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John Godley - Lord Kilbracken

October 17th, 1920 - August 14th, 2006

JOHN GODLEY, the 3rd Lord Kilbracken, who died yesterday aged 85, hit the headlines in 1957 when he succeeded in gatecrashing the Great Red Square parade in Moscow on the 40th anniversary of the October uprising, wearing a pink Leander tie and with his trousers turned inside out.

During the war Kilbracken had served in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm as a Swordfish pilot, and had gone on to win a DSC in 1945 while commanding a Wildcat squadron. In 1972, however, he returned his medal and announced that he was renouncing British citizenship in protest at the shooting of 13 demonstrators during the so-called Bloody Sunday massacres in Londonderry.

John Raymond Godley was born in Chester Street, Belgravia, on October 17 1920; he was the son of Hugh Godley, later the 2nd Lord Kilbracken, who would become counsel to the Lord Chairman of Committees of the House of Lords. The peerage had been created in 1909 for his grandfather, Arthur Godley, Gladstone's private secretary and later an Under-Secretary of State for India.

The Godleys originally hailed from Yorkshire, but had moved to Ireland in the 18th century after inheriting an estate in Co Leitrim, where an ancestor of John Godley's built Killegar, a fine Georgian house in the classical tradition. John, however, spent his early childhood in England, and did not visit Ireland until he was six. At Eton he distinguished himself by rowing in the first VIII, taking flying lessons and setting himself up as the school bookie, thus inaugurating a life-long love of gambling of all kinds. The position earned him a certain amount of kudos with his peers, but was not appreciated by the beaks - or by his parents, who cut off funds for his flying lessons as a punishment.

He decided that the only way out of ignominy and poverty was to win the school's Hervey verse prize, which came with a handsome cheque for £16. He duly did so with a poem about a storm which he described as "a masterpiece of 116 lines and a high moral tone". The prize was presented to him by the same master who had given him a thrashing for his bookmaking activities, though John Godley knew from "a certain look in his eye" that the crime had not been forgotten.

He had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a writer, possibly a poet, though his father disapproved, suggesting that if he really wanted to be a Milton, he would be better off as a "mute, inglorious" one. Nonetheless, after going up to Balliol College, Oxford, he published a small volume of verse, Even for an Hour, and wrote for Isis and the Oxford Magazine. War interrupted his studies, but when the conflict ended he returned to Balliol courtesy of the ex-servicemen's grant scheme and rowed bow in the University's second boat, Isis.

He had continued to take flying lessons at school, saving the money and defying his parents' ban. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and for the first two years flew at every opportunity, "perfectly convinced of my own immortality, despite a number of exciting prangs, a ditching in the Firth of Forth and quite a bit of tracer".

In 1943-44 he served on convoy escort duty on merchant aircraft carriers in the North Atlantic, flying single-engined Fairey Swordfish biplanes, machines which "seemed to have been left in the war by mistake" and were affectionately known as "stringbags". On one sortie his engine failed completely, and he had to ditch into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. All bar one of the aircraft's dinghies failed to inflate, and, after several hours in the water, he and his crew were rescued in the nick of time by a Canadian fishing vessel.

Later Godley was posted lieutenant-commander in charge of 835 Squadron (then equipped with Wildcat fighters) on an escort carrier, Nairana; the squadron protected some of the last convoys to Russia, and also conducted night strikes on enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast. He was awarded his DSC for one of these attacks, on the night of January 29 1945. By this time, though, he had begun to have serious doubts about his immortality. Just before VJ day a fault developed in the hydraulic system of his Fairey Barracuda, and he found himself being liberally sprayed with highly anaesthetic hydraulic fluid. Fortunately, he was almost directly over an airfield, and he managed to land the aircraft before passing out. That was the last time he flew as a pilot. Later he would write a vivid memoir of his time with the Fleet Air Arm, Bring Back my Stringbag: Swordfish Pilot at War 1940-45 (1979).

