On my way to the Couch

E.S. Turner

  • On my way to the Club by Ludovic Kennedy
    Collins, 429 pp, £15.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 00 217617 3

The title of this book comes from a television critic’s shrewd observation: ‘Whenever I see Mr Ludovic Kennedy in a television studio, he gives me the impression that he has been good enough to drop by to see if he can lend a hand while on the way to the club.’ A comparable judgment, also quoted in the book, appeared in the Times after Mr Kennedy had interviewed a nervous Cardinal Hume: ‘By his assurance, condescension, ease of posture and conversational initiative, Mr Kennedy might just as well have been a bishop testing a candidate for ordination.’ Clearly here is a man with all the confidence and aplomb in the world. As the recent chairman of Did you see? he smoothly concealed any distaste he may have felt for the more freakish performers on his viewing panel; and as the one-time pillar of Panorama he was not too pompous to play himself in Yes, Prime Minister and ask questions about the British sausage. His life has been pitched at an agreeable social and professional level. As a young man he danced four nights running at Holyrood Palace with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, something he says he had ‘entirely forgotten’ until he found in his papers a ‘Dear Ludo’ letter from Princess Elizabeth thanking him for his wedding present. (Old men forget, but this is forgetfulness indeed!) He is on amiable terms with landowners like ‘Johnnie Dalkeith’; he is an habitué of Brooks’s; he has known what it is to wear the aiguillette as a governor’s aide-de-camp (in Newfoundland, in an interval in his war service); he has had the pleasure of sitting in the Queen Mary’s cinema and seeing his own wedding (to the ballet dancer, Moira Shearer) featured in a newsreel as one of the ‘weddings of the year’ (the other being Elizabeth Taylor’s first). As a Liberal Parliamentary candidate he twice scored high polls at Rochdale and he tells us that if he had agreed to fight Edinburgh Central he had David Steel’s ‘generous’ promise that, if he lost, he would be recommended for the Lords. As a communicator he has met or interviewed everybody and travelled everywhere; and he has sufficient faith in television as a universal educator to say that, in this respect, ‘I believe my career has been well spent.’ He is not without enemies, of a sort; they have caused him to be blackballed in three clubs, two of them golf clubs – the sort of setback which irks Mr Kennedy more than it would some of us.

The blackballings were, of course, the result of the author’s temerity in another sphere: that of self-appointed rectifier of miscarriages in the courts. Many readers will turn to this book in an effort to discover what motivated a man born into the Establishment to rock the judicial ark, a role which hardly seems to square with his breezy, sanguine public figure, so little suggestive of an axe-grinding zealot. But readers seeking the answer to this puzzle will find themselves scarcely the wiser. It was little or nothing to do, apparently, with the fact that his father, a naval officer, spent 18 years ‘on the beach’ after a court-martial in 1921 had found him guilty of not taking stern enough measures against a body of rebellious reservists (in 1939 Captain Kennedy went down in the Atlantic commanding the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi). The author wonders whether the boyhood friction with his dominant mother was a contributory cause. ‘Was it that my own feelings as a boy of being tossed about by an uncaring fate made me want to identify with others likewise tossed about, to speak for those unable to speak for themselves? I do not know, and in any case do not think it much matters.’ Whether the young Kennedy, who admits to having been a dedicated attention-seeker, was any more tossed by fate than thousands of others who made it to Eton and Oxford the reader, on the evidence of these pages, may seriously doubt. The first legal cause célèbre to stir his emotions, as it stirred the emotions of many, was the trial for the Croydon roof-top murder in 1952, when 19-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged and his younger confederate, who actually fired the shot which killed a policeman, was spared. The Home Secretary who refused a reprieve was ‘an evil-looking cove called Maxwell Fyfe’ (others may prefer to remember him as the man who faced down Goering at Nuremberg). Ludovic Kennedy was stirred to write a play based on the case, Murder Story, which ran for two months in the West End. On the strength of it, he was later asked by Truth to review a book about the case of Timothy Evans, hanged after his wife and baby daughter had been found murdered at 10 Rillington Place, West London, an address later notorious as the home of the mass murderer John Christie. The same Home Secretary, Maxwell Fyfe, by now a ‘charlatan’ with ‘all the arrogance of the truly ignorant’, contended that there had been no miscarriage of justice and was content to believe that by an odd coincidence two murderers had occupied the same house.

Mr Kennedy then vowed to write a comprehensive book about the two cases. ‘But first,’ he says, ‘I had to attend to other business. My career in broadcasting was about to begin.’ Fair enough. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not devote 19 uninterrupted years to fighting the case of Oscar Slater (convicted 1909, sentence quashed 1928). After Mr Kennedy’s book 10 Rillington Place had appeared in 1961 he began to receive letters from prisoners and their relatives claiming that miscarriages had occurred. Many had the ‘ring of truth’ but he was too busy to take them up. Soon came the excitements of the Profumo case and he quickly sensed that ‘a miscarriage of justice of quite a different kind might be about to take place’ – namely, the trial of Stephen Ward, the osteopath, on dubious charges of living on immoral earnings. In the resulting book the author first expressed his conviction that the adversarial style of criminal justice as practised in British courts was all wrong and that if the truth emerged it was a pure windfall; many years were to pass before he decided that the French inquisitorial system was superior. He took up the complex case of Patrick Meehan, gaoled on a murder charge in Scotland and eventually freed with £50,000 compensation, after a direct written approach from Meehan’s wife and later from the prisoner himself; and his interest in the Luton Post Office murder was stirred when a literary agent showed him a book-length manuscript written by one of the imprisoned men. In the matter of the Lindbergh baby crime it was Kennedy who, out of the blue, approached the widow of Richard Hauptmann, having chanced to see her on breakfast television in his New York hotel pleading vehemently that her husband, executed 44 years earlier, was innocent of any part of the affair. Her voice had the ring of truth: and why else would a woman in her eighties plead so passionately for justice? ‘I felt the old adrenalin surging through me and a sense of heady exhilaration,’ he writes. Alas, the American legal and political establishment was no more eager to redress an ancient wrong than its British counterpart, as is amply evident from The Airman and the Carpenter.

