5.2.16

The ongoing story of the missing Earl

Over four decades after his disappearance, the seventh Earl of Lucan is still capable of generating newspaper headlines. This week it was announced that, as he is not known to have been alive for at least seven years, a death certificate has been issued under the terms of a recent law called the Presumption of Death Act; he had previously been declared dead for inheritance purposes in 1999. This has duly prompted The Times to (finally) publish his obituary, and it means that his son can now be referred to as Lucan’s eighth Earl. The story, though, does not end here.

The saga surrounding the Lucan case has many classic ingredients – a brutal murder in a domestic setting (of the sort that Orwell identified as being so fascinating to the English), a dramatic disappearance and, of course, that old British obsession that is the class system. Also involved in the saga are high-stakes gambling, a messy legal case, some tigers, various exotic locations, a fugitive MP and the whiff of an upper-class cover-up. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a subject of ongoing fascination and speculation for the press and public over the course of many years.

Lucan was as upper-class as they come – his ancestors included the man who issued the order for the Charge of the Light Brigade and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. A tall, distinctive-looking man with slicked-back hair and a luxuriant moustache, he worked for a merchant bank and had a taste for gambling – initially for fun, but he left his job and became a professional gambler after a big win (which led to his nickname ‘Lucky’ – although in the long run he lost more than he won). Leading an extravagant lifestyle at the higher end of Sixties London society (he was a member of the Clermont Club, a potent mixture of aristocracy and new money), he was once rated as one of the best backgammon players in the world and is said to have been considered as a possible James Bond (the story goes that he was offered a screen test but turned it down).

He married Veronica Duncan in 1963 and although they had three children the marriage was not a happy one. By the early Seventies the couple had separated, and Lucan lost custody of the children in an acrimonious and costly legal battle which came at a time when his gambling debts were spiralling out of control. He took to spying on his estranged wife in an attempt to find something with which to discredit her, and on the night of Thursday 7th November 1974 the family’s nanny, 29 year-old Sandra Rivett, was murdered at the Countess’s home in Belgravia.

The unfortunate Mrs Rivett really had been in the wrong place at the wrong time; she had been working for the Countess for several months and usually took Thursdays off, but that week she changed her hours and had taken the Wednesday off instead. Shortly before 9pm, she asked the Countess if she would like a cup of tea and headed to the basement kitchen to make one; there, she was bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping and her body hurriedly placed into a canvas mailbag.

When the Countess went to find out what was taking Mrs Rivett so long, she was herself attacked by the killer but she was able to escape and run, covered in blood and presumably in shock, to a nearby pub for help; she identified her estranged husband as her attacker. The general consensus was that Lucan had mistaken Mrs Rivett for his wife, and the evidence against him was so compelling that later, at the inquest, the jury would take the unusual step of naming him as the killer. By then, though, he had vanished. The last confirmed sighting of Lord Lucan was when he drove to the house of two of his friends in Sussex in the early hours of 8th November; he told them that he happened to have been walking past the Countess’s house when he heard a fight taking place inside; he had gone to her aid, but been accused of hiring a hitman to kill her (he also stated this in a letter that he wrote to his brother-in-law). His car was found abandoned in the Channel port of Newhaven.

Many believe that Lucan took his own life there and then – probably by drowning, either by jumping from a cross-Channel ferry or by borrowing a boat, taking it out to sea and deliberately sinking it. There’s also a more outlandish suicide theory – that after speaking with his friends and deciding that there was no way out, he was left alone in a room with a gun. After he shot himself, his body was fed to the tigers at the zoo owned by his high-rolling friend John Aspinall (who’d founded the Clermont Club). This story has featured in the papers recently – an old member of the Clermont Club who had been told this story years ago finally broke his silence – but it was suggested at the time of Lucan’s disappearance by Aspinall’s mother (who, in one of those familial coincidences that so abound among the upper classes, also happened to be the current Chancellor’s grandmother). This was denied by Aspinall himself, though, who said that his animals were only fed on the best cuts of meat and wouldn’t have wanted to eat “stringy old Lucky”.

