Interview: Sara Keays, she doesn't give up: It is ten years since 'l'affaire Parkinson', the birth of Flora and the arrival of Sara Keays as harridan/victim/heroine. Which is the true her?

Hunter Davies
Tuesday 21 December 1993 00:02

Flora is my friend. She took my hand and led me into the nursery. I gave her a present, from a mutual acquaintance, and she showed me her new toy, something called a diabolo, demonstrating how it works. She grasped my Christian name straight away, which most adults never get. 'Where do you live, Hunter? What colour is your car?' She will be 10 on New Year's Eve, tall for her age, sturdy and healthy, long dark hair, very attractive, very inquisitive, non-stop talker, radiating life and brightness.

It's only after a few minutes that you realise her sentences are rarely connected, she is all over the place, unable to concentrate. But the vital spark is clearly there. Life is jumping out of her.

Compared with how she was, the improvement in Flora is miraculous. Before her brain operation in 1988, she was having fits every two minutes, turning blue, unable to speak, a danger to herself so that she had to wear a helmet. The cottage where she lived with her mother had to be refitted, floors levelled, corners padded.

Alex has now joined us, her young cousin, and they are playing together. Flora has 14 cousins, most of them living nearby. I can hear laughter in the next room. Her mother, Sara, does have a very loud and jolly laugh. Sara is talking to her sister, also called Flora.

Young Flora's father is Lord Parkinson, formerly Cecil Parkinson, Tory party chairman, whom Sara met when she was 23. They began an affair which lasted 11 years. They never married.

Flora seemed a normal baby at first, till around 18 months she developed epilepsy. In newspaper files about the case, which now weigh several tons, she is always classed as an epileptic. She hasn't had a fit for more than two years. That is now the least of her problems.

Sara is sitting by a log fire in their large drawing room. On the walls are oil paintings and water-colours done by her mother, who died 12 years ago. She trained at the Slade, but devoted most of her life to her husband, Hastings Keays, a colonel, and their five children. The oldest, William, works for ICI. Tom is an engineer. Then come Sara and Liz - identical twins, now aged 46. They went to the same school, Clifton High School for Girls, same class, same clothes, most people couldn't tell them apart, but in the sixth form Sara was encouraged to try science A-levels while Liz did arts. Sara got chemistry and biology, but failed physics, couldn't get into university and so took a secretarial course, which led her to the House of Commons, as secretary to the dashing Cecil.

All three sisters are very close, similar looks, similar voices. During the height of the storm, Sara could in desperation pretend to a reporter that it was her sister speaking.

We are in Colonel Keays's house, the family home, the Big House in a little village near Bath where all the children were brought up. Sara is back living here at present, with little Flora, because her father, aged 88, has had a hip operation and needs help. The house feels cold, should you leave the main rooms, as there is no central heating. Col Keays can't bear the thought of his lovely house being ripped apart by builders. Outside I can see several fields with sheep, cows and pigeons. Pigeons? Yes, bought to amuse young Flora. She is dying for a cat or a dog of her own, but she is not yet up to caring for it gently. But she loves the pigeons, watching them drop out of the sky after a race.

Are they really racing pigeons, Sara? Sounds a bit, you know, working class and northern, not quite the colonel in his West Country rectory. 'You are saying that, not me,' said Sara, rolling her eyes, looking up at the ceiling, admonishing me for being a social snob. 'I mean, really.'

She is wearing a bright purple jacket, long floral skirt, black boots. A handsome woman, fit and strong-looking, very county, hockey-stick jolly, dark, rather dated hair with a touch of grey at the front. Brought on by you know what? 'Certainly not. I've had grey bits since I was 16. There would be a lot more if I didn't touch it up.'

She seemed a bit irritated when I started off with questions about the paintings and the history of the house. 'Look, what is this, some sort of survey?' I was creeping up to the Big Story, not knowing how she would react, but I need not have worried. She flew into life, becoming very emotional on the subject of the legal position and Flora. Totally trusting, despite the press treatment she had suffered these past 10 years.

'From 1983, I suffered a torrent of abuse from the media but was unable to do anything about it because of the severity of Flora's illness. I never went to court till 1988, when I started my libel actions. That's when I dug my slit trench, put on my tin helmet and went to war.

'Parkinson's friends in the Tory party had organised a smear campaign against me, leaking lies to newspapers. It was said I'd got pregnant deliberately to make him marry me. That I'd been promiscuous and that perhaps he wasn't the father. Then when I published my book in 1985, they said I was a kiss-and-tell bimbo. All of them damned lies.'

There were major court cases against three newspapers and magazines, and a case against Norman Tebbit. She won them all, and several that never reached court. 'They crumbled at my feet. Every one of them.'

But why bother? Libel actions are rarely worth the time, aggravation and expense, even if you do win. 'Some people said let it all fade, but I couldn't put up with the allegations any longer. Look, if you are attacked in the street and knocked down, do you lie there and say hit me again or do you get up and fight back?'

There were also further allegations that she was only in it for the money. 'Also untrue. At no stage did I do it for the money. People now think I must be very wealthy, having won all these cases, but I'm not. Winning the first case and being awarded damages enabled me to fight the second, and so on. In all, I've spent about pounds 200,000 in legal costs. Yes, I always won, but I didn't get all my costs back. I have lost about pounds 100,000 in unrecoverable costs. Even when you are awarded costs, it is never the full amount of your costs. I am not well off. Life would not have been worth living if I had let them get away with their lies about me.'

