Saturday 7 August 2021

The man who wasn't there


The unlikely story of John Stonehouse recedes into the past, where fact and fiction are hard to distinguish. 

The difference is that, as Pudd'nhead Wilson said in a book I always meant to read, that “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to probability, and truth ain't".

I am posting this to link to Craig Brown's review of John Stonehouse's daughter's biography of him, not because of Stonehouse's extraordinary story, though it is something you should certainly read if you don't know it, but because Mr Brown is one of the two or three best writers we have in England. 

'His supporters being thin on the ground, he invited me to meet him in the House of Commons. As we walked along the corridors of Westminster, he greeted passing colleagues with an ostentatiously chummy ‘Hello, Bill’ and ‘How are you, Jim?’ In return, they kept staring straight ahead and said nothing. It was like being with a ghost only I could see or hear. To them, he was the spectre at the feast, the MP who had pursued the common middle-aged fantasy of living another life in another place as someone else. And now the vanishing man had come back to haunt them.

'“Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today, I wish, I wish he’d go away."

'There was something ghostly about him – as if he might put on a fresh identity as others might a new suit

'The next time I saw him was at the Old Bailey. He was conducting his own defence, cross-examining a series of bank clerks, forever referring to himself in the third person (‘and when did you first encounter Mr Stonehouse?’). Once again, this added to the impression that he wasn’t really there, or that he was there, but as someone else. His closing statement from the dock — the longest in British legal history — lasted six days.'

Craig Brown's book Ma'am Darling, a book inspired by references in innumerable people's diaries about how rude poor, dear Princess Margaret was to them, was a scream, almost as funny as Kenneth Rose's biography of King George V which is the one of the funniest books I ever read.

By the way, I found Princess Margaret devastatingly attractive when aged 19 I met her at a Cambridge reception. We drank wine, she whisky, she smoked from a cigarette holder, displayed wonderful cleavage and only spoke to the men. The Vice-Chancellor Harry Hinsley leant on his walking stick, and looked horribly tired but no-one could leave before her and she stayed till very late. 

It was the same Princess Margaret who as a little girl used to run up and down the stairs at Buckingham Palace making the sentries salute her incessantly, till her mother the Queen ordered her to stop the game. 

She stopped running up the stairs but she played the game all her life.

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