Then there’s the theory that he used his powerful connections to disappear abroad – and this is where the story has ran and ran, “increasingly slipping the bonds of fact for the realms of fantasy” (to quote the obit in yesterday’s Times). Sightings of the missing Earl have abounded over the years, although one of the earliest took a turn for the bizarre when an Englishman was arrested in Australia on suspicion of being Lord Lucan in December 1974. He turned out to be John Stonehouse, the Labour MP and Czech spy, who had faked his own death the previous month; interesting times, the Seventies (Stonehouse, by the way, was returned to Britain and eventually sent to prison for fraud, with his spying activities being covered up at the time and not publicly revealed until many years after he had actually died).

The continuing sightings over the years that followed made Lord Lucan the most famous British fugitive from justice. He was ‘seen’ in Colombia (that one turned out to be an American businessman) and Paraguay (hanging out with ex-Nazis!), hiking on Mount Etna and working as a waiter in both San Francisco and Greece. For years, a homeless British expat in New Zealand had to deny claims that he was the Earl (despite being several inches shorter). It has been alleged that he was flown out of England in an aircraft piloted by the racing driver Graham Hill. It was claimed that people working for his friends took him to Switzerland, where they deemed him to be a liability and killed him. In 1982 a self-styled bounty hunter claimed that he’d tracked Lucan down to Cuba, although a tabloid newspaper subsequently found out that he was a hoaxer. A Rolex watch believed to have been the Earl’s surfaced in South Africa, lending credence to apparent sightings in a hotel bar in Bostwana and in a clinic in Johannesburg.

It was also claimed that he lived out his days on a beach in India. This was the pet theory of an ex-Scotland Yard detective who in 2003 published a book, Dead Lucky, which claimed that a British hippy known as ‘Jungle Barry’ who had died in Goa in 1996 was the missing Earl. It was, however, quickly established that said hippy was in fact a distinctly un-aristocratic pub musician from St Helens.

In 2004, thirty years after Mrs Rivett’s murder, the police released a computer-generated image of how Lord Lucan might have looked had he still been alive (by which time he would have been 69); this featured in a Channel Four documentary, The Hunt for Lord Lucan, which suggested that the 1974 murder enquiry had been flawed – the crime-scene had been contaminated, and the investigation had proceeded from the start on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt despite concerns over the Countess’s reliability as a witness – and featured an interview with the Earl’s son who claimed that his mother had been mistaken in identifying his father as the man who attacked her. The Countess, who refused to be interviewed for the programme and was by that time estranged from her children, stuck by her original story and has always believed that her husband drowned himself; in a rare newspaper interview, she claimed that her husband was “not the sort of Englishman to cope abroad”.

Claims of some sort of cover-up have continued. In 2012 a former personal assistant to Aspinall claimed in an interview with the BBC that she was involved in helping Lucan to set up a new life in the West African state of Gabon, and that Aspinall and the businessman James Goldsmith (another Clermont member) later arranged to have two of Lucan’s children sent out there on false passports so that the fugitive Earl could see them, albeit from a distance (the children denied this, and it is worth noting that this claim was only made in public after both Aspinall and Goldsmith had been dead for several years; the latter was notoriously litigious and won a libel case against Private Eye in 1976 after the magazine had alleged that he and Aspinall had met after Lucan’s disappearance to discuss how they could hamper the police enquiries). At the same time, one of the detectives who worked on the Lucan case during the Eighties claimed that there had been two very credible sightings of Lucan in that decade (one of them in Africa) but he was denied the funding to follow them up.

Detectives who’ve been involved in the case have published books on the subject over the years, with titles like Looking for Lucan and Lucan Lives. In the case of the latter, the author had once been convinced that Lucan had drowned himself (and had publicly said so in 1975) but later, in the course of his working on the book, he visited Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa in a bid to track the missing Earl down. It is perhaps with studies like this in mind that the eighth Earl once commented that: “I get a little tired when former Scotland Yard detectives at the end of their careers get commissions to write books which happen to send them to sunny locations around the world.”