On coming down from Oxford, Godley joined the Daily Mirror and wrote human interest stories. On one assignment he met the daughter of Hans van Meergeren, the Dutch painter who made a fortune by forging Vermeers. Later he wrote van Meergeren's biography. After joining the Sunday Express in 1949, Godley embarked on an overland trip to New Zealand to join the celebrations marking the centenary of the founding of Christchurch by an ancestor, John Robert Godley. While he was there his father died, and the new Lord Kilbracken made his way back to England by sea.

His father had not lived on the family estate in Ireland for many years, and at the time of his death it was under offer to a man who intended to demolish the house and exploit the land for forestry. Although he knew he could not afford to maintain the house (he had inherited rather less than £1,000 from his father), Kilbracken could not bear to sell, and withdrew it from the market in the hope that he could somehow keep it in the family.

The house was damp and dilapidated and the estate neglected, its sole stock consisting of one aged cow. His best course, he decided, was to divide his time equally between Killegar and the rest of the world, trying to make a go of developing the estate while supporting the endeavour from his earnings as a writer. He launched himself into a range of unsuccessful enterprises: growing Christmas trees, making cream cheese and selling square yards of Irish bog to Americans for a nickel apiece. He failed to make any money out of this last venture, since the cost of sending a receipt for each nickel was two nickels.

Meanwhile the Sunday Express had given Kilbracken the Ephraim Hardcastle column, of which the perquisites included cocktail parties, first nights, free dinners and a large expense account. But a few weeks into the job, while travelling to Fleet Street on his customary bus from Chelsea, he decided on a whim to get off at Victoria Station and board the boat train. After a few weeks wandering around the Mediterranean, he fetched up in a dirty waterfront hotel at Ajaccio, Corsica, where he became fascinated by the mystery of Rommel's treasure which had supposedly been dumped somewhere in the sea off Bastia. He returned to Corsica after a short spell in America, where he tried to restore his ailing finances by joining the books of a lecture agency. He never did find Rommel's treasure.

Back in Ireland in 1953 Kilbracken met the film director John Huston, who invited him to do a screen test for the part of Ishmael for his forthcoming production of Moby Dick. Initially, Huston seemed highly impressed by his performance, so Kilbracken was surprised - and disappointed - to receive a letter a few days later informing him that "various other factors have finally persuaded me that you were not quite right for this particular part". His hopes of getting a smaller part in the film, as Pequod sailor number 29 (whose only solo contribution involved walking up the gang plank carrying a live pig), also came to nothing. Huston eventually gave him a job as a supplementary script writer, for which he got no screen credit.

One day in 1957 the telephone rang and a suave American voice asked whether Kilbracken would like to spend the next four days in London with the Hollywood film actress Jayne Mansfield, who was there to attend the premiere of her new film Oh for a Man! The fee would be 100 guineas - enough to buy him "a couple of cows". He knew little about Jayne Mansfield, other than that "her dimensions were apparently very unusual", and found to his relief that his duties were mainly formal. During her visit, he received a call from the Daily Express inviting him to write on My Four Days with Jayne Mansfield, for a fee of "two more cows". A few weeks later, hoping to add to his herd, Kilbracken suggested to Charles Wintour, the Express's editor, that he might go to Moscow to cover the 40th anniversary celebrations of the October 1917 revolution. Travelling on a tourist visa, since it was not possible to gain a visa as a journalist, Kilbracken set himself two goals: to see the Great Red Square Parade and to interview Khrushchev. Unfortunately, though, there were no seats left for the parade, and as a "tourist" it would be impossible to arrange an interview with Khruschchev through official channels. Subterfuge was the only solution.

On the day of the parade Kilbracken rose early and dressed with particular care, hoping to slip out of the hotel and avoid his official minder, and then to pass himself off as a member of the Russian proletariat. With his trousers on inside out under his overcoat, wearing a pink Leander tie and a fur hat pulled down over his ears, he launched himself on to the Moscow streets. By degrees he managed to work his way to the steps of the Moscow Hotel on Red Square, where he had a front row view of the military parade; later he insinuated himself into the civilian parade, marching past the rostrum with the other "comrades". That evening he received a telegram from Wintour which read: "Hail Hail Hail Ace Newsman stop Congratulations on wonderful story leading Daily Express tonight." In the Irish edition the story was headlined "Only Irish peer in Moscow watches Biggest Military Show". As Kilbracken wryly observed, he had been the only peer of any sort in Moscow, or anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain.

