To Brig o’Dread, my Highland retreat. A cold coming I had
of it – just the worst time of year for a journey – but a good fire soon takes
the chill of the old place, and I sit writing this by the hearth in a panelled
room decorated with the heads of stags and Conservative junior ministers. I have
come North today because of the events of last week: for the first time that
anyone can remember, I failed to win the Liberal Moustache of the Year Award,
finishing second to John Thurso. How could this happen? I decided to visit the
Highlands to find out.
Dawn breaks late in Caithness at this time of year; the icy
sky is dotted with wheways flying north (or possibly with hamwees flying south).
I am grateful for the warm glow of the Dounreay atom plant as I wait in the scrub on the hillside above it, observing the comings and goings through field glasses. As I take a nip of Auld Johnston from my hipflask, a familiar figure hoves into view – and no one, in my experience, can hove like the Liberal Democrat Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. There is something different about him, however: on his upper lip he sports, not the effulgent growth that won the silver cup last week, but a wizened little thing that might have been worn by the amusing Blakey from On the Buses or the considerably less amusing Adolf Hitler. I capture Thurso’s likeness in this state with my trusty Box Brownie, and snap him again when he emerges two hours later, warmly shaking the hand of the manager of the atom plant and once again wearing the moustache that beat me into second place. So now I know how he grows it: nuclear waste.
I take my photographs to the chemist’s, and while they are
being developed I watch what I now believe to be hamwees flying north (or
perhaps they are wheways that have had a look at the Orkneys, thought better of
them and decided to come south again). On the long drive south, I hear my
Bentley’s engine making a strange whistling sound. Eventually I stop in the
upper Tyne Valley and lift the bonnet. What should I find underneath but a
wheway and a hamwee (or possibly a hamwee and a wheway) hitching a lift. By the
time I have loaded my twelve-bore they have flown clean away. In my opinion, Sir
Peter Scott has a great deal to answer for.
Home again at Bonkers Hall, I telephone to Menzies Campbell
to see what has been going on in my absence and to offer him my usual sage
counsel. How refreshing it is to have someone of my own generation at the helm
once again! You may recall that I had to rescue Ming from his more enthusiastic
young supporters during the campaign and bring him back to Rutland for a little
rest and recuperation. (I also rescued his Jaguar from a barn in the Borders,
but that is another story). I advised him not to take part in any more of the
hustings but rather to send Clegg instead, as he was so terribly keen. I am
pleased to report that Ming took my advice, with the result that he won the
contest comfortably. He invites me to dinner on Sunday, and says that if there
is ever anything he can do to help me, I should not hesitate to mention it.
Indulging myself after my chill sojourn in Scotland, I take
coffee in my Orchid House. Reading the morning’s papers, I find that poor Dick
Cheney has shot a friend after mistaking him for a quail. Really, it could
happen to anyone. I then spend the day browsing in the Library. One of the
things I turn up is the notorious “Schoolkids” issue of Liberator ; this
caused quite a stir in its day, and reading it now I can quite see why. It is
pretty radical stuff: a ban on Gregory Powder; long trousers at 12; a Royal
Commission on bedtimes. I also hunt down something that I have had in mind ever
since I began to read those stories about the Middle East being in flames over
the publication of some cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Eventually I find it:
the controversial Fred Bassett strip that caused riots across the South of
England in 1962.
It seems like yesterday, but by my calculation it was 1906,
when the first Labour members were returned to the House of Commons. Had Herbert
Gladstone taken my advice, there would have been no pact with them and we should
all have been a great deal better off, but let that pass. It happened that one
evening, shortly after we had all been elected, I went back into the chamber to
look for a lost spat, only to find all the Labour members having their
photograph taken. That photo has become quite an historic document, and if you
look carefully you can see me in it, asking Keir Hardie if he would kindly look
under his seat. It happens that this afternoon I visit Westminster and take the
opportunity to slip into the Commons chamber to gather more evidence against
John Thurso and his unethical ways of improving his moustache. What should I
find but all the Labour MPs having their likeness taken again? Funnily enough, I
appear in this one too, asking a couple of the ladies if they can see somewhere
for me to plug in my Geiger counter.
Dinner with the Campbells – Ming and the redoubtable
Elspeth, who was so memorably played by Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far.
Conversation turns to the composition of Ming’s first Shadow Cabinet, and names
are bandied back and forth across the table. When the name of John Thurso is
raised, I find myself obliged to produce my photographs – the one of him
entering Dounreay looking like a Belgian bank clerk and the one, taken two hours
later, of him emerging with a moustache of Olympic class. Ming, being a
gentleman, quite understands that this sort of thing Simply Isn’t Done. It
therefore comes as no surprise that, when I pick up tomorrow’s first editions on
the way home, they announce that there is no place for Thurso in his team of
Lord Bonkers, who was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West, opened his diary to
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