Despite his having been declared to be the killer of Mrs Rivett by the coroner (a highly unusual occurrence which later led to a change in the law preventing killers from being named at inquests, for fear of prejudicing any future trial), the fact remains that Lucan never stood trial. The murder of Mrs Rivett has, therefore, never been solved. Most studies of the case, though, have worked on the assumption of Lucan’s guilt (although there has been a book with the intriguing title of Lucan: Not Guilty which makes the case for the defence).

One aspect of the story that always seems to have taken a back seat is the victim herself; for all the talk of the upper-class fugitive Earl not much is said of the working-class murdered nanny. The publicity surrounding the issuing of the death certificate has been unusual in that for once, a relative of hers has featured prominently. Neil Berriman, Mrs Rivett’s son (he was given up for adoption some time before the murder, and only learned who his mother was when he was an adult), has stated that he believes that Lucan planned to kill the Countess but hired a hitman to do it; the hitman, not Lucan, killed the wrong woman. He also claims to have seen a police document stating that Lucan was alive as recently as 2002 (the eighth Earl, by contrast, believes that his father died soon after the murder).

The story doesn’t end here. Mr Berriman, who has declined to produce the police document to which he referred, has stated that there are unnamed individuals “withholding evidence and not telling the truth … I do feel and hope that the Lucan mystery will be at a possible end in 12 to 14 months time through new evidence and lines on enquiry.” It seems that, even though Lucan’s family has now got legal closure with the death certificate, the saga surrounding Lord Lucan and the murder of Sandra Rivett has not finished yet.

1.2.16

The Date Walk

My latest published piece – another London walking route – is the Date Walk, which takes you along the Thames from Borough Market to the South Bank. There are plenty of pubs en route, along with a few escape routes that can be taken if the date isn’t going so well! All credit for devising the walk must go to Allison on this one!

30.1.16

Dickensian


After coming back from Canada, I noted that I had some catching-up to do on the iPlayer – and first up was the start of a surprisingly original take on the works of Charles Dickens.

I describe the BBC show Dickensian as ‘surprisingly original’ because I can’t believe that no-one had previously thought to take characters from different Dickens stories and put them into one story. Thus, we have a situation where Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the future Lady Dedlock from Bleak House are best friends (although I guess they didn’t bond over the fact that both of those characters have been played by Gillian Anderson in previous, straightforward Dickens adaptations), Mr and Mrs Bumble from Oliver Twist are having Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times over for dinner, half the cast seems to have borrowed money from Ebenezer Scrooge and/or pawned something in the Old Curiosity Shop (or, if they’re really desperate, sold their valuables to Fagin), and Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend runs a pub whose clientele includes Bill Sikes and Nancy from Oliver Twist, the afore-mentioned Mr Bumble when he needs a break from Mrs B., Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, Bob Cratchett and an unseen Mr Pickwick. Oh, and to top things off, Inspector Bucket from Bleak House is investigating the murder of Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley.

This time, Marley was not dead to begin with – although, thanks to his as-yet-unidentified assailant, he was by the end of the first episode. Like Dickens’s stories themselves, Dickensian boasts a cast of many acting out various storylines which occasionally coincide with each other – and, like many a Dickens adaptation, it has a number of actors and actresses who you may recognise from somewhere else (among others, there’s Tuppence Middleton, Caroline Quentin, Stephen Rea, a couple of blokes from Spooks and Omid Djalili as a scene-stealing Mr Venus who, it turns out, is an osteopath and the early Victorian equivalent of a forensics expert as well as a taxidermist).

There have been quite a few alternative twists on Dickens in the past – some time ago, ITV did a spin-off series following the (mis)adventures of Mr Micawber, while there has also been a novel in which Sydney Carton escapes the guillotine by agreeing to become a spy, setting up a Flashman-esque adventure at the time of the French Revolution which I really need to get my hands on sooner or later.

