It didn’t happen quite like that, but as I have been writing Lord Bonkers’ Diary for 20 years – a fact that shocks me if not its readers – I thought it might be worth describing where the old brute really comes from.
Lord Bonkers has two kinds of roots: literary ones and historical ones. His most important literary forebears are two characters who were prominent in the years immediately before I started writing about him in 1990: Peter Tinniswood’s Brigadier and Stephen Fry’s Professor Trefusis.
The Brigadier was the hero of a series of books, beginning with Tales from a Long Room. These were written out of a deep love of English cricket and approached it with wonderfully creative humour. So the Brigadier lived in a village whose neighbouring landmarks included Botham’s Gut and Cowdrey’s Bottom, and he frequently mentions such eminent figures as E.W. “Gloria” Swanton and such literary works as Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Pocock”.
I came across these stories while I was a student at York through Robin Bailey’s readings on Radio 4 and immediately loved them. One day, I thought, it would be good to write something along those lines, but using the Liberal Party rather than cricket. This is what Lord Bonkers’ Diary was intended to be; indeed, when I read my early columns now I am embarrassed by just how much they owe to Tinniswood.
Professor Trefusis featured in Stephen Fry’s early appearances on Ned Sherrin’s radio programme Loose Ends and is quite arguably the best thing he has done. Through the character of an eccentric academic Fry made telling points and radical points about modern politics and society. One piece in particular, Trefusis’s talk on education, made a tremendous impact and has been mentioned to me by several people over the years. I hoped I could do something similar by using the persona of an Edwardian landowner.
There are other literary roots beyond these two. I had read very little P.G. Wodehouse when I started writing Lord Bonkers, though I was to read a lot of him in later years, but I was certainly aware of the world of Jeeves and Wooster. Equally, I did not see Viv Stanshall’s film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End until a few days before writing this article, yet I know all about its he hero and felt vaguely plagiarised when the Rutland brewer Ruddles started using him in its television commercials.
Other forebears are even more obscure. I loved the Uncle books by the Revd J.P. Martin when I was a boy and only recently did I notice that their hero, who lived in a castle, had lots of friends and adventures and was given to very public acts of philanthropy, bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain Rutland peer. And I recently discovered that Lord Bonkers’ habit of giving Important Concepts initial capitals comes straight from A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh.
So those are the character’s literary roots, but he has political ones too. When I started writing Lord Bonkers’ Diary early in 1990 I had been working in Leicester for 18 months and had gained access to the county record office and the university library. Between them they greatly increased my knowledge of the political history of Leicestershire and Rutland and of my own constituency in particular. I learned that Harborough had remained Liberal from 1891 to 1918.
The dominant personality in this history was J.W. “Paddy” Logan, a prosperous railway contractor who was a thoroughgoing Radical and Harborough’s MP from 1891 to 1904 and from 1910 to 1916. He is best remembered for starting a fight on the floor of the Commons and also ran a cottage home in the village of East Langton for the children of men who had been killed at his works. I am also certain that I discovered this after I had invented the Bonkers Home for Well-Behaved Orphans.
This unearthing of inspirations for Lord Bonkers after the event continued when I came across Sir Bache Cunard. He lived at Nevill Holt, the house I have come to regard as the model for Bonkers Hall, in the Edwardian era and devoted himself to hunting and decorative metalwork. His daughter Nancy was to scandalise later decades with her literary dalliances and left-wing sympathies: I expect she got it from the first Lady Bonkers.
Then there was Colonel Hignett, the Tory who had bought Logan’s estate on his death in 1922 and was, incredibly, still active locally when I became a councillor in the 1980s. I came across him several times and he had an unnerving habit of starting telephone calls with “Now, look here....” Fortunately, this was generally followed with “...if I can be any help, you let me know.” When the church roof at Church Langton needed repairing and the estimate from the builders proved too high (“They could put that where the monkey put the nuts.”) he organised the locals to do the job themselves and was filmed by local television as he directed operations up on the roof at the age of 90.
Incidentally, the story above about Lord Bonkers not recognising me the morning after an evening of generous and alcholic hospitality is true. It’s just that it involved Colonel Hignett and the older brother of one of my school friends when he was working for local radio.
A recent discovery is Evelyn Cheesman who began as a governess at Gumley Hall (another large house near Market Harborough that was demolished in 1964) and ended life as a famous naturalist who was most at home amongst the cannibal islands of the South Pacific. I feel sure that his lordship knew her well.
The historical roots of Lord Bonkers are really in the Harborough constituency in Leicestershire rather than Rutland (South West or anywhere else), but the more I write about him the more I am convinced that he is not my invention him so much as my discovery.
One day I really will reach the village and drink in the Bonkers’ Arms.