- The Suzy Lamplugh Story by Andrew Stephen
Faber, 198 pp, £10.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 571 15152 3
‘In so short a time you have achieved the kind of fame people work towards for a lifetime,’ Diana Lamplugh wrote to her eldest daughter in August 1986. This daughter had achieved fame by disappearing: by being, at the age of 25, presumed dead. In July, Susannah Lamplugh had left the estate agent’s office where she worked, apparently to meet a client, and had never returned. She seemed to have been abducted; she was thought by most people to have been murdered. Mrs Lamplugh’s letter, which described what had happened since Susannah disappeared, was, it seems, written to steady her nerves, and written without much hope that her daughter would ever read it. But the letter was not short of respondents. Mrs Lamplugh gave it to her family, and to the Evening Standard, who printed parts of it. The Telegraph, Mirror and Star also published extracts. BBC Television News showed the writer typing her letter at her desk. Some months later, Diana Lamplugh was able to provide another chilling announcement: ‘We are probably (bar the Royals) one of the most well-known families in Britain.’
Andrew Stephen’s book has added to this celebrity. So have the newspaper stories about his story. For three long weeks the Observer carried huge chunks of this tiny book. Their estimate of the story which was most likely to attract readers was the same as that of the News of the World, who shortly before Andrew Stephen’s book was published put a picture of Susannah Lamplugh on the cover of its colour-supplement. This showed her sitting on a bunk smoking, in a little silky garment. Alongside large amounts of tanned thigh was the legend: ‘REVEALED! SUZY LAMPLUGH’S SECRET LOVER.’ Inside, a gruellingly banal article described a (non-secret) affair with a hairdresser on the QE2. ‘Right from the start there was something between them, Jon remembers. “When I first saw Suzy I thought, ‘Wow, who is she?’ ” ’ Other papers, excited by the news that the Lamplugh parents had turned against the book, expressed their excitement in ways peculiar to themselves. The People said Stephen credited Susannah with fifty lovers: he doesn’t. The Times said the Lamplugh family had left home while the book was being publicised and published: they were back for publication date. The Guardian denounced the ‘public voyeurism that provokes publication’ of such an ‘archetypal ghoul’s story’ – though it was the Lamplughs, not a ravening mob, who had approached the publishers with the idea for this book, and the publishers were free to say no. Andrew Stephen had one defender in Anita Brookner – but the effectiveness of her attack on his attackers was diminished by its appearing in the Observer while that paper was ending its serialisation of the book. He also mounted his own defence, or attack.
The day after he had been excoriated in the Guardian for producing an ‘appallingly empty’ book, Mr Stephen bobbed up on the front page of the Guardian ‘Choices’ section, to describe the difficulties that had been put in the way of his book. His piece spilt a few beans about Susannah (one of her boyfriends had said she was ‘foul-mouthed’). It sought the moral high ground in a less than completely convincing way: Mr Stephen said that he had ‘long since been past caring’ about sales figures – then added that the Lamplughs got a 15 per cent royalty compared to his 2½ per cent; he said that the ‘hype’ surrounding the book was ‘certainly not created by the publishers or me’, but why would he write and Faber publish such a book and not want it publicised? The prose of the piece was lacklustre: ‘unimaginable trauma ... her name will live on.’ Some of its sentiments were trite: the ‘loss’ of Susannah was pronounced ‘outrageous’ because she was ‘a generous, kind and special young woman’: what about the abduction of unkind old bags? But Andrew Stephen’s article flared into life when it spoke about Diana Lamplugh. In this, as in other respects, it was like his book.
No one would expect The Suzy Lamplugh Story to solve the mystery of what happened to its subject, and it doesn’t. Mr Stephen provides some interesting facts about the police investigation, gives a clear account of Susannah Lamplugh’s early life and her movements immediately before she disappeared, and supplies a scatter of intimate but easily accessible details – the straw boater in the abandoned car, the half-finished dress lying beside the sewing-machine. Much of his information came from the Lamplughs. The family was shown the manuscript and they tried to prevent publication. In a postscript, Andrew Stephen explained that the parents ‘reject the view of themselves and their daughter in this book’, and suggested that this rejection had to do with discussion of their daughter’s ‘private life’: ‘the Lamplughs refused to accept that Susannah had boyfriends other than the ones they knew about.’ Stephen’s book could be thought pointless: but it is not particularly titillating. It gives a straightforward, quite terse account of a girl who often had one-night stands, and often had more than one man on the go. It doesn’t imply, as such accounts frequently do, that having a strong sex drive made Susannah Lamplugh in some way complicit with her fate. But then no one has ever suggested that a man who sleeps with a lot of women is asking to be done in.