This one, though, is as far as I can see the first to throw characters from different Dickens stories together, and as a result it’s a real mish-mash of plots and sub-plots, albeit a highly watchable one. As well as Inspector Bucket’s investigation, in which several characters are of course suspects, we’ve got characters who are there for comedy value (the Bumbles, for there’s nothing quite as absurd as a couple with unrealistic expectations of social advancement, as well as a sub-plot between gin-loving Mrs Gamp, Silas Wegg and the latter’s wooden leg that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On film), a bit of social commentary (mainly concerning the twin spectres of debt and poverty, ongoing themes in Dickens’s works) as well as a few scenarios that are very much the precursors to the books.

Herein lies a problem for Dickensian – because some of the sub-plots are the events that precede those of the books, we know what’s going to happen. Amelia Havisham, for example, has become engaged to the villainous Merryweather Compeyson. If my knowledge of Great Expectations is anything to go by, this will result in her being jilted and defrauded, leading to a lifetime of hating men while wearing her wedding dress and sitting at the table in her decaying mansion, wedding breakfast untouched. Similarly, as far as the Bleak House characters go, we know that Honoria Barbary is going to marry the elderly Sir Leicester Dedlock even though she’s expecting Captain Hawdon’s child who will be raised by her spinsterly sister. Bill and Nancy? That’s not going to end well. Oh, and no need to worry about Tiny Tim being ill – his dad’s boss is going to bankroll all the medical treatment he needs after experiencing a ghostly vision.

Unless, of course, the writers have a few surprises in store. They’ve already departed from one Dickens storyline by ensuring that Little Nell doesn’t die – so who’s to say that, this time, some of the others aren’t going to get the ending that their creator gave them? That would liven things up a bit as, the murder investigation aside, it’s all looking a little too predictable (as I write, the show is 13 episodes into a 20-part series)

The main thing I’ve noticed, though, is how much like a soap opera this all is, even down to the cliffhanger endings of each half-hour long episode (Bob Cratchett getting arrested on his daughter’s wedding day was a good one, while the reveal of Honoria’s pregnancy was anything but a surprise for reasons outlined above). Could that be because the man behind this series is one of the writers from EastEnders? Or maybe it’s to do with the original author, with his multitude of characters and storylines? We may know of his stories as novels, but when they originally appeared they did so in regular instalments, spread over the course of months and even years, and he used cliffhanger endings to ensure that his readers remained interested enough to buy the next part.

Charles Dickens didn’t just provide the world with a large amount of interestingly-named and unforgettable characters. He also invented the concept that we know of today as the soap opera.

28.1.16

A morning in the British Museum

London is home to a lot of fantastic museums, and I will freely admit that I haven’t visited them all (somewhat inexplicably, I still haven’t been to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I must do at some point). My favourite is the British Museum, home of artefacts from all aspects of human history, mainly because I am a history addict but also because I always manage to find something new to look at whenever I go. It is, like all of the ‘national’ museums in Britain, free to get in – which also adds to the appeal.

After entering via the impressive porticoed entrance on Great Russell Street (although I usually prefer the northern entrance on Montague Place, opposite Senate House; less crowds) I wandered, as I usually do, over to the Egyptian collection to look at both the Rosetta Stone and the crowds of people looking at it, then taking in the bust of Ramesses II that apparently inspired Shelley to write ‘Ozymandias’ (“I met a traveller from an antique land…”). Having taken in the nearby Elgin Marbles and pieces from not one but two of the Seven Wonders of the World (the British Museum has bits from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis), I followed the crowds upstairs to Rooms 62 and 63 – the ones with the Ancient Egyptian mummies (I read somewhere that the British Museum’s collection of Egyptian things is second only to that of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).

From there I passed through various rooms to get to the Weston Gallery (Roman Britain, including the 4th century AD 28-piece silver dinner service that is the Mildenhall Treasure), and thence to admire the finds from the Sutton Hoo burial site and – one of my favourite exhibits – the Lewis Chessmen. By this point I’d lost track of the time completely – a good thing, as the best museums are always the ones in which you’re so taken by what’s on display that you’re not fully aware of the passage of time.

