Nicholas Luard

Co-owner of the Establishment Club and 'Private Eye' who made a later career as a writer

Monday 10 October 2011 08:58

In his life Nicholas Luard experienced both comedy and tragedy. With Peter Cook he founded the Establishment Club, which sparked the satire boom of the 1960s, and co-owned Private Eye. But the last of his 13 books recorded his own pilgrim's journey to Santiago de Compostela during the illness and death from Aids of his daughter Francesca.

Nicholas Lamert Luard, writer, traveller and conservationist: born London 26 June 1937; married 1963 Elisabeth Longmore (one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died London 25 May 2004.

In his life Nicholas Luard experienced both comedy and tragedy. With Peter Cook he founded the Establishment Club, which sparked the satire boom of the 1960s, and co-owned Private Eye. But the last of his 13 books recorded his own pilgrim's journey to Santiago de Compostela during the illness and death from Aids of his daughter Francesca.

Descended on both sides from Huguenots expelled from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Luard was born in London in 1937. (He and his wife, Elisabeth, joined a few hundred others in an east London town hall to celebrate the tercentenary of the event, and Elisabeth recalls being struck by how strongly the throng resembled each other.)

His father, John (Jock) McVean Luard, worked for an arm of British Petroleum, and took the family to Tehran, where he looked after British oil interests throughout the Second World War. Some time in 1943 or 1944, his mother, Susan (née Lamert) took him and his sister back to Britain via Africa, spending six months along the way in Kenya. This gave the young Nicholas a fixation on Africa that carried on for the whole of his life, and led to the important work he was to do as an early conservationist, both in Africa, and in Scotland, to which he felt drawn because of the McVean association with Mull.

He hated his English prep school, and told the story that he had to be "ungummed" from his parents' departing car - and then ran away. Winchester College, where he stayed from 1951 to 1954, was more to his taste. At 17 he went to the Sorbonne for a year. Aged 18 he was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards, finishing two years later as 2nd Lieutenant, Forward Intelligence Unit.

This was the precursor of Special Forces: Luard was one of a group of young men taken to train at Lüneberg Heath where they were taught survival techniques and other aspects of Cold War derring-do, such as how to mark potential targets and run away as fast as possible. During the Hungarian uprising of 1956 Luard found himself on the Austrian border, helping protesters to get out of Hungary. He told his wife, when they went to Budapest in the mid-1980s, that he had last seen the streets of Buda from the inside of an armoured car.

National Service out of the way, he went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where F.R. Leavis taught him English, and in 1960 Luard took a First. The Cambridge Footlights' records for 1960 show the committee as "Peter Cook President . . . Nick Luard Junior Treasurer; David Frost Registrar". He also boxed as a varsity welterweight, as he had in the Army, but left without a blue. The next year he was at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he seems to have held a teaching fellowship in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

But there was always a subversive streak in the Wykehamist guardsman, and in 1961 he took the small sum left him by his maternal grandfather (who started De La Rue and left trust funds for the daughters and granddaughters, but felt the grandsons could make their own ways in the world) and put up all the money for the lease of an old strip club at 18 Greek Street in Soho. The new club signalled its satiric intentions in its name - The Establishment. Thus was born the movement chronicled by Humphrey Carpenter in his 2000 book That Was Satire That Was.

Before the opening in 1961 Jonathan Miller wrote, in an article for the Observer, that

the original idea of the club was born 18 months ago in Cambridge, conjured out of the amber haze of an all-night drinking session. Nicholas Luard, an undergraduate, was entertaining Peter Cook, another undergraduate who had already startled Cambridge with his bizarre contributions to the Footlights Revue. Cook had been fascinated, on his visits to the Continent, by the famous political night-clubs there. Luard . . . shared Cook's interests . . . Revue, with its rapid montage of sketches and songs, seemed to offer the best form for the satire that Cook and Luard were aiming at.

Cook, who had already had a success in Beyond the Fringe, remembered the opening:

It was all quite chaotic. Because of the advance publicity, about 7,000 people joined before it had even opened; they joined on the idea, at two guineas a time, which roughly financed the opening of it.

Just as he never appeared in the Footlights' shows (and was never to write in Private Eye), Luard had nothing to do with the acts at the Establishment (though Elisabeth remembers him once carrying a placard across the stage). But the cast who performed the nightly shows included Eleanor Bron, John Fortune and John Bird and Jeremy Geidt, with Dudley Moore and his trio playing at what Cook admitted were "slave labour rates", as it gave Moore "a fantastic opportunity to meet young women". It was Cook who had the idea of bringing Lenny Bruce over from the United States when the resident company was on tour. "Lenny," said Elisabeth, "was older by 10 years, and he was dangerous, subversive, the real thing. A junkie, a Jew, a hard-hitting, dirty-talking grown-up."

Meanwhile, another group of ex-public schoolboys, including Willie Rushton, Christopher Booker and Peter Usborne, was launching Private Eye. Andrew Osmond, the original "Lord Gnome", decided in the spring of 1962 to sell the Eye for £1,500 to Cook & Luard Productions - in which Luard had the major shareholding. The circulation was 18,000. Running the office, now at 22 Greek Street, were Mary Morgan, the future Mrs Richard Ingrams, and Elisabeth Longmore, who managed to combine the job with art school, as the Eye journalists never expected her to turn up before the afternoon anyway, as they thought she was the sort of posh girl who went to a party every night.

