The Old Un’s Notes
Writer and Oldie reader Duff Hart-davis got in touch with the Old Un with his gripping tale of ghosting Next Stop Execution, the 1994 autobiography of Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky.
Gordievsky was the most valuable double agent Britain has ever had – and is now the subject of Ben Macintyre’s new biography, The Spy and the Traitor.
One of the autobiography’s most explosive sections was the account of the Labour leader Michael Foot’s 20-year flirtation with the KGB, which recorded him first as an ‘agent’, and later as a ‘confidential contract’.
‘We described the blue-covered file entitled “Boot” which Gordievsky had read in Moscow, and Foot’s meetings with KGB operatives in London, during which his Soviet contacts would slip him an envelope of used £5 notes,’ says Hart-davis. ‘Often the rendezvous was one or other of the twin window-seats in the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho.
‘At the last moment before publication, Foot threatened action for libel, and both the Sunday Times, which had bought serial rights, and the publishers chickened out – with the result that we had to delete the most explosive passages.’
Had they been published, Foot’s remaining political credibility would have been destroyed.
‘Now that a full account has appeared in Macintyre’s book, it seems extraordinary that a latter-day leader of the Labour Party should persist in associating with rebarbative regimes,’ says Hart-davis.
Another Oldie reader, Mike Read, the former Radio 1 disc jockey, has admirably turned his hand to commemorating heroes of the Commonwealth.
Read is chairman of the Commonwealth Plaque Trust and the British Plaque Trust. In September, the Commonwealth Plaque Trust put up its first plaque, to commemorate the ‘Three Ws’ of West Indies cricket: Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Clyde Walcott and Sir Everton Weekes. All three were born in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Walcott and Worrell are sadly no longer with us. But Weekes – along with the great Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Wesley Hall and Sir Charlie Griffith – were all there to unveil the plaque to the Three Ws at the Kensington Oval in Barbados. The plaque is inscribed with the words ‘Commonwealth Plaque Trust’ as opposed to ‘British Plaque Trust’ on the original blue plaques.
The plan is to extend the commemorative scheme across the Commonwealth.
Three cheers for the Three Ws!
A rich fund of stories was told at the memorial service for Ernest Hecht, the Arsenal-supporting, champagne-quaffing, eccentric-bachelor publisher behind Souvenir Press.
Hecht ran Souvenir Press from 1951 until his death. He was once described by our patron saint and late deputy editor Jeremy Lewis as having a watermelon-slice smile and the untidiest office in London.
Hecht, who was 88, arrived here with Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport and was the last of that generation of fiercely independent Jewish émigré publishers.
At his memorial service, at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, every speaker told of his mad generosity, his love of long lunches, cabarets and torch singers. Barb Jungr, his favourite singer, sang Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.
Deborah Owen, the literary agent and wife of former Foreign Secretary David Owen, recalled that, after they first met, Hecht sent her a life-size cut-out of Little Richard (she was a fan), which stood in her office until it fell apart.
Anne Dolamore, the indie publisher, told of her ‘competitive lunching’ with Hecht. His own favourite place was the north
London restaurant Oslo Court (‘where it is forever 1977’) but she took him to the ‘achingly trendy’ Dean Street Townhouse, where they looked askance at his beanie hat, emblazoned ‘Arsenal’.
The East European waitress, having little English, had difficulty decoding the menu for them. So, when it came to the wine, Dolamore asked, ‘Have you got a sommelier?’ To which the hapless woman replied, ‘Is that a red or a white?’
The Old Un was very sad to hear of the death of Liz Fraser, Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, in September, aged 88. Only five days later, her fellow Carry On actress Fenella Fielding died at 90.
The Oldie’s TV critic, Roger Lewis, interviewed Liz Fraser for his book The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (1995).
‘She was a useful comic actress, putting up with Kenneth Williams’s scorn in several Carry On films,’ Roger told the Old Un. ‘She’d have been in many more Carry On films, but Fraser made the mistake of telling the ghastly producer, Peter Rogers, that, in her opinion, the franchise could be “better marketed”.’
Fraser lived in some comfort, all the same. Trained in commerce and economics at Goldsmiths, she enjoyed speculating in stocks and shares, and owned numerous London flats.