So much to see, and I’d only covered a fraction of the museum. But what was the ‘something new’ that I saw on my latest visit? Tucked into a corner in one of the larger rooms was a crystal skull – a life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of clear quartz crystal. I knew that the British Museum had one of those, but given its provenance I hadn’t though that it would be on display. Back in the late nineteenth century, the British Museum had acquired it on the assumption that had been made by the Aztecs – although scientific tests (including a joint project with the Smithsonian Institution in the USA, which has a similar item in its collection) later showed that it is in fact a fake – made in the nineteenth century at a time when public interest in ancient cultures was high, and passed off as an ancient artefact to cash in on such interest. The accompanying sign says that it’s “probably European, 19th century AD” and “not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact”.

I wonder what I’ll find there next time?


12.1.16

Midwinter

There is something to be said for revisiting authors you haven’t read for a while. A few months ago I re-read The Thirty-Nine Steps while writing an article on it, and this prompted me to take a closer look at some of John Buchan’s other works. There was, after all, much more to him than just that book.

When I first got into John Buchan, I focussed on his ‘shockers’ – the adventures of Richard Hannay and some of those concerning the semi-autobiographical Sir Edward Leithen (although it was only in recent months that I read Sick Heart River, the one set in Canada – of which more at a later date). Over the years I also encountered his short stories, one of which happens to feature an elderly (and decidedly unimpressive) Bonnie Prince Charlie (the story in question being ‘The Company of the Marjorlaine’, which can be found in The Best Short Stories of John Buchan, Volume 1). Like many a novelist, Buchan wasn’t averse to the odd walk-on appearance by a real person (in Greenmantle, Richard Hannay’s escapades in Germany during the First World War include a brief meeting with the Kaiser who is not depicted as some sort of panto villain; even when he was writing his ‘shockers’, Buchan was far too clever for that), and it’s the appearance of a real person that was what fascinated me about one of Buchan’s more overlooked novels.

The Young Pretender, or rather the rebellion he led in 1745, forms the backdrop of Midwinter (1923) which tells the story of Alastair Maclean, a young Jacobite officer on a mission in the English Midlands of the pre-industrial age. His task is to establish how much support the Prince can expect from the English as he advances south, and the main thrust of the plot concerns his attempt to stop two noblemen (who are posing as Jacobite sympathisers) from passing false information to Bonnie Prince Charlie (in this, an unseen character); they are doing this while simultaneously passing information about actual Jacobite sympathisers to the Hannoverian government in the hope of being rewarded with the lands which those sympathisers will forfeit in the event of the rebellion being defeated. Maclean is, though, conflicted because he happens to fall in love with the wife of one of the antagonists, and he faces the age-old dilemma of having to choose between love and duty.

In some ways, this is a reversal of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley (in which, to be brief, an English officer heads north of the border during the Forty-Five), although as far as resourceful (and fictional) young military men are concerned Maclean is a much more convincing character than that romantic and incompetent fool Edward Waverley ever was. Like Waverley, Maclean meets many characters who represent the country which he is visiting, from country squires to gipsies – among them the titular Amos Midwinter, leader of a shadowy, semi-pagan group of innkeepers, charcoal-burners and peasants going by names such as the ‘Spoonbills’ or the ‘Naked Men’ which represents an England that “has outlived Roman and Saxon and Dane and Norman … the land of the edge of the moorland and the rim of the forests and the twilight before dawn”. For a titular character, his appearances are fleeting which has led some to suspect that Buchan may have intended to return to him and his group (representing an England that, by the above description alone, would appear to predate England itself) in a later work.

