Things had been going so well. George Bingham, son of Britain's most elusive, blue-blooded murderer, had been quietly going about his business assuming the title (and the anonymity) that was his by right. But then his mother turned up, uninvited, at the wedding of his sister and then his girlfriend turned up, at the police station, with an allegation of assault.
The `absurd' name of Lucan has come back to taunt him.
Psst! Have you seen Lord Lucan lately? No, I don't mean the one recently spotted waiting on tables in San Francisco or lurking round a clinic for alcoholics in Brisbane. That Lord Lucan is so yesterday's toff, the frantically travelled murder suspect with a penchant for vodka and chemin de fer. His bristly Village People moustache has been seen twitching everywhere from Hong Kong to the Orkneys. His family, however, believe that the only place he went was the bottom of the English Channel. So, a few years ago, the man who would have been Lord Lucan if Lord Lucan had had the decency to be seen dead in public decided that enough was enough. His father was dead, he was sure of that. It was time, nay well past time, for him to take up his birthright.
And thus one George Bingham - a 31-year-old, chain-smoking merchant banker - set out to become the Eighth Earl of Lucan. He took a sabbatical from his job at Kleinwort Benson in the City to carry out his own investigation into his father. Then he changed the name on his credit cards and cheques. But somehow that did not seem enough. "I didn't fancy the idea of being stalled at the bank by a nervous teller until there was a flash of blue lights outside," he said. "Or just imagine making a restaurant booking in that name and hearing the ironic voice say, `Sure, and will Mr Presley be joining you, my Lord? We have valet parking for Shergar...'."
To mark his transformation he gave his first proper interview in the 24 years since his father fled into the night leaving his nanny beaten to death with a stick of lead piping and his mother covered in blood. "I thought it prudent to alert people that there might be a new Earl of Lucan in town," he told his friend, the journalist William Sitwell, in a voluminous article that appeared last month in the Daily Mail. He has obtained an order from a Chancery Court that means his father is legally declared dead, and says the Metropolitan police agree with him. He also believes his father was innocent and said that, yes, in good time he would be taking up his seat in the House of Lords.
But there was just one problem here. George Bingham forgot to consult us, the people. Why would we want to bury one of our greatest mystery disappearances? America has Jimmy Hoffa, the ultimate thug; England has Lord Lucan, the ultimate cad. His friends included Sir James Goldsmith and John Aspinall, his habits drinking and gambling. The man they called "Lucky" beat his wife, kidnapped his children and was hugely in debt when he disappeared on 7 November 1974.
On that night, his estranged wife Veronica had appeared covered in blood at the Plumbers Arms in Belgravia, crying for help and saying the nanny was dead. Since then she has struggled with her own demons and remains estranged from her children, evidently by her own choice. Last Sunday, she watched her daughter's wedding through the railings outside St Peter's church in Eaton Square, carrying an umbrella and a Marks & Spencer carrier bag. In a recent interview she said: "I tried to commit suicide but it didn't work. I've been celibate since the age of 35 and I now have no friends. Society shunned me for my husband's crime. I don't care what happens any more. I'm waiting to die - a nice heart attack would suit me fine."
She lost custody of George and his two sisters in 1982 and they were brought up, as requested by Lord Lucan in his final letters, by their uncle William Shand Kydd. "When they are old enough to understand," said the last letter, "explain to them the dream of paranoia." Instead the Shand Kydds worked on the much more difficult dream of a normal childhood at Horton Hall, their neo-Georgian home in Buckinghamshire. "I count it an enormous achievement to have pulled those three kids through unscathed. For them to have got on with their lives totally unfazed and unbothered by any of this business is a credit to them," Shand Kydd told a friend. And so it seemed. George was a merchant banker, his sisters Frances and Camilla lawyers. The curse of Lucan was dead and gone.
Not that we were fooled. The Lucan industry was booming. The tourists still visit the Plumbers Arms, the story continues to intrigue. The books, the films, the sightings, the documentaries never end. Still, until earlier this week, there seemed a chance that the new Lord Lucan might get away with it. The coat peg at the House of Lords that had his father's name on it had only recently disappeared. Soon, perhaps, he would have his own coat peg. When people heard the name Lord Lucan, they would think of a 31-year-old merchant banker and not a gambler with blood on his clothes, if not his hands. But then a journalist received a telephone call and all hell broke loose.
"Lucan's Son is Arrested Over `Attack' on Girl", said the front-page headline. It revealed that George Bingham was interviewed and freed on bail over allegations of assaulting his former girlfriend, Imogen Brewer. The story skipped wildly from the grisly events of 1974 to the sketchy ones of 1998. The link was strictly genetic. George, it seems, "looks remarkably like his father" and this news "adds another chapter to one of the century's most sensational stories".
So far, the chapter is a bit thin. The police will only say that a 31-year-old man from London SW7 was arrested at 8am on 10 September in connection with an alleged ABH (actual bodily harm) on 25 August. He has been bailed to return on 8 October to be re-interviewed. And that really would be that for now, if it weren't for what the "friends" had to say. George, they say, is sensitive and quiet. "It's fair to say that George has had a small difficulty with her," said one. "They have not been boyfriend and girlfriend for some time. There was a falling-out, a row - this can happen when people still regard each other as friends." Except for the fact that most falling-outs do not involve the initials ABH.
George himself has said only two things. First, he blamed his name: "I feel this is a consequence of carrying this absurd name that I have." Then, he blamed the press. "Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the Press came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away," he said as he, in fact, walked away from his West London flat.
William Sitwell says his phone at the features desk of Woman's Journal has hardly stopped ringing. "I'm practically his press officer," he said. So does he think the name is cursed? "Well, what do you think?" he asks. "We wouldn't be talking if he wasn't who he was. The cops loved to bundle him down to the station, banging on his door at 8am. It is outrageous." Lord Lucan, he says, just wants to get on with things. The "like father/like son" comparisons are "psychobabble" and typical of the kind of thing he's had to live with. "He is not a celebrity," says Mr Sitwell. "He's done nothing to get this publicity."
But perhaps he has. His father's last words were that he was going to "lie doggo" for a while. For many years George Bingham let those sleeping dogs lie. He was seven and asleep in the nursery upstairs when the murder occurred. On that night a detective addressed him as "My Lord" and the child answered back: "Don't call me that. Call me George." He stayed George for decades, always insisting he would not claim his title. Even a year ago it was said that he made fun of the House of Lords and called the family ermine, which was up at auction, "robes with bits of dead animal on them". The ermine was subsequently withdrawn. Then, on a holiday in Ireland, where his family owns 62,000 acres at Castlebar in County Mayo, he started showing an interest in his inheritance.
He began a journey round his father and he knew it was treacherous. He emerged, having used "Sherlock Holmes" techniques, convinced that his father was no murderer, nor was he alive. His sister's engagement notice in The Times may have said she was the younger daughter of the Seventh Earl of Lucan of "wheresoever", but George knows that his father is in no such place. He is just plain dead.
The journey has taken its toll. His friends speak of it as a "good psychological process". His former girlfriend disagrees. "He took a sabbatical last year to try to find out more about the case and became obsessed with it," says Imogen Brewer. "He would shout `Everyone lets me down - my family, my friends'. It all became too much in the end." And all because a boy named George wanted to claim what was rightfully his. But he should have known that the name of Lucan has never been lucky.
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