Kilbracken achieved his second goal by posing as a photographer and gatecrashing a reception at the Egyptian embassy which Khrushchev was attending. He managed to engage Khrushchev in conversation for nearly half an hour, and the crowd around them became so great at one point that they ended up crushed together, belly to belly. With the money from Jayne Mansfield and Moscow, Kilbracken was able to buy several more cows. The best milker he christened Jayne.

Kilbracken had taken his seat in the House of Lords in 1952, but at first rarely attended debates. He joined the Liberal Party in 1960, but in 1966 switched his allegiance to Labour, arguing that he wanted to take "more positive responsibility" than the Liberals could provide. As the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland, he found his loyalties coming under strain. He had long been opposed to partition, and, though not himself a Catholic, felt strongly about the discrimination endured by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

In the wave of hysteria that followed the Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972, Kilbracken announced that he was returning his six war medals in protest, that he was renouncing British citizenship and had become a citizen of the Irish Republic. His announcement did not compromise his right to sit as a member of the upper House, of which he became an increasingly active member. Wildly bearded and vigorous, Kilbracken continued to appear, campaigning for, among other things, the rights of Kurds in Iraq and an end to partition in Ireland.

In 1988, as a member of a parliamentary group investigating Aids, he condemned government claims that people could catch Aids through normal heterosexual relations as "nonsense", and called its publicity campaign "alarmist, wasteful and insane". Kilbracken continued to work as a freelance journalist, and, during the 1980s, wrote a series of guides to identifying plant and animal species. His first such guide, The Easy Way to Bird Recognition (1982) won the Times Educational Supplement book award and sold out at its first printing.

Kilbracken had got the idea for the book on a visit to a rebel Kurdish area of northern Iraq, where he had been frustrated by his inability to identify local birds. Other books in the series included guides to trees and wild flowers. Lord Kilbracken married first, in 1943 (dissolved 1949), Penelope Reyne; they had two sons, one of whom predeceased him. He married secondly, in 1981 (dissolved 1989), Susan Heazlewood; they had a son. His eldest son, Christopher John Godley, who was born in 1945, succeeds to the peerage.

The Telegraph 15 August 2006

John Godley - Lord Kilbracken
Adventurous Journalist, Labour Peer, Author and Organic Farmer

October 17th, 1920 - August 14th, 2006

JOHN GODLEY, 3rd Baron Kilbracken, was a Fleet Air Arm pilot, a journalist, an author and an independent-minded Labour peer. Despite having passed top into the Foreign Service, he opted to work for the Daily Mirror after the war, at first as a racing correspondent and feature writer. He then became a roving reporter in the days when newspapers liked to run dispatches from James Bondish toffs with datelines such as “Royalist HQ, Yemen, Tuesday (Message delayed)”.

Kilbracken approached every challenge with a sense of fun and adventure, whether it be escorting Jayne Mansfield on a visit to Britain in 1957, tangling with the Mafia in the search for Nazi loot in the sea off Corsica in 1963, or tracing a forger who had sold a host of dubious paintings to a gullible American millionaire in 1967.

At his seat at Killegar in Co Leitrim, Ireland, he successfully adopted organic farming methods from the 1950s. In the 1960s he spoke in the Lords about the danger from chemicals, when he suggested that all packaged goods should list their ingredients. In 1962, in the wake of the thalidomide disaster, he wrote to the papers about the unforeseen dangers of the introduction of the contraceptive Pill.

John Raymond Godley was born in 1920. He was the grandson of Gladstone’s private secretary, Arthur Godley, who became a peer in 1909 but declined to follow the trend towards taking one’s surname for one’s title, because he thought that “Lord Godley” sounded altogether too messianic.

