So Then I Became a Lord
Published in Punch 1993.
We once had a blue Morris Marina. A fine urban Wagen, donated to us by my wife's Uncle Harry. A car made street proof by having once been badly side-swiped by a harassed housewife in a Volvo Estate, giving it a sort of post-holocaust, Mad Max, 'I have nothing to lose' credibility. I absolutely loathed it.
One snowy winter morning in 1983, I started it up - starts first time, heater works, radio's still there, it's Islington, hey, it's a result - and gingerly edged it away on a thin layer of snow that covered a thick sheet of ice. Seconds later I had sailed utterly out of control into a parked, brand-new BMW 320si. He lost a wing - I lost an arm and a leg. Or rather my insurance company did. In 25 years of driving, my only mistake and my only ever claim.
That was 14 years ago. Last month I got this letter. Sorry chum, our computer has just noticed you're an actor, and after 25 years with only one claim we won't insure you any more because you actors give film stars lifts to expensive clubs and if you had a crash they might sue us for millions of pounds so you're not insured with us any more. So nyeah.
I'm in the Archers and I go by train. Ok, I once faced a cavalry charge of 35 Cossacks in the Crimea for 'Sharpe's Rifles', and in Kenya I had armed guards protect me from elephants trampling my tent at night when shooting an ice-cream commercial in the middle of the Masai Mara, but on neither occasion was I in the bloody motor. I'd say over the years, all in all, I've been a pretty good bet for them.
Anyway the point of all this is; in the meantime, unbeknownst to the insurance company, I'd been given this new stationery... Now, if your seventh cousin died, would you expect to have to change your surname? I doubt it. Most people don't have any idea who their seventh cousins are. On average you've got about 500 seventh cousins, 2000 if you're Catholic or Mormon. Fewer if you're a Pitcairn Islander apparently.
Seventh cousin means go back seven generations, go to the brother or sister and try and trace them down to the present day. As an example of how many people that involves, one of my seventh cousins is Prince Charles. As Dudley Moore once said, "If 4,364,297 people died, I'd be Queen."
My wife's on her fourth surname now and she's only been married once. Seven years ago we were minding our own business when one of my seventh cousins suddenly popped his clogs. Happens all the time, however this seventh cousin was the 9th Duke of Portland and he had no son. Whoosh! The title went winging back to 1648, turned into an Earldom, shot back down the family of a second marriage and came, by this time with no estate or money, to my father. My wife Judy, who was Miss Emerson and became Mrs Bentinck, then became Viscountess Woodstock. My father died in January, so now she's the Countess of Portland. It also meant that I was summoned to Parliament....
First day at the House of Lords is like being on the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise. Luckily I'd been to Harrow so it was just like being at school, but up till then the only time anyone had called me "My Lord" was in Henry V at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry. Not only that but again, a different name. The Earl of Portland. My father. I had to get used to being my Dad. It was like being in a play where you're playing the part of 'Lord Portland' but all the other characters on stage are real. After getting the new boys' pack and being welcomed by Black Rod and everyone else with great warmth and charm, the helpful and all-knowing Lord Palmer showed me the ropes. I took my oath to the Queen behind Lord Lloyd-Webber, refraining from asking him why he hadn't cast me in 'Cats' when I auditioned for the original cast, and having been shown the cross-benchers rooms, library, bar, gift shop and loos we ended up at the stationery office. I came home laden with A4, A5, envelopes, compliment slips, acknowledgment cards, 'Dieu et mon Droit' and 'House of Lords' on everything - even the chocolate in the gift shop.
So, back to the insurance company. All it took was a letter thus titled, asking if in the same way that being an actor meant I'd be taxiing Sharon Stone around North London, did being a Peer of the Realm mean I'd be out of my brain with Alzheimer's and congenital dysfunction and equally unfit to drive?
Well, no it didn't. Abject apologies and reinstatement. The first time in my life I've ever pulled rank, and it worked. I'm not proud. Moral? Don't do it again. Noblesse Oblige. Such power demands responsibility and the new Lord Portland, in the year or so he'll have left before he's chucked out of the place, will take up the eco-warrior's colours left by his father on the battlefield of Gaia - the only thing of value that he did inherit - and fight the green fight, in the sure and safe knowledge that the gas-guzzling bastard of an unreliable Renault is definitely insured.
Watch this space.