhaps seemed completely normal to one or both of them, because they had happily camped with men (not necessarily each other) in times past. A far-fetched idea? Well, maybe. But the Foreign Secretary does have previous in the outdoor-adventure field: in 1997 he climbed Ben Nevis as part of that most manly and brazenly heterosexual of institutions, his stag weekend.
If – as is not impossible – he spent the previous night holed up in a tent with some rugged hill-loving bloke, would it have made headlines and led to the issuing of a lengthy and over-detailed personal statement? Almost certainly not.
Two blokes in a tent is normal behaviour, part of a world where a beard retains its innocent meaning as a hedgelike insect-trap, rather than a euphemism for a wife who serves as little more than a front for her husband’s sexual obfuscation.