Lord Kilbracken

Journalist, writer and landowner
Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Raymond Godley, journalist and writer: born London 17 October 1920; DSC 1945; reporter, Daily Mirror 1947-49; reporter, Sunday Express 1949-51; succeeded 1950 as third Baron Kilbracken; married 1943 Penelope Reyne (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1949), (one daughter), 1981 Susan Heazlewood (one son; marriage dissolved 1989); died Cavan 14 August 2006.

A career in journalism founded on an apparent ability to dream the winners of future horse races is likely to prove either short-lived or eclectic. John Godley's was the latter. After a spell as a tipster for the Daily Mirror in 1947, he became a general reporter and then moved to the Sunday Express to write its gossip column. Turning freelance in 1951, the year after he succeeded his father to become the third Lord Kilbracken, he contributed to an impressive range of magazines in Britain and America, embracing, among others, The New Yorker, Punch, Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest and Good Housekeeping.

His principal scoop came for the Daily Express in 1957, when he managed to insinuate himself into the parade in Red Square celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Soviet revolution. Then he gatecrashed a diplomatic reception where he buttonholed the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He wrote a book about the adventure, A Peer Behind the Curtain (1959).

He discovered his knack of predicting the results of horse races while up at Oxford. Already a confirmed gambler (he had been the school bookmaker at Eton), he and a number of his fellow students profited from his dreams. On one occasion, to confound sceptics, he wrote down the names of two horses and placed them in a sealed and time-stamped envelope. Both of them won, and the press made much of the story.

Yet because his dreams came only occasionally, and not every horse in them was a winner, the Mirror felt he was not pulling his weight as a tipster and moved him on to other things. One story he covered concerned Han van Meegeren, the Dutch painter who forged Vermeers. This he expanded into two books, The Master Forger (1951) and Van Meegeren (1967).

But the nocturnal gift did not desert him entirely. He claimed his most lucrative victory over the bookmakers in 1958, when he dreamed that a horse named What Man won the Grand National. He backed the horse with the nearest name - Mr What - and it came home at eighteen to one.

John Raymond Godley was born in London in 1920, the son of the second Lord Kilbracken, whose father had been private secretary to William Gladstone and was ennobled by the Liberal Prime Minister in 1909. At Eton, the chief talent Godley developed was for rowing. His Oxford career was interrupted by the Second World War. Having learnt to fly at school he was commissioned in the Fleet Air Arm in 1941.

He served on aircraft carriers escorting food convoys in the north Atlantic, and carried out air attacks on German shipping, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1945. Among the aircraft he flew was the Fairey Swordfish biplane, nicknamed the "Stringbag". More than 30 years later he wrote a book about his wartime exploits, Bring Back My Stringbag (1979).

Graduating from Oxford in 1946, he sought to make his name as a writer, having already had a book of poems, Even for an Hour, published in 1940. In 1950, while travelling to New Zealand on assignment for the Sunday Express, he learned that his father had died, and that he was heir to the family's 350-acre estate at Killegar in County Leitrim.

For years the family had not lived permanently in the splendid Georgian house at Killegar, and just before his death the second baron had put it up for sale. The new Lord Kilbracken reversed that decision and set about trying to make the estate pay, with mixed results. While he built up an admired herd of Hereford cattle, he also engaged in some unsuccessful rural enterprises.

That he managed to sustain the estate was principally due to his earnings from writing. As a freelance, he covered several world trouble spots in the 1960s, including Yemen, Angola, Mozambique, Congo and Kurdistan. He was a committed supporter of self-determination for the Kurds, and from 1975 to 1990 was president of the British-Kurdish Friendship Society.

From the 1960s he began to play an active role in the House of Lords. In 1960 he aligned himself with the Liberal Party but six years later switched to Labour. He retained his right to sit in the Lords even after renouncing his British citizenship - and returning his DSC - in 1972, in protest at the Bloody Sunday massacre. But in 1999, when the hereditary peers were decimated in the first stage of House of Lords reform, only two of the 20 Labour representatives were allowed to retain their seats, and he was not one of them.

Michael Leapman