Mr Kennedy assures us that he relies on ‘initial instinct’ to form his belief in innocence, his ability to detect that ‘sharp ring of truth’, and says he has never pursued cases in which he was uncertain about the innocence of the person involved. Old men in wigs will smile wearily at this; they tend to put letters from gaol in the waste-paper basket. But, the author maintains, ‘contrary to popular belief, cases of guilty men proclaiming their innocence and continuing to do so with evidence to back it up are so rare as to be almost non-existent.’ The accounts of the cases in this book are necessarily potted ones, since they have all been written up at length elsewhere, but there is plenty of room for some heavy trouncing of the judiciary, both north and south of the Tweed. The judges are attacked for their tendency to close ranks, for their refusal to disbelieve Police evidence at its most suspect and for a determination to maintain a belief in infallibility rather than a faith in justice. Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo case was ‘a disgrace’, full of tittle-tattle and gossip and showing him to be ‘a simpleton in sexual matters’ (a crime indeed these days). We are also reminded that it was a Kennedy television interview with Lord Denning which caused the judge’s autobiography to be withdrawn for the removal of ‘uncompromisingly racial and reactionary’ passages. A Scots judge, Lord Robertson, is the subject of passages like ‘the direction his mind (or what passed for it) was moving ...’ Politicians fare no better. R. A. Butler, in refusing to reopen the Timothy Evans case, showed ‘cowardice and mendacity’ and his successor, Sir Frank Soskice, was even more ‘contemptible’. Late in the book a Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, is described as ‘a man of very limited vision’; strangely, Mr Kennedy seems unaware that Kilmuir was, in fact, Maxwell Fyfe (the names are indexed separately).

The author’s readiness to take risks in his jousts with the law can only be admired by those of us who are ready to stifle our qualms with the thought that justice can never be absolute and that those who may have been innocent on one charge were almost certainly guilty of something else. However, clearing the wrongly convicted is one thing: unmasking those who may have escaped justice is another. A well-known historian tipped off Mr Kennedy to the case of a much-decorated British Naval officer who had arguably committed a war crime but had gone to his grave with reputation unblemished. He does not name the man, but the press, picking up the clues, has since identified him as an outstanding submarine commander of the day. Mr Kennedy says he went so far as to turn up the records and then to invite the officer to have lunch with him. He was brushed off, and his gift to the officer of a copy of his Naval book The Pursuit was coolly received. Obviously the commander was nobody’s fool. Eventually Mr Kennedy decided to abandon the quest, on the grounds that, after one controversial incident, the commander had gone on to fight a most distinguished war, achieving feats ‘I could never match in a hundred years’. He asks: ‘What right had I to tarnish the reputation of an acknowledged war hero and needlessly distress his family? Time enough to think about resuscitating the idea after he was dead.’ Even after the man’s death, he still reproaches himself in these pages for lack of courage in calling off the hunt. His last words on the subject are equivocal: ‘Maybe I will write about it one day. Maybe not.’

The reader may be left with many awkward questions forming in his mind. If the quarry had served his country less conspicuously, or it he had become, say, a pompous politician, would he have been fair game from the start? Does the mere death of a quarry give a writer the right to destroy his reputation? (It certainly removes the threat of a libel action.) At what stage does one discard scruples about distressing relatives? And, not least: which is more important, to uncover the truth, which is supposedly beautiful at all times, or dig up a piquant story others have missed or decided not to touch? Not the least piquant angle here is that in 1945 the German commander of U582, who had been involved in a similar incident, was shot with two fellow officers on Luneberg Heath. As it happened, I was present in the Hamburg court when they were sentenced to death and it was impossible to exclude the thought that their case was perhaps not unique. For further piquancy, the account of the affair in The Peleus Trial has a forward by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe.[*]

As an autobiography, On my way to the Club is something of a gatherall. It is the work of a man who has seized and relished his opportunities and sees no reason why he should be hamstrung by reticence. The index (a fallible one) has six references to his ‘sexual education’ and one to his ‘sexual initiation’: none of these episodes, however, was the cause of his precocious duodenal ulcer at the age of 16 (for this he blames his ever-nagging mother). In his last year at Eton, a member of Pop, he was sufficiently restored to take part in a priceless jape – flying with four others to Le Touquet and back between midday and evening roll-calls. Crudity surfaces with a tale of what he did in the spittoon at the dentist’s in Rochdale and with the printing of an extract from the poem he and Robin Day chorused in a boat off Tangier (he has already been reprimanded for confusing those epic poems ‘Eskimo Nell’ and ‘The Good Ship Venus’). To even the score, he quotes elsewhere two favourite verses of ‘Abide with me’. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is reserved for page 213, where we learn that in his middle years he spent a ‘small fortune’ on psychiatrists, one of whom diagnosed his trouble as an ‘anxiety neurosis’. This apparently was more to do with an inability to cope with his personal life than with any doubts about journalistic ethics or taking on the judges. Psychiatrists, one of whom fell asleep on him, became a way of life for more than two decades. A baffling business. Never was a feeling of inadequacy so brilliantly concealed from the public.

[*] Hodge War Crimes series, 1948.