From Rosemary Hill’s review, it seems we have another book, this by Laura Thompson, exonerating Lord Lucan of the murder of the children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, and the attempted murder of his wife, Veronica (LRB, 5 February). It is bizarre after all this time to find any writer on the case, who is not a family defender of the disappeared earl, putting across such a conclusion. That Rosemary Hill buys it too is odd but more excusable – she’s getting it from the book or books. But it’s fascinating in terms of historical myth. ‘That he was desperate enough and able … to hire a hitman seems more plausible,’ Hill writes, ‘that he panicked at the reality and tried to stop the killing, arriving when Rivett was already dead and his wife wounded.’ More plausible, she says, because Laura Thompson and two other writers, including Patrick Marnham, all think that ‘whatever his state of mind, he (Lucan) was not capable of such extreme, sustained violence.’ How do they know? What is that based on? Shouldn’t Hill have been more sceptical of this?
Where does the intruder story come from? Only from Lord Lucan’s letters written that night, trying to set up a version to save his children’s shame, before he committed suicide. Why believe them instead of all the massive evidence against him? Lucan’s only description of the intruder is of a ‘large man’. To Michael Stoop he wrote: ‘I have had a traumatic night of unbelievable coincidence. However I won’t bore you with anything.’ They are Etonian letters par excellence – the first skill you acquired in that brutal age at Eton was lying, vide Jonathan Aitken. Like Aitken’s sword of truth speech, Lucan’s letters have a giveaway mixture of fake nobility and self-pity. ‘When they [the children] are old enough to understand,’ he wrote to Bill Shand Kydd, ‘explain to them the dream of paranoia, and look after them.’ Hill opens her piece with Veronica’s question to Dominick Elwes from behind her bandages in her hospital bed: ‘Now who’s the one with paranoia?’ Hill doesn’t follow this up. Veronica was talking about her husband trying to kill her.
Hill cites Marnham’s book Trail of Havoc as a source for the intruder theory. I reviewed Trail of Havoc for this paper (LRB, 12 November 1987). I know Marnham and admire his writing but I was forced to point out (as Walter Winchell used to say) that his central theory collapsed from a monumental mistake of geography – he had Lucan and his hired killer moving between Lower Belgrave Street and the Lucan mews house behind. But, alas for him, had he measured the ground, the mews house is not back to back with 46 Lower Belgrave Street but some way along the mews. It was Marnham’s Lucan article in Private Eye that triggered the hundred years’ war between Richard Ingrams and Jimmy Goldsmith. He rang after my review and said: ‘I haven’t had a lot of luck with Lucan.’
Hill compares the (posthumous, one assumes) press and police treatment of Lucan with their treatment of Christopher Jefferies, the schoolteacher wrongly arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates – as in poor old Lucky being picked on for his earldom and his silly moustache. In fact the Jefferies treatment was doled out in spades, misogynistically, to Veronica Lucan. She became la folle de Belgravia in the popular imagination and stories of her waspishness, madness etc circulated wildly at the time – another plant by Lord Lucan, who had been trying to have her committed or, if not that, to terrorise her into submission. A little unstable maybe, but she wasn’t at all mad. And here is the glaring omission in all this: Lady Lucan’s evidence. Why is Lucan believed and not Lady Lucan? Because she’s mad? I am cited in Hill’s review for my pieces in the Sunday Times and the New Review and I was very close to the story all those years ago. I certainly had a scoop in terms of my access to Lady Lucan, who described in great detail to me how she got out of this murderous attack by her husband, re-enacting the scene on the staircase of 46 Lower Belgrave Street. The dialogue between them, that she reported to me, can’t be made up. Lucan thought it was the nanny’s night off (his daughter told the police he had asked her for this information), so when Rivett came down to the darkened kitchen (Lucan had removed the light bulb) he mistook her for Veronica and killed her. Veronica came down after a while calling for Sandra. Then ‘someone rushed out and hit me on the head.’ Four times. She screamed. He told her to ‘shut up’. He thrust two fingers down her throat; they fought, she got between his legs, managed to twist around and grab his balls. I’m not sure why I didn’t quote Veronica Lucan in my pieces – I remember our interviews were surrounded with legal conditions – but I had no doubt she was telling a true story. The same she told to the police, to Dominick Elwes and to the jury at the coroner’s inquest, which found Lucan to be the murderer. The detail was right; she never wavered or embellished it down the years. One detail was so extraordinary it can’t have been invented. When he lunged at her throat, she managed to croak: ‘Don’t you dare touch my pearls.’ Perhaps he wasn’t capable of sustaining this second attack after the appeal to his manners, and after a wrestling match. In the pause, as they went upstairs, she managed to run out to the Plumbers Arms.
