The Baroness and the Bannaventa

Twenty years ago an odd assortment of dedicated drinkers gathered in the back bar of the Bannaventa pub on most weekday lunchtimes to discuss life and put the world to rights. The group rarely numbered more than six or seven people. Their often ribald conversations sometimes took a bookish turn, prompting Jean Gane, the pub’s witty landlady, to give them an official name: the Whilton Locks Literary Society.

I was dabbling in desktop publishing at the time, and quickly used it to design a logo for the infant society – a pen-nib rising from choppy water denoting the nearby canal. Jean had a plaque of it made and mounted on a wall inside the pub. We discussed having a local literary celebrity for our president, and I had a brainwave. Why not offer the post to Baroness Falkender of West Haddon?

Better known as Marcia Williams before she became Lady Falkender (her mother’s maiden name) in 1974, she was a local girl, educated at Northampton High School for Girls, who became a leading political figure and author of best-selling books about life inside No. 10 Downing Street. She was one of the principal sources of true stories behind the classic “Yes, Minister” television series.

From 1956 she was Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s private and later political secretary. She was famously accused of including her own friends who had done her favours in a draft of his resignation Honours list. This was strongly denied by her and Wilson, and the BBC paid her £75,000 and £200,000 costs over claims made in a melodramatic docudrama, “The Lavender List.”

The literati in the Bannaventa bar thought I was bonkers to think that such a famous person would deign to support our society.

But I had faith in flattery. I constructed an imposing letterhead for the society, naturally including our pen-nib logo. Upon it I wrote a fawning letter praising milady’s literary achievements and intimating that the presidency would be entirely honorary and would not involve any financial contribution from her or, indeed, any formal visit to our historic headquarters, reputedly part of the site of a Roman military township.

It worked like a charm. Almost by return of post the peeress accepted the presidency with a few gracious words. When I waved her letter in triumph, the members in the bar looked blank and bored. There were one or two rude remarks. Nevertheless, our illustrious president was always referred to with pride when visitors to the bar enquired about the unusual plaque on the wall.

Lady Falkender, who still attends the Lords every day at the age of 77, has never resigned from the Whilton Locks Literary Society and may even think it still exists. I imagine she will be very disappointed if she makes an unscheduled visit one day, only to discover that it is no more. Until I decided to write this memoir, its mighty pen-nib had sunk without a ripple.

Yet in its heyday it had a close association with an even more famous politician, the Conservative heavyweight Michael Heseltine, the macho blond whose challenge for the party leadership led to Lady Thatcher’s downfall. Nicknamed “Tarzan” after he seized the mace in the House of Commons and brandished it at left-wingers, the millionaire publisher was often mentioned during our Bannaventa chinwags.

There was a good reason for this. Two of our regular members, Alan and Margaret Day, were Heseltine’s butler and housekeeper at his country mansion before retiring to live on a narrowboat moored in Whilton Marina. The couple, who now live in Portugal, took an active part in many of our discussions, but they never countenanced any unseemly gossip about their former master. Their old-school discretion and loyalty were much admired at a time when squalid “kiss and tell” tabloid revelations were becoming fashionable.

The brightest literary star of our somewhat sozzled society was Patrick Freeman, a lanky Londoner who lived in the council house adjacent to the Whilton village allotments.

Pat was a former soldier who had served through the North African and Italian campaigns of World War II. An imaginative cook, he made a living by running a mobile snack bar for lorry drivers stationed in a lay-by of the A45 near Flore. His big ambition was to achieve fame as a writer of ghost stories, examples of which he sometimes read to us.

One lunchtime he recalled his boyhood and had us enthralled with memories of accompanying his father, a colourful Cockney market trader, around Britain. It was real and riveting. In one yarn Pat recalled hours making sugared pills which his father would occasionally sell as a certain remedy for several embarrassing ailments. Our immediate reaction was: “Pat, you’ve got to write this stuff down.”

He wisely took our advice and wrote a short piece that was submitted to The World’s Fair, the weekly bible of British showmen, vintage vehicle restorers and market traders. The editor instantly demanded more and for some sixteen weeks devoted several pages of each issue to true (well, perhaps slightly embroidered) tales about the amazing adventures of Pat and his dad.

The series was entitled “The Uncommon Market Man,” cleverly echoing the popular interest at that time in the European common market, and was of a quality that truly deserved to be made into a book.

It was the only notable literary achievement to emerge from the Whilton Locks Literary Society, which never met again after the pub closed. But it made us all feel happy for Pat, and joyful that we had all been associated, albeit in a small way, with the wonderful world of literature.

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