The highlight of Midwinter, though, is the appearance of one Samuel Johnson as one of the main supporting characters. This is in itself a clever piece of plotting by Buchan, as it is not known what the great man of letters was actually doing at the time of the Forty-Five. In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell stated that “his literary career appears to have been almost totally suspended in the years 1745 and 1746, those years which were marked by a civil war in Great-Britain”, adding that Johnson, being an old-fashioned sort of Tory, “had a tenderness for that unfortunate House [of Stuart] … some may fancifully imagine, that a sympathetick anxiety impeded the exertion of his intellectual powers”. Boswell is used as part of the framing device for the story – in this case, a text supposedly written by Johnson’s biographer is purportedly found in a solicitor’s office that claims to shed light on the great lexicographer’s ‘missing years’. Thus is the main story, that of Captain Maclean’s mission, introduced.

The Johnson of Midwinter is introduced as a “big shambling fellow” of whom “disease and rough usage had wiped every sign of youth from his face. That face was large, heavily-featured and pitted deep with the scars of scrofula … he wore his own hair, straight and lank and tied with a dusty ribbon. His clothes were of some coarse grey stuff and much worn … he had no boots, but instead clumsy unbuckled shoes and black worsted stockings.” Being an embodiment of the ‘John Bull’ type of Englishman, he eats and drinks heartily, although his well-known physical traits are not ignored; his short-sightedness is touched upon and at one point he suffers from “a grievous melancholy … his left leg twitching like a man with the palsy.” But he is identified as a good man of “simplicity and courage and honest friendship”, speaking with a “queer provincial accent” yet “at moments he had a fine dignity, and his diction was metropolitan if his pronunciation was rustic.”

Naturally for a man reckoned to be the second-most quoted Englishman in history (after Shakespeare), this is a character who talks “wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating”. Buchan of course couldn’t resist inserting a few classic Johnson quotes into the character’s dialogue, and who can blame him for doing so? If one is going to have Samuel Johnson as a character in a novel, one must have him speak like the real thing although quite a few of the quotes are reworded to suit the plot rather than inserted verbatim. On encountering Maclean in one of several country pubs that feature in Midwinter, Johnson declares that: “Of all the good gifts of a beneficient Providence to men … I think that none excels a well-appointed inn”. Claret, he advises, is “but a liquor for boys”, while “for men port, and for heroes brandy.” On Midwinter and his group, he declares that “when one praises rusticity it is because he is denied the joys of town. A man may be tired of the country, but when he is tired of London he is tired of life.” On learning of Maclean’s profession, he declares that: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” (that one I had thought to be from Kipling, but my copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes those words to Johnson). He also chants “what sounded like Latin hexameters” and expresses a desire to visit the Western Isles one day – which, of course, he would do with Boswell in 1773.

His presence in the English countryside in 1745 (he had moved to London in 1737) is explained by his being a tutor at a country house, which is how he encounters a young lady called Claudia, the wife of one of the novel’s antagonists and Maclean’s love interest. He’s not just there to talk, though – he spends quite a bit of time in the saddle and gets involved in the fight scenes as well (in a fist-fight, Johnson – a much bigger man than his opponent – has “no skill, but immense reach and strength … He simply beat down the other’s guard, reckless of the blows he received, and presently dealt him such a clout that he measured his length on the floor”), and it is he who helps Maclean to decide what to do with regards to the protagonist’s love/duty dilemma.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is made in Midwinter of Johnson’s noted antagonism towards the Scots; he befriends Maclean and helps him on his quest, and after hearing of the Prince’s retreat north from Derby he acquires a sword and expresses a desire to accompany his new friend to Scotland to fight for the Jacobite cause, and even “change my name to MacIan, and be as fierce as any Highlander” – thus trying to put his above quote about soldiers into practice by becoming a man of action! In the event, though, he is convinced that he should return to his wife and his writing career in London.

Although not in the same vein as Buchan’s ‘shockers’, this is an historical novel par excellence – there’s intrigue and treachery aplenty as Maclean is ultimately faced with an uncomfortable choice (albeit one not unfamiliar to romantic heroes). What elevates it above most, though, is a convincing and realistic portrayal of a great historical figure.