If you believe her story everything else, all the mass of evidence against Lucan, falls into place – the bludgeon found in his car identical to the murder weapon, the blood and hair on the back seat, and so on. This, in fact, was the basic storyline of the recent ITV two-parter written by Jeff Pope. Though clunky in dialogue (I don’t remember even my parents’ generation calling each other ‘old thing’ every few minutes) and repeating the calumny, now indelible, that Dominick Elwes gave me the photographs that sealed his fate, it was the first account I’ve come across that got the story straight, and showed Lucan doing the deed. Jimmy Goldsmith and Aspinall both thought he’d done it. His son George Bingham is ‘quite certain’ there was no intruder, a view he shares, he says, with his close family. He has said he wants to believe his father is culpable; it is too painful otherwise to think he abandoned his children for no apparent reason.
The greater mystery is what he did early that morning as he shut the door of his car in Newhaven. Where did he go? I believe into the sea. Keith Simpson, the Home Office pathologist, who held this theory too, told me that there is a kind of crab in Newhaven Harbour that will settle in large numbers on your corpse and consume your flesh within two or three days.
Owen Bennett-Jones’s piece on the go-betweens who paved the way for an IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the subsequent peace process calls to mind another occasion nearly twenty years before when intermediaries tried to bring the conflict to an end (LRB, 22 January). This too involved a meeting at a hotel, Smyth’s in Feakle, a small town in County Clare. It took place on 10 December 1974 between leaders of the Protestant churches in Ireland and the IRA Army Council and the Sinn Féin leadership. Dáithi Ó Conaill, a founder member of the Provisional IRA and its director of publicity, was prominent in arranging the talks. In contrast to the meeting at Heathrow in 1993, which had two, possibly three participants, the delegations at Feakle were comparatively large: eight clergy and six members of the Provisional movement, including Ó Conaill. After discussions, proposals were relayed from the Provisional leadership to the British government, calling on them, inter alia, to declare a commitment to withdraw from Northern Ireland. The talks came to an abrupt end prior to a visit from the Irish Special Branch, who raided the hotel in an attempt to arrest the Republicans; they had been alerted by elements sympathetic to them in the upper echelons of the Garda Síochána.
The IRA subsequently called a ‘total and complete’ ceasefire – to last from 22 December until 2 January – to allow the British government to respond to proposals. Government officials held talks with Republicans up to 17 January, and a meeting was arranged between Republicans and Foreign Office officials by Rev. William Arlow, one of the clergymen at Feakle, on 19 January. The IRA Army Council ordered a cessation of ‘hostilities against Crown forces’ with effect from 10 February. In the course of further discussions that year, which continued sporadically until February 1976, British representatives seemed to be offering withdrawal from Ireland as a realistic possibility. The Republican representatives, including Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, felt a responsibility to pursue the opportunity but were also sceptical of British intentions, according to Ó Brádaigh’s notes, now in the archive at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Though the army and the IRA largely avoided hostilities with each other, there were several serious incidents involving members of the IRA in what turned out to be anything but a quiet year. There were Loyalist sectarian attacks on Catholics, Republican attacks on Protestants and internecine feuding among both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. During the period of the ceasefire the British government denied that a deal had been made but Sinn Féin and the IRA said a 12-point plan had been agreed. Some of the elements of this alleged deal were to become apparent: for instance, the setting up of ‘incident centres’ and a reduction in security force activity in Republican areas.
The circumstances surrounding the failure of the talks greatly influenced thinking within the Republican movement, and though talks between intermediaries and the movement took place intermittently over the years, another ceasefire wasn’t called until August 1994. Another important consequence was that the leadership of the movement underwent a change. Many Northern Republicans became disenchanted with the leadership of Ó Brádaigh and, in particular, his support for the ceasefire, which was seen as catastrophic for the IRA. A younger generation, led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, seized control, claiming that during the ceasefire the British had probably come very close to destroying the IRA. Ó Brádaigh, they asserted, had been conned into believing that the British were seriously considering withdrawal from Northern Ireland. He stayed on as figurehead president of Sinn Fein until 1983 before being replaced by Adams.
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire
Whatever his record as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher’s achievement as headmaster of Repton should not be denigrated, especially when the chief witness, called on far too often, is the notorious fantasist Roald Dahl. As Mary Bennett says, Dahl denounces Fisher as a sadist, and tries to substantiate his allegation by the story of a savage flogging administered to Dahl’s close friend H.M. Arnold (Letters, 5 February). I am writing a history of Repton, and my work in the archives enables me to say categorically that the beating in question (for ‘immorality’) was perpetrated in May 1933 by the new headmaster, John Christie, Fisher having retired in 1932. Dahl’s account of the matter is pure hearsay, at best, and seems to reflect his own sadistic impulses (amply illustrated in his fiction) and probably an inaccurate memory: his autobiography was written fifty years later. It is a great shame that Dahl’s libels are still current, and have even found their way into the DNB.