In his Guardian article Andrew Stephen was more forthright about his book’s problems, suggesting that the real difficulty for the Lamplughs was ‘how Diana Lamplugh herself came over in it’. This was not surprising. As Anita Brookner pointed out, Mrs Lamplugh was used to running things. She steered her eldest daughter away from her first boyfriend, ‘a typical butcher’s boy’. She founded a keep-fit organisation called Slimnastics. She monitored all her family’s holiday activities (‘I have just mended a fuse on the Hoover’) in long, painfully detailed letters which were circulated to relatives. She liked to give advice, and she had a memorable turn of phrase: ‘If you’re dyslexic, you have to be somebody, rather than do something,’ the dyslexic mother explained to her dyslexic daughter. Mrs Lamplugh was made for television. (She has recently given tips to mini-cab travellers on London Weekend.) She appeared on Wogan talking about her daughter. She made videos of her television appearances (‘Granny enjoyed it’), and noted that she had discovered ‘an easy and effective way of dressing which is distinctive and not showy’. A vicar told her: ‘I think you’ve been trained for this moment.’
Some of Mrs Lamplugh’s behaviour has a loopy quality, perhaps the loopy vivacity which can accompany extreme grief. Hearing of police suspicions about a block of flats in the street where her daughter’s car had been found, Mrs Lamplugh disguised herself ‘as a writer’ (she wore a hat and dark glasses) and went there, with a friend (similarly disguised as a photographer). She took with her a bribe for the caretaker and a gun in case there was trouble. Neither was needed: the caretaker meekly drained the sumps for bodies, and Mrs Lamplugh returned with a list of suspects: one African chieftain, one Chinese chauffeur, an Arab and a valet called Pedro. Most of her activities are characterised by efficiency and an eerie brightness. According to Stephen, her flair for publicity made the police try harder than usual: ‘hundreds of young women disappeared every year ... and often there was little police effort to find them.’ When she founded the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, to investigate and alleviate aggression at work, it raised over £100,000 in the first year. The organisation arranged sponsored swims, balls and Easter egg hunts. ‘Long faces are not the order of the day at our events.’ reported the Trust’s magazine. When Mrs Lamplugh set up Suzy Lamplugh Ventures, Filofax considered producing Suzy Lamplugh Packs.
Susannah Lamplugh’s friends thought she would have hated the Trust. The members of the ‘Putney Set’, whose cohesion and middle-classness has been much trumpeted, as if it made an abduction worse, were thought by the Police to be ‘clones’ and peculiarly unforthcoming. These friends talked about their wind-surfing, their shirt-and-sunglasses parties, their Tarzan kissograms and their nicknames – ‘Pratt’, ‘Biffo’, ‘Splodge’. They said that Susannah had been determined to buy a Mercedes; they said she might have had a married lover; they didn’t provide many clues. The diaries she kept when working as a beautician on the QE2 gave more sense, in a limited way, of her individuality, and of her dyslexia. ‘Roomer has it 400 cases of the dose,’ she wrote. And: ‘we’ve got some new raving tonks – bloody faggots.’ She decided that Egyptians were ‘slimmy things’.
This book does not tell us whether or not Mr Kipper was a red herring. It does show that verbal ingenuity is not confined to university English Departments. As soon as the ‘Mr Kipper’ clue was released, the Police were swamped with phone calls pointing out that ‘kipper’ could be an abbreviation of ‘kidnapper’; that it might have something to do with Yom Kippur; that it is taxi-driver’s slang for the slack season of the year. The book tells us that several wives were eager to turn their innocent) husbands in for questioning in connection with the case. And it tells us that Uri Geller is not all-powerful. He was convinced that he could find the missing girl, but he got lost on his saffron-robed way to the Lamplughs’ house in East Sheen.