‘Fraser had first come to attention as Cynthia, the buxom daughter of Sellers and Irene Handl in I’m All Right Jack (1959),’ Lewis says. ‘When Sellers introduces her to Ian Carmichael and proudly explains she works as a “spindle polisher” in the factory, the great Goon could scarcely keep a straight face.’
Fraser next turned up in Two-way Stretch, this time as Sellers’s girlfriend, Ethel. It was a relationship Sellers wanted to further in real life. ‘Peter, you can pull your trousers back up now,’ she said to him very firmly.
Fraser went on to do some Confessions films with Robin Askwith, Benny Hill sketches and cheap Seventies comedies, such as Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse. Viewed today, they seem to reek of sexual harassment but, in the 20th century, they were regarded as innocent, raunchy fun. Her Mrs Pike, along with John le Mesurier, stands out in the film spin-off of Dad’s Army, as does a Miss Marple episode with Joan Hickson.
‘Other than that, and with two early marriages down the Swanee, Fraser was content until old age to draw her rents, study her investment portfolio, and take her dog for long walks,’ says Lewis.
The Old Un will fondly remember Fraser’s fauxinnocent charm on screen. As with Monroe, it takes a very good actress to play the dumb blonde so convincingly.
Many congratulations to the writer and illustrator of The Oldie’s Bird of the Month column – John Mcewen, one of the magazine’s founders, and Carry Akroyd.
They have just signed a deal with Bloomsbury to
publish their collected Oldie works. A Sparrow’s Life’s As Sweet As Ours – a line from John Clare – is the name of the book, to be published in July 2019. There will be a show of Carry’s work at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London at the same time.
What’s more, there’s also a new 2019 calendar out now, featuring Bird of the Month articles and illustrations. Details of how to buy it are on page 97.
If you’re in search of a stiff drink, head for the Vatican-approved distillery at Dunton Hall, near Fakenham, between the two ancient monastic centres of Walsingham and Castle Acre.
There, the ‘Archangel Gin’ is produced by two observant Catholics, Peter Allingham and Jude de Souza, who
prepare the booze between observing Lauds and Vespers. They work according to the Benedictine rule of ‘ Ora et labora’ – ‘Work and pray’.
The distillery has been blessed by Father Anthony Robbie of the Archdiocese of Sydney, now working in Rome. The gin brings new meaning to the words ‘spiritual uplift’.
The Old Un was much moved by a new book, Ardkinglas – The Biography of a Highland Estate by Christina Noble.
Ardkinglas is a Scots Baronial pile on the shores of Loch Fyne, built by Sir Robert Lorimer for the Noble family in 1907. Christina Noble is a descendant of that
original family but this is no Mcdownton Abbey tale of ‘the Big Hoose’.
She tells the story of how her late brother, Johnny Noble, saved the house by setting up the Loch Fyne restaurants and Loch Fyne Oysters seafood company.
Christina Noble also investigates what life was like for all the employers and employees on the 45,000-acre estate over the past century or so. Among the pictures in the book is this one of the estate shepherds. It’s such a timeless photograph – can you guess the date? Answer at the bottom of the page.
The Old Un is distressed to see how quickly the ‘clasp handshake’ – with the hands meeting as if in a mid-air arm-wrestle – has gained in popularity.
He noted Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz clasping hands with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, when they met in Salzburg in September.
Admittedly young Kurz is only 32. But Tusk is 61 and should know better. The Old Un takes no sides on the European question but feels very strongly about handshakes. They must be traditional – and no bone-crushers, please.
Barack Obama could pull off the fist bump – but that’s only because he is so impossibly cool.
Other politicians should pay heed to the William Hague’s Baseball Cap Rule of Politics: any politician who behaves in a consciously young way ends up looking impossibly naff.
Remember Tony Blair meeting Noel Gallagher at the Cool Britannia reception at Downing Street in 1997?
Answer to the photograph question: 1975
‘Well, of course I’m relieved. But I can’t help thinking… why did the shark spit me out?’
The British Marilyn: Liz Fraser
Shepherds at Butterbridge, Argyll. Can you guess the year?
‘Really? I’m called bad dog, too’