Saturday, March 13, 2010

Twenty years of Lord Bonkers: Part 1

The new issue of Liberator is on sale at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Birmingham. It includes an article celebrating the daunting fact that I have been writing Lord Bonkers' Dairy for 20 years.

I am posting it here in two parts. The second will be up tomorrow.


Twenty Years of Lord Bonkers

Jonathan Calder

Growing up in Market Harborough, it was hard to ignore Lord Bonkers. If you climbed any of the hills that ringed the town then the slender spire of St Asquith’s, the gaunt pinnacles of the Home for Well-Behaved Orphans and, most impressive of all, the towers, domes and follies of Bonkers Hall and its grounds, would dominate the view to the North.

Lord Bonkers himself was rarely seen in town, though his longevity – he had ceased to be Liberal MP for Rutland South-West as long ago as 1910, people said wonderingly – and his generosity to local charities were often spoken of.

That said, his incursion into the Market Harborough North Ward by-election of 1982 – and the subsequent court case – kept us in gossip for months.

As a teenager, armed with a water bottle and Ordnance Survey map, I cycled out to find Bonkers Hall many times, only to return defeated on every occasion. Those towers and domes seemed clear enough from a distance, but when you neared them strange things began to happen.

Rounding the final bend that would surely bring you face to face with the Hall, you found that it was not there after all but somewhere over your shoulder instead. Turn your bike round to complete the pursuit and the same thing would happen. The harder you pedalled towards the place, the more quickly it seemed to retreat.

I went away to university and to jobs in Birmingham and London, but always felt a nagging sense of incompleteness. So, years later, when my job brought me back to Market Harborough, I took up the quest.

And once again Bonkers Hall proved an elusive quarry. Until one thundery day when, exhausted by the search, I sat down under a tree at the side of the road and took out a copy of Liberator from my rucksack.

I must have fallen asleep.

When I awoke I found myself on a village green and there – beyond the stocks and the duck pond – was a thatched building with an unmistakable sign: The Bonkers’ Arms.

Waiting only for a hay cart drawn by a shire horse to pass, I crossed the road and stooped to enter the pub.

As my eyes had got used to the darkness I began to make out the names on the beer taps and the buxom barmaid (whom I now know to be called Hazel Grove).

“I’ll have a pint of Dahrendorf lag…”

“Don’t have that,” came a commanding voice from the corner. “I tried it once and I was going off like a pop gun all night.”

I looked over to see a brisk, ruddy figure in tweeds. Something about him was familiar. Was it from that cavalry raid on the Conservative committee room?

Got it! This was Lord Bonkers.

“Give the chap a pint of Smithson & Greaves instead,” he said, “and pull me another while you are at it, my dear.”

I sat down opposite him and we fell into conversation. In truth, it was more a monologue than a conversation and over the next two hours, punctuated by regular trips to the bar, I heard his views on Free Trade, Paddy Ashplant (“Sound, apart from Chinese Labour’), the decline of leg spin, the lily-livered attitude of the modern editor to threatened libel actions and the imminent return of the Liberal Party to power.

Then he saw my magazine.

“Liberator? I used to write for them in the old days, you know. They gave me the back page and I did a spoof diary in the guise of a jolly old Whig whose heart was in the right place but hadn’t quite got to grips with modern world.”

“Bakelite and so forth,” he added in explanation.

After that I pumped him for information on the early days of the magazine.

“Have you heard about our ‘schoolkids’ Liberator?” he asked. “Looking back, it was pretty radical stuff. A ban on Gregory powder, long trousers at 12, a Royal Commission on bedtime.”

Perhaps it was the Smithson & Greaves, but I found myself asking Lord Bonkers whether he would like to write for us again.

We got on famously after that. I was asked back to the Hall for dinner, we retired to the smoking room and a bottle of that most prized of Highland malts, Auld Johnston, appeared. Eventually, I was offered a position as his lordship’s literary secretary.

I awoke the next morning in a leather armchair with an awful hangover and a rough horse blanket thrown over me. For the sake of completeness I have to record that when he came down to breakfast Lord Bonkers had no idea who I was and saw me off the premises with his twelve bore.

Nevertheless, a letter bearing a Rutland stamp and confirming the job offer arrived a couple of days later...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read this with high hopes of learning more about Lord Bonkers' dairy - the herd of Red Harris cattle for instance - but was sadly disappointed.