Fisher was an immensely efficient headmaster, but beneath a bluff exterior was also sensitive and affectionate. In 1924 he rejoiced that he had not had to beat anyone for four years. He retired when the emotional demands of his position became unbearable: for instance, when boys died in epidemics he had to comfort the parents, while greatly needing comfort himself (though few realised it). Undoubtedly there was too much beating at Repton in his day, but for that the times and tradition were to blame, rather than the man.
University of Essex
Going down with one’s ship, or being the last to leave it, is probably not the ‘ancient ethical prescription’ that Rachel Kushner suggests (LRB, 22 January). Like the related notion of ‘women and children first’ (which originated with the Birkenhead disaster of 1845), it seems to have been a 19th-century development, at least in the British maritime tradition. The 18th-century public was not unduly scandalised by sea captains who made a hasty exit from stricken vessels. When HMS Centaur was crippled by storms in 1782, Captain John Inglefield and the other senior officers requisitioned the ship’s pinnace, abandoning several hundred sailors all of whom subsequently drowned. Inglefield’s conduct wasn’t censured at the time; instead, his escape was celebrated in a powerful and much reproduced painting by James Northcote.
Nottingham Trent University
Jackson Lears points to Jim Webb’s ‘troubling idiosyncrasies’ (LRB, 5 February). One in his favour: at his first White House reception as a senator, after a heated exchange about Iraq, where his son was serving in the Marine Corps, Webb reportedly wanted to ‘slug’ George W. Bush.
‘Quality’. Would that be any particular quality? Anthony Grayling’s letter is bullying, untrustworthy, interested, substanceless and witless (Letters, 5 February). As for ‘construction … construction’, surely his haemorrhoids – what a silly thing to say – must have had all his attention. He needs to get out of the river, and back to his first-years.
University of Florida, Gainesville
I was disappointed to read Anthony Grayling’s crude and puerile response to Michael Hofmann’s review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Is it asking too much of the chair of the Man Booker Prize committee to give us a more mature and intelligent defence of Flanagan’s novel?
As anyone who has read Andrew Roberts’s recent biography of Napoleon would know, a lot can be achieved while suffering from haemorrhoids.
Sixpenny Handley, Dorset
Tariq Ali asks: ‘Why was Catholicism never blamed for the IRA offensives?’ (LRB, 5 February). The simple answer is that IRA killings were not done in the name of the Church; as far as we know, bombs were not thrown with a cry of ‘This is for Mary, Mother of God.’ Ali is confusing the categories of creed and community.
Birkbeck, University of London
Tariq Ali quotes the ‘waspish’ Eric Hazan, who claims that the recent million-strong Paris demonstration was ‘as big’ as the demonstration on 28 April 1944, when Pétain visited Paris to commemorate the victims of a recent Allied bombing raid. Inspection of photos and newsreel taken on the day of Pétain’s visit, coupled with diary accounts, show clearly that around 15,000 people attended – the vast majority invited by the regime. The ludicrous figure of a million was proclaimed in Vichy newsreels by the fascist Marcel Déat and has no basis in reality. The true comparison is with the chaotic celebration of the Liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944, which numbered well over a million participants.
University of Manchester
Anthony Grafton highlights Jürgen Leonhardt’s argument that it took until the late 18th century for ‘elites’ to retreat from the view that all academic scholarship should be conducted in Latin (LRB, 8 January). In 1795, George Crabbe (1754-1832), author of ‘Peter Grimes’, submitted his illustrated ‘English Treatise on Botany’ to John Davies, vice-master of Trinity College, Cambridge, for his expert opinion before publication. Davies ‘could not stomach the notion of degrading such a science by treating of it in a modern language’. And that was that. The treatise was thrown on a bonfire in Crabbe’s English garden.
Stephen Sedley’s learned review of my biography of Lord Mansfield (LRB, 22 January) and Satvinder Juss’s equally learned letter (Letters, 5 February) both state, correctly, that Mansfield’s decision in the Somersett case did not end English slavery or the slave trade. In fact, the slave trade flourished in the years immediately following the 1772 decision. Of the 12 million Africans who were transported across the Atlantic to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than half were brought over after 1776.
