One of life’s real characters that Bill dealt with regularly over the years was Peter Townend. Peter had grown up in and around the British Aristocracy and was a walking encyclopaedia of who was who in British Society. He was previously the editor of Burke’s Peerage, and when I knew him, he was Social Editor of Tatler magazine, who we did a lot of work for. Peter stayed in a very nice flat off the King’s Road in Chelsea.
One day Bill asked me to drop him and Peter off at the National Portrait Gallery for a reception he was covering for the Tatler. The National Portrait Gallery entrance is located just to the north of Trafalgar Square, although it overlooks the square itself; so parking was virtually impossible around that area. Bill said we could take his new brand Porsche 911E 2.4 Coupe, registration WME 911M, up to Chelsea, pick up Peter, and I could then drive it to drop them off right outside the gallery and then return to Harper’s Yard.
At this time I was driving my old Ford 105E Anglia (now made famous by the Harry Potter films) so I was quite excited about driving Bill’s new Porsche 911E, which was light yellow in colour. Bill knew I would drive his car carefully back to Isleworth but he told me I was to come and collect them both in my own Ford car? I questioned this and he told me, “All would be revealed later that evening?”
So we drove off to Peter’s flat and popped in for a few minutes. It was a lovely flat and full of Burke Peerage, Who’s Who, and copies of Tatler and other magazines. We then drove off to the gallery and Bill hopped in the back of his own 911 and Peter sat next to me in the front. I asked Peter if he liked Bill’s new car and he said, “It was lovely”, but more out of politeness than noticing the actual car.
Apparently Peter had never driven a motorcar in his life and he used taxis around London and trains to other places in the United Kingdom. Bill always picked him up and dropped him off whenever he could over the years, so Peter knew Bill’s Porsche 911’s well. Prior to this new Porsche we were in; Bill has a mustard coloured 2.2 litre 911T Coupe, however that evening Bill mentioned his new car to Peter Townend who could not see any difference from the older car and so Bill just left it at that.
I dropped them both off as planned and Bill asked me to be back outside the National Portrait Gallery at 9.30pm and he would be out to meet me, but to be sure and bring my own car.
I went back to Isleworth and did a bit of printing and had a coffee and a sandwich. A couple of hours later I set off in my Ford Anglia and arrived at National Portrait Gallery a few minutes early. Bill soon popped out and told me Peter wanted a lift back to Chelsea and so he went back inside to get him. They both came out and Peter got in the back of my Ford Anglia and Bill sat next to me and we drove off to Chelsea chattering away. Bill asked Peter if he was comfortable in the back and he said, “Yes he was fine." Bill then said, “We are in Alan’s little car” and Peter was oblivious to the fact this was not Bill’s Porsche and I was dumfounded! Bill whispered, “I’ll explain things once we had dropped Peter off at his flat.”
So once we dropped Peter off and we were on our own heading back to South Street, Bill explained that if I had given Peter my car key, he would not know what to do with it. I asked him to explain as surely anyone would know how to open a car door lock and put the ignition key in? Bill then proceeded to tell me that Peter did not know how to drive or did he have any understanding of things mechanical, even driving a motorcar. However Peter could recount from memory, who the Earl of Bradford’s father, grandfather, cousin, brother-in-law, children were, etc.; plus any number of the thousands of other people listed in Burke’s Peerage, all from his memory. Peter’s life was getting up in the morning, meeting people for breakfast, coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, or hopping from one reception, cocktail party or restaurant to another. At weekends he had numerous invitations to stay over “At Home” with the British Aristocracy at their country homes all over the United Kingdom. His life was purely social and nothing else.
Later I was to find this out for myself as Bill had asked Peter to a meeting we had in our offices in South Street some months later and Peter was an unbelievable man. He could look at a face or a group of people in a photograph and know whom they all were and whom they were related to, I was amazed as photograph after photograph he just knew everyone who was anyone!
During Jimmy Christie’s days, Van Hallan issued a set of library pictures to all the Fleet Street daily newspapers as they had access to people the newspapers found it hard to photograph. I remember looking through the library files and found that Van Hallan had made a small fortune out of this side of the business. However this had lapsed as Jimmy had to retire early due to a reoccurrence of his wartime breakdown, so Bill could not cope with issuing the library on his own. When I had looked into this, I was pushing Bill to restart the library service, hence the meeting with Peter Townend to go through and vet all the people in the backlog of photographs.