I write a lot here about how effed-up and miserable Britain was in the 1970s but there were also times when reality took on the lurid, couldn’t-make-it-up quality of a cheap paperback thriller — one written by someone on drugs.
Take the story of “Lucky” Lord Lucan: the dashing, flamboyant aristocrat (apparently once considered for the role of James Bond) whose wife ran into a London pub one night in 1974 covered in blood and screaming “Help me, help me, help me! He’s in the house! He’s murdered my nanny!” Back at their house the bludgeoned body of their children’s nanny was found tied up in a mailbag in the basement but Lucan was gone, and two days later his abandoned car was discovered with bloodstains on the seats and a piece of lead pipe like the one used in the murder.
In the intervening days Lucan mailed a letter to a relative explaining his side of the story and saying he intended to “lie doggo for a bit” which turns out to have been a typically-British understatement because Lucan vanished off the face of the earth and was never seen again. Over the years Lucan became something of a tabloid Moby Dick with newspapers breathlessly following any hint of a sighting of the fugitive, phantom peer all over the world no matter how unlikely. 40 years later he still sends British tabloids into a tizzy.
The Lucan story was sensational and strange enough but in the 1970s it shared headline space with several other bizarro scandals. Like the one involving Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party who was accused of hiring a hit-man to kill his former gay lover Norman Scott. Adding extra eccentric tabloid spice to the story was the fact that Thorpe’s pet-name for Scott was “Bunny” and the hit-man only managed to shoot his dog. Scott’s other claim to fame was inadvertently coining the term pillow-biter which became derogatory slang for a gay man that was much used at my school.
Then there was the case of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who faked his own suicide — Reggie Perrin style, leaving his clothes on a Florida beach — and a few months later was discovered to be very much alive and hiding out in Australia with his mistress. When police found him they initially thought they’d discovered Lord Lucan who apparently had a large scar on his right leg, so for proper identification they asked Stonehouse to take his trousers down before they arrested him. Years later it was revealed that Stonehouse — a Government minister — had also been a Communist spy.
It’s no wonder the Monty Python team called it quits in 1974, their satire couldn’t keep up with reality. In this context I think of Maggie Thatcher as Graham Champman’s uptight colonel who would walk on in the middle of a sketch and tell everyone to stop because things were getting “too silly.”
Download: Lord Lucan Is Missing – Black Box Recorder (mp3)
And I didn’t even mention Joyce McKinney.