A £10,000 flea bite


 By Adam Raphael, Editor

The Imperial Hotel, Blackpool, a splendid old Victorian relic, has just launched a midnight marriage package to show how modern it really is.

Mind you, for those who want to get hitched in the dark, it doesn’t come cheap. Packages start at £1,200 for a 40-minute midnight ceremony followed by a themed buffet, red carpet, arrival drinks, and bizarrely what the hotel’s publicity hand- out describes as ‘toast’.

Admittedly as far as the Imperial is concerned, I have form.Not that I have ever stayed there.

It was always reserved for the nobs at the political conferences that I had to attend as political editor of the Observer. One year, I complained that I had been forced to stay in a doss house to Sir Edward du Cann, then chairman of the Conservative Party.

Sir Edward was not unsympathetic but noted that he also had a miserable time having been bitten 34 times on his right buttock by a flea.

Being an assiduous reporter, I asked whether anyone else at the Imperial had suffered, only to be told that Denis Thatcher in the next door room had alsDenis and Margaret Thatchero been been bitten by this beast.

Sadly, the Iron Lady appeared to have escaped unscathed.

But it was too good a story to ignore so I fed it to the Observer’s gossip columnist who wrote a small paragraph under the heading: ‘The flea that ravaged the Tory Party Conference.’ It proved to be an expensive tale.

A week later a libel writ arrived from the Imperial Hotel saying that the whole of its building had had to be fumigated, and demanding an apology and substantial damages.

The Observer’s management made clear that as the source I was responsible for getting the paper out of this hole.

And a very expensive one it was, not helped by the fact that Denis Thatcher, on mature reflection, decided he had been bitten, not by a flea but by a sea midge.

Distinguished entomologists were hired to explain the differing characteristics of these beasts and their bites.

Luckily for me, Sir Edward, a grandee of the old school and owner of a chocolate-coloured Rolls Royce, stuck to his story and even went as far as offering to bare his buttock in the witness box.

My next line of defence, which I thought was ingenious, was to claim that it was the Tories who had brought the flea into the hotel. If that was the case, the Imperial was blameless.

But this argument didn’t gain favour with the Observer’s QC who dismissed it as frivolous.

With legal costs escalating on both sides, it had all the signs of being a protracted legal battle. But happily fate intervened."HookeFlea01" by Robert Hooke - http://www.nmm.ac.uk/uploads//jpg/flea.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HookeFlea01.jpg#mediaviewer/File:HookeFlea01.jpg

I went on holiday to Corfu where a fellow guest was Desmond Browne, QC, the expensive silk hired by the Imperial Hotel to represent it.

Desmond and I did not take to one another, not least because I couldn’t resist baiting him. ‘You realise,’ I said, ‘you are going to be the laughing stock of the Bar when we subpoena Mrs Thatcher and ask her what she was doing on the night when Denis was bitten by his sea midge.’

Whether this teasing helped, I am not sure.

But three weeks later, the Imperial agreed to settle with each side paying their own costs. The Observer’s bill came to about £10,000, a lot of money in those days.

Very generously, the Imperial offered as a peace offering to put me up for a weekend , an invitation that I churlishly declined.

For those who have an appetite for more and better particulars of this story, you can read it in my book Grotesque Libels, published by Corgi. It was published originally by W.H. Allen under the tile: My Learned Friends.

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