She first saw Luard at the Eye's offices. "I was only 19 and he was without doubt the most beautiful man I had ever seen: tawny eyes, broad shoulders, a boxer's biceps, narrow hips." As she was in charge of sales, and as the Establishment was the only outlet, she found plenty of reasons to be there every night. It was she who "informed him that their future lay together". They were married in February 1963, at St Margaret's, Westminster. Luard liked the idea of St Margaret's, but could not bear the stuffiness of sending out invitations, so all the guests were summoned by telephone. Newspaper coverage of the wedding was overwhelming - the idea of the impresario of satire marrying an apparently rich girl was irresistible.

The honeymoon at the Paris Ritz was interrupted by the arrival of a libel writ at Private Eye from Randolph Churchill, and the couple cheerfully returned to London and their flat at Hyde Park Square, where Fenella Fielding lived upstairs, and Jeffrey Bernard was their lodger. Their son, Caspar, was born while they lived there and, in 1964, Bernard put his head in the gas oven, but his suicide attempt failed because he could not resist answering the ringing telephone.

Despite his apparent entrepreneurship, Luard was no businessman, and, while Cook was in the US, Cook & Luard Productions went bankrupt. To avoid bringing down Private Eye with the Establishment, Luard generously transferred his shares in the Eye to Cook, making him sole proprietor and saving a few jobs. Cook was equally helpful in his dealings with Luard. It was now that Luard began to write for a living, "glass in hand". Drinking, as Cook's story equally showed, was part of the culture, and Luard claimed that his first drink, when he was aged 14, had been bought for him by Dylan Thomas.

Money was a big problem, and Elisabeth thought it would simply be more fun to live in the sun, so they decided to build a house in a valley in Andalusia between Algeciras and Tarifa. There were now four children, and Elisabeth took them to be brought up and schooled with the local Spanish children, returning to England for the summer holidays and renting out the house. (This marked the beginning of her own distinguished career as a food writer, as they had perforce to eat, and she to cook, the same food as their neighbours.)

Luard went back and forth, for he had now become not only a writer, but also a book impresario. He wrote Refer to Drawer with Dominick Elwes (and drawings by John Glashan) in 1964. A Cold War adventure tale drawing on his time in Hungary, The Warm and Golden War, appeared in 1967 and made enough money to make him think he could live by his writing.

His best investment, though, was when he later took over the lease of a flat in Wilbraham Place, off Sloane Street in London, that came his way when he was active in the anti-apartheid movement. The Luards were soon statutory tenants, and devoted some profitable time and trouble to organising the other tenants to buy the freehold. Ever the subversive establishment man, Luard organised the campaign to prevent the cricket tour of South Africa taking place without Basil D'Oliveira by the simple expedient of telephoning his fellow MCC members until he had enough support to call a meeting.

With Elwes he published Design Yearbook, which developed into the book-packaging firm November Books. From the mid-1960s he wrote and published his own sci-fi novels, espionage thrillers, and travel books (and three novels and two works of non-fiction under the pseudonym James McVean; his books on Africa brought in some money, as they sold well in France, Germany and Japan), while he and Elwes packaged books, especially for Thames & Hudson, until this, too, came to grief in 1978. That year he, Elisabeth and the children, took Auberon Waugh's house in Languedoc, and the children learned another language and Elisabeth another cuisine.

In the years that followed the Luards bought and sold their houses, lived for a time on Mull, and Nicholas inherited a Welsh vicarage with 120 acres (which he reforested) from his godmother.

In 1979 he decided to run the New York Marathon with his old friend Christopher Brasher, who reported in the Observer: "We had a marathon-mad Englishman in our group of 85 men and women who flew out from London." He went on to explain that the 42-year-old Luard's

training for the marathon consisted of one six-mile run in the early English summer followed by three months in an African desert, followed by one three-mile run before the flight to New York. The Kalahari Desert is a great place for speed training.

Nick did two sessions which he swears were the equal of two of Seb Coe's world records: 800 metres chased by a lion and 1,500 metres pursued by an enraged elephant.

In 1983, with Brasher, Denis Mollison and Nigel Hawkins, he founded the John Muir Trust, named after the Scot who first thought of preserving the wild places of the world. As well as educating, advising and campaigning, it owns and maintains places of natural beauty and interest in Scotland, at Ben Nevis, Knoydart and elsewhere, and is active in reforestation projects.

Luard's last hurrah was the 1997 general election, when he stood as the candidate of Jimmy Goldsmith's Referendum Party for Enfield South. He gained 1,342 votes, as the New Labour candidate Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo from Parliament.

Earlier, the Luard family had suffered a devastating blow. Francesca, the second child and eldest of the three daughters, was diagnosed as HIV positive, and died of Aids, aged 29, just before Christmas 1994. She wasn't a drug-user, and had had only a few boyfriends - it seemed unjust as well as horrific. Luard reacted by making the pilgrimage to Compostela on foot, going in stages over four years. He published an account of his journey, and of his attempt to reconcile himself to Francesca while she was alive (they had a productively prickly relationship) and after her death. The Field of the Star (1998) was his last book.

Four years ago he developed cancer and had a liver transplant.

Paul Levy

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