At Eton Godley had a sideline as a bookmaker with up to a hundred clients, and at Balliol he periodically dreamt horse race winners in advance, to his own enrichment and that of his friends. He later admitted that he had been a compulsive gambler and spoke in the Lords about its destructive effects. But in moving an amendment in 1968 to prohibit the playing of blackjack, he offered to take any member of a Lords committee to a club as his guest to prove that he could make £50 by “ taking the bank in a game of blackjack when no smart Americans are playing”.

He served in the Fleet Air Arm from 1940 to 1946, winning the DSC in 1945. Commissioned in 1941, he became a lieutenant-commander in 1944 and commanded 835 and 714 Naval Air Squadrons. By the end of the war he had flown on 67 operations, including the Murmansk run, and had made 132 deck landings in all weathers. On one occasion he very nearly drowned. His autobiographical account of those five years, Bring Back My Stringbag (1979), is a moving portrait of the lives of the young men who flew the Swordfish biplanes that were already outdated at the start of the war.

After the war he worked for the Mirror and then as a freelance for British and American papers, mainly as a foreign correspondent, travelling to Cuba, China, Yemen, Angola and Aden. In seven years he visited twenty-nine countries. For the Daily Express he spoke to Khrushchev (interviewed would be an exaggeration), and he wrote exotic pieces on wars, frauds, gambling and the like.

His great-great-grandfather had been the founder of the province of Canterbury, New Zealand, and when Godley was invited to visit for the centenary celebrations in 1950, he elected to drive there. He was accompanied successively by an American man called Hank, his brother, an English girl who could not drive, an Australian engineer, two businessmen and a Danish photographer. While he was in Australia his father died, leaving him the title, the family home with 400 unproductive acres in Ireland and £1,000. Now a peer of the realm, he returned to England and one morning in June 1951 took a bus to the House of Lords to ask for admittance. Uncharacteristically, he lost his nerve, and took another bus home. He was not to speak in the House until 1961, but this did not stop him cashing in. When a manufacturer used the slogan “Our towels have no peer”, he cabled: “Will gladly supply the deficiency”, and was taken on to help with publicity. He joined the Liberal Party in 1960 but transferred to Labour in 1966, stating that Liberalism had become “irrelevant”.

As a resident of the Irish Republic, Kilbracken returned his four war medals to the Queen in 1972 in protest at the policy of internment in Northern Ireland. Around the same time, drawing on his farming knowledge, he spoke up in the House of Lords on behalf of the bull, “a much maligned animal” of which people should not be afraid.

As well as the Irish republicans, Kilbracken supported the Kurdish cause. During the 1960s he reported from Iraq about the Kurds’ struggle against repression, explicitly comparing this to the situation in Ireland, and in the 1970s he chaired a committee for the provision of medical aid to the Kurds.

As John Godley, the entertaining author, his books included Tell Me the Next One (1950), Living Like a Lord (1955), A Peer Behind the Curtain (1959) and Shamrocks and Unicorns (1962). His first book, a collection of poems, had appeared in 1940. In 1968 he wrote a study of Han Van Meegeren, the artist whose forged Vermeers sold for large sums despite bearing scarcely any resemblance to the real things. Then in 1982 his book for young birdwatchers, The Easy Way to Bird Recognition, won an award from The Times Educational Supplement. This was followed by two more bestsellers in the series, on trees and wildflowers.

Lord Kilbracken’s first marriage, to Penelope Anne Reyne in 1943, was dissolved in 1949. In 1981 he married Susan Lee Heazlewood. That marriage, however, ended in divorce in 1989. One son predeceased him. He is survived by a son from each of his marriages and a daughter whom he always acknowledged. The Hon Christopher John Godley succeeds to the title. Lord Kilbracken, DSC, journalist, author and farmer, was born on October 17, 1920. He died on August 14, 2006 aged 85.

The Times 15 August 2006
Last Updated: March 27, 2012
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