Telling Tales at Probus Club

Susan Howe
Susan Howe

Amusing anecdotes kept coming when Susan Howe gave a talk to the Probus Club of Basingstoke, the social club for retired professional and business managers, about what she called her canter through a funny life. This had nothing to do with anything equine but was about her wide experiences of life and with the ability to recall minute details that made the talk so interesting.

She had been working as a cook on a yacht in the Mediterranean in the 60s when she met Bridget Bardot’s ex-husband, Gunter Sachs, who was one of the original playboys. She went to work for him and his celebrity guests in his chalet in St Moritz. During her time there she met several well known people including the Formula 1 World Champion, Jackie Stewart, the film director, Roman Polanski, several members of the Bismarck family and the last king of Morocco. Susan admitted “I couldn’t really cook but the good thing about very rich people is that they dine out a lot.”

In the early 70s Susan worked for Sir John Betjeman, soon to become Poet Laureate. She stood in for his long-standing PA for a year and met his famous teddy bear, Archie and Jumbo the toy elephant. A well known eccentric, John Betjeman had many visitors including Mary Wilson, wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who herself was a published poet. Barrie Humphries, of characters Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson fame, was a regular caller.

Various men of the cloth came seeking financial support for their particular church. If they were from what he considered to be the lower sects of religion, Methodists or Baptists, he would not let Archie sit in on their discussions in case it affected its thinking. On another occasion Susan recalled that the great poet had made a theatre booking with pre-performance supper for himself and Archie. That night he didn’t think that Archie was feeling up to sitting through a three act play after dining so Susan had to change the bookings.

When John Betjeman got married he arrived, on his wedding night, at his bedroom door wearing a long nightshirt and carrying Archie and Jumbo under each arm. When his new bride commented about what she saw he made it very clear to her that she was very much in fourth position in his life. When Susan left his employment he bade her farewell with “Gosh we’ve had fun – what a shame you couldn’t type!”

During this time she shared a flat in London with Jan who was the daughter of a vet in Thirsk called Donald Sinclair. He was the partner of the vet who used the pen name James Herriot to write “All Creatures Great and Small” that became a successful TV series. Apparently Jan knew he was so incensed by the character Siegfried Farndon, played by Robert Hardy, that he refused to watch the programme.

After completing the notoriously demanding two years course she passed the exam set by the London Tourist Board, qualifying as a Blue Badge Guide which enabled her to guide at all the major London sites. London Blue Badge guides can also guide in other parts of UK which meant she could be away for up to three weeks. She accompanied an amazing array of specialist groups ranging from Hymnologists studying hymn writers to Mills & Boon authors specialising in the Regency period, and from Debt Collectors to the American Bar Association and the 200 strong Yale Alumni choir. Immediately prior to her visit to Probus she had accompanied the Bishop of North Dakota around London.

Not content with acting as a guide in Britain she has taken painting tours to Zanzibar, riding tours in the Rockies, wildlife tours in Africa and tiger tours in the jungles of India.

Her wide interests match the experiences of the members of the Probus Club of Basingstoke.