Was it, then, the action of a vengeful woman, as many people still believe? 'If I'd been determined to get my own back, I could have done harm, told a great deal more.'

Such as? 'I'm not going to reveal any personal details of the affair. I've never done, and I won't now, but let's say the news had come out during the general election - and not afterwards, when the Tories had won. It was during the election I was being bullied and pressurised into having an abortion. That was when my father wrote to Mrs Thatcher - and got a reply he found offensive.

'If the news had come out then, who knows? I might be getting carried away, but the outcome of the election could have been different. They were fighting it as the Party of the Family . . . .'

Did you tell your father? 'No, my sisters did. They knew about my pregnancy, but when the pressure started, they decided my father must be told. He was totally supportive, as my whole family has always been.'

Why didn't you have an abortion? 'I'm not against women having abortions, and I would never oppose anyone's right, but to me, it was abhorrent.'

How come you became pregnant in the first place? 'Were all your children planned? Is everyone's child always planned? I think, deep down, Cecil half wanted me to have a child. He used to say that if we had a baby, he hoped it would be a boy and we'd call him Harry. He said: 'If he has your brains and my beauty, he'll go far . . . .' '

Do you wish you had got married to him? 'Of course not. It would be terrible to be married to someone who turned out not to love me. It would have been a disastrous marriage. I thought he did love me, of course, but he couldn't take it when the going got tough. Much better for a child to have one happy parent than two miserable ones.'

If they had got married, as Parkinson had promised (which he confirmed in his autobiography), who knows what might have happened? Would she be in Downing Street today, married to the Prime Minister? Would she perhaps be in the Cabinet herself? She had been accepted by Central Office on its official list of candidates. She did apply once, didn't make the shortlist, but was planning to try again. 'Then I found I had been removed from the list without anyone telling me. The list of vacancies simply stopped coming. Absolutely disgusting.'

She still has political ambitions, despite an invalid father and a handicapped child to look after. She was interested in politics from an early age and her family were solid Tory supporters. But she will never vote Tory again. At the last election, she voted Labour.

'I hate the hypocrisy of the Tory party. I detest their campaign against single mums. I would like to have gone into Parliament and, who knows, there might come a chance in the future. I'd like to stand for something like a Women's Party, fighting for better health, better housing, better education, all the social problems which should never get mixed up with party politics.'

She doesn't hate all Tories. Just some. 'There are some fine ones trying to do their best.' And she doesn't hate men either. The very suggestion made her eyebrows rise again. 'Why should I hate men? I've nothing against them.'

She has spent most of the past 10 years in hospitals and legal offices and has met no men apart from lawyers and doctors. She has had only two holidays, neither abroad. 'I have little or no social life, yet I am by nature a gregarious person. I would have liked more children, but it won't happen now, at my age. I don't ever see myself married. I may meet someone, you never know, but I wouldn't get married. Marriage is very overrated.'

'But I don't want to sound as if I'm moaning. I'm not. I'm very lucky. I've got a marvellous family and we have a lot of laughter. Without them, I don't know what I'd have done. I think of those unmarried women, perhaps with handicapped children, living alone in high-rise blocks, cut off from their families. I simply don't know how they survive. I've got my health and strength. I've got a voice. I get invited to speak at women's groups. I try to work to help single parents, to do something to counter the evils of this government. '

She does appear a strong person, physically and mentally. Was she always like this, or did adversity bring it out? 'I've always been fairly forceful, so everyone tells me. Our parents brought us up to speak our minds.

'Please don't imagine I spend my time thinking about Parkinson. I have to put up with crap from the media saying I won't let him alone, poor thing. It's only circumstances that forced me into court against him, trying to care for my daughter.'

At the moment, there is no great raging legal case in progress, but there is something making her very cross indeed. 'There is an injunction against me, banning me from talking in public about my daughter. Can you think of anything more damnable? It's as if she needs to be protected from me. It's preposterous. But any Tom, Dick and Harry can say what they like about her, stigmatise her as epileptic, as they always have done. When I get enough money together, I will appeal against it. In the meantime I think the judge . . . .'

I won't repeat the rest. Note that I have not quoted her talking about Flora. My information came from other sources, and my own observations. Is that clear?

Not that Sara cares. She is writing part two of her autobiography, in which she will tell the story of Flora's condition, as a help to other mothers.

Sara has also started a novel. 'I've written three chapters so far, and torn one up. Yes, there is a political setting, and I know people will ask is that true, did that happen to you, but I'll have to point out it is a novel. Golly, is that the time?'

She had to go to a local grain merchant to pick up 13 sacks of animal feed. I went with her in her Land Rover but, alas, didn't help her load up. Sorry, my tennis elbow is playing up. Can you manage? 'I'll have to, won't I?' she said. Loud chortles.

On the way back through the winter gloaming, I asked if she thought about the millions of women out there now, having affairs with married men. If asked, would she advise them to desist?

'No. How can you? It is a matter for each person. It is bound to make you unhappy, we all know that. I didn't set out to have an affair with a married man. It happened. Wouldn't life be easier if we knew what it is in our characters that makes us fall in love? But we don't know, thank goodness.'

(Photograph omitted)

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