‘We made off with the Miss Vitality Plus title and took second place in the Knobbly Knees competition’. The less-than-ordinary life of Eye’s Charles Michell

Charles on the campaign trail

Charles on the campaign trail - Credit: Archant

The trouble with Charles Michell’s book, a ‘jumble of thoughts for dipping into’, is that it reminds you how mundane your own life has been. STEVEN RUSSELL reads it, and vows to have more fun from now on

Charles, wife Sara and dog Basil, outside their home in Eye

Charles, wife Sara and dog Basil, outside their home in Eye - Credit: Archant

The debate about “career politicians” is an interesting one ? men and women who rule without much experience of life outside the political bubble.

Parliament, particularly, could do with a few more like Charles Michell ? folk whose horizons have been wider. It would certainly add wit to the place.

Charles never actually got to Westminster, though he did have a go, standing for the Conservatives in 1983 in a solid-Labour constituency in Northumberland. He came third. “Annihilated”, he says in his book Dim Recollections.

He later fell short when “politely trounced by my godson’s mother in a county council election in Suffolk. One doesn’t however take these rejections personally and, in true political spirit, one usually finds someone else to blame. The current unpopularity of one’s party can offer a plausible excuse.” (In 1983 Margaret Thatcher was not flavour of the month in Northumberland, despite the Falklands factor.)

A Suffolk childhood for brother John, Charles and sister Clare

A Suffolk childhood for brother John, Charles and sister Clare - Credit: Archant

It was third time lucky in 1995 when he took Palgrave ward by six votes and joined Mid Suffolk District Council. He later made it onto the county council, in 1997, and became its chairman in 2006.

But politics is only part of the story. We get a glimpse of cricket-loving Charles’s world ? a glimpse of a vanished England, in many ways ? in his book.

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It’s a bit Jeeves and Wooster meets Rumpole of the Bailey.

He was born in Hampshire, but moved with his family to Berkshire to live with his grandparents after their home was requisitioned by the military during the Second World War.

Soldier Charles (left) in 1956.

Soldier Charles (left) in 1956. - Credit: Archant

In 1946 they moved to Suffolk because his father, a property developer, sought quiet isolation and a fresh start. Charles was eight. Home was a neglected grey-brick Victorian pile a couple of miles outside Hoxne, near Eye.

“Our life indoors was heavily regulated and timed to the minute. My father’s agenda was followed precisely by Mr (Ralph) Holmes, the family butler, who used his military training in implementing the daily routine.

“He would ring the gong on the dot of time to announce meals, including a dressing gong for the family to change for dinner. Meticulously he polished the shoes and the silver and counted the spoons. Nothing escaped him.”

Charles went to Eton, and had two years’ national service in the Grenadier Guards in the mid-1950s. His fellow recruits included a duke, two marquesses and a couple of viscounts.

When he was discharged, Charles spent a couple of years as an advertising copywriter in London before joining the family property investment company and starting an estate agency in Islington.

A love of theatre has run through his life. In Suffolk, he was a great supporter of the now-gone Eye Theatre ? chairman of the trustees at one time.

“My father, a Victorian conservative, always wore a dinner jacket to an evening performance in the West End. He liked to sit in the front row of the stalls, though he became less keen after an Ugly Sister at a Norwich pantomime matinee threw herself at him and kissed him in front of the audience.”

In the early 1960s, before he got married, Charles shared a flat in a quiet square behind Harrods. There was, it seems, lots of fun.

Take the account of a weekend at Butlin’s Clacton-on-Sea holiday camp, organised by an old schoolfriend for about 50 pals. They were mostly professional people working in the City, but good sports too. Charles was impressed by the camp’s “dedication to entertainment, decency and friendship”. Of his group, he writes: “We made off with the Miss Vitality Plus title and took second place in the Knobbly Knees competition thanks to a fine display by a colleague fresh to the world from his brief term as a monk.”

After selling the estate agency he joined Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in 1978 ? practising law for 15 years as a barrister. There was adventure before that, however. In the early 1960s he went out to St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla with a friend whose cousin was the administrator of the Caribbean colony.

He and a couple of partners bought land on Nevis and, pretty much on the spot where Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787, built a 16-bedroom hotel.

Charles’s involvement with the Montpelier Plantation Inn would last about 40 years. “Somehow it survived as a commercial venture known only to a discerning few, until the fortuitous visit of Princess Diana and her two young sons for a summer holiday put Montpelier on the world map.”

Let’s finish where we started. With politics. Charles can’t help yearning for the good old days.

“There has been a marked swing from the more leisurely, uncomplaining days to today’s high level of public cynicism,” he writes.

“The mood has shifted from trusting our elected representatives to make decisions in the best interests of our constituents to a self-centred attitude in which individuals or small groups of citizens seek to pressurise, hector and influence decisions in the best interest of themselves.

“Gone is the independence of the elected representative to make a decision in good faith without interference.”

Dim Recollections costs £16.95. Available, by cheque, from Charles at Linden House, Lambseth Street, Eye, IP23 7AG

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