But both Sedley and Juss fail to acknowledge the significance of the Somersett decision as a paradigmatic example of the way the meaning of a legal decision can change and have growing force as the morals of society change. The decision became steadily more important as the years went by and provided crucial support for the growing and increasingly intellectually respectable abolitionist movement. Mansfield’s narrow interpretation of his decision – that he had simply held that a slaveowner cannot compel a slave to leave England – gave way to a broader interpretation: that slavery in Britain had been repudiated in toto. In the last year of his life (21 years after the Somersett decision), Mansfield acknowledged to the abolitionist Granville Sharp that the case had undermined British slavery. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1834.
Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard’s Establishment Club ‘failed’, Rosemary Hill writes (LRB, 5 February). She may be right, but Peter never thought so. I quote what he said to me in 1988, some 25 years after the doors closed on the Establishment:
The thing that brought it down was the magazine. Scene was wholly Nick – but I was too greedy. Just as I was going off to the States I saw these very flashy dummy issues – well-designed, colour photographs, it all looked quite nifty – and instead of saying I don’t want anything to do with that, because I wasn’t anything to do with it, I went along with it and I was fed what turned out to be absolutely inaccurate reports of its fortunes while I was in America. It had pretensions to be the sort of smart magazine you’d be well advised to leave hanging around on your coffee table, but we’d have been better off selling coffee tables I think … again it shows how naive we were financially, the same limited company ran both Scene and the Establishment, so when Scene went down the tube it dragged the Establishment down with it. The Establishment never lost money.
San Giovanni d’Asso, Italy
Tim Salmon misreads my point about the Mani: it is nonconformist not in itself but compared to other regions of Greece (Letters, 5 February). And while other Greeks may boast about being ‘the fiercest opponents of the Turks’, Maniot claims are substantiated by actual events: the region was independent under Ottoman rule. This means something to a group as historically conscious as Golden Dawn.
But Salmon mainly wishes to defend British policy during the Greek Civil War. He points out that the British arrived in Athens in October 1944 and were fighting street battles by December. But fighting did not begin because Elas refused to evacuate Athens when the British demanded that they leave; it first broke out on 3 December, between communist demonstrators and Greek police armed by the British. Responsibility for the escalation of the conflict is at least shared by the British, who brought fifty thousand Italian reinforcements to Greece ‘for maintaining order in Athens and for neutralising or destroying all EAM-Elas bands approaching the city’.
To label the forces of the Democratic Army of Greece ‘insurgents’ is to downplay the fact that the left had the strongest claim to being the legitimate representatives of postwar Greece. It was Papandreou, the royal family and the Greek right who had been discredited before the war, who had spent the war in exile, and who now had designs on the country. Perhaps throats would have been cut and Greece would have resembled an Eastern bloc state had the left come to power in 1945. But in the event at least three thousand members of the Greek left were executed during and after the Civil War, while another fifty thousand were dispatched to gulag-type prisons and ‘political re-education centres’. As for the comparison with the USSR, the outlawing of the left until the demise of the Colonels mirrored the crushing of dissent in the Soviet Union.
Like Keith Thomas I too was called into National Service in 1950 (LRB, 5 February). Like him, I avoided transportation to Korea and was excused the atrocities committed by British forces in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus. Otherwise my military service was somewhat different from his. On being mustered, I was very quickly transferred from an unearthly spot in Yorkshire to the Household Cavalry barracks in Windsor. I spent two years as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the Life Guards. With the honourable exception of the riding master, all the commissioned officers were Etonians and little appeared to have changed since the Iron Duke himself ruled the roost in Whitehall.
I discovered (it was hard to miss) that there was a semi-organised ring of male prostitutes within the Guards known simply as ‘the business’. It was ignored by the authorities until an MP or suchlike was caught in one of the royal parks with a guardsman. As far as I know little was done to prevent similar things happening again and again. Newspaper coverage was minimal. On completing my two years with the Life Guards, I too served my remaining three and a half years in the Territorial Army. Little has surfaced of the disorder, the almost mutinous conditions and total collapse of military discipline in the TA.
Bee Wilson’s largely uncritical assessment of Vivienne Westwood’s recent autobiography can only encourage Westwood’s recent tendency towards self-serving revisionism (LRB, 20 November 2014). Westwood’s impressive achievements in the fashion world following her split with Malcolm McLaren are a matter of record. Yet much of the cachet attaching to the Vivienne Westwood fashion brand rests on the impact of the various boutiques owned and operated by both Westwood and McLaren at 430 King’s Road during the days when, as Wilson notes, they were ‘at the heart’ of the British version of punk. To subscribe to the narrative of Vivienne Westwood is to deny McLaren’s central role in the creation and popularisation of the designs sold in Sex, Let It Rock and Seditionaries, relegating McLaren to a walk-on part as an emotionally overbearing partner and inadequate paterfamilias.
Dunedin, New Zealand
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.