For a Member of Parliament who once spent his holidays fighting the Taliban, a peaceful mission in St Helena ought to have been a walk in the park.
Instead, Mark Lancaster ended up sleeping in one. Or rather, in the Governor’s garden.
He’d come up against superior forces in the form of sociable St Helenians. And then, when he should have been securing his objective (a bed) under cover of darkness, he was outmanoeuvred.
The story was first told in the 4 May 2012 issue of the St Helena Independent by Vince Thompson, who described how the soldier-turned-MP found himself locked out of Plantation House.
The identity of the person who’d done the deed was a mystery, though. “Presumably one of the staff was not aware of the extra guest,” wrote Vince.
Further details of the story were let slip last weekend by Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary – and Mark Lancaster’s boss – when he met Saints in Swindolena to talk about the island’s airport.
“When we were in opposition I sent my number two, Mark Lancaster, who had an extremely interesting visit.
“He came back full of stories. Not least was the very large number of people who took him to the pub one night. He then went back to the governor’s house and was locked out, and he had to sleep on a park bench outside the governor’s front door.
“It rained upon him, but he is a former soldier and I don’t think it did him any harm.”
In fact, Mr Lancaster is still a part-time bomb disposal officer in the Territorial Army and has served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the summer of 2006, when other MPs were off on fact-finding trips to the Caribbean, he spent his hols on a tour of active service in Afghanistan. He can rough it.
He had been dispatched to St Helena to scout out the lie of the land for the airport, said Mr Mitchell. “I sent him down in 2009 and he came back with the information we needed to be sure that we should proceed with this project.
“I think he was taken to the pub by a large number of generous Saints who wanted to show him a good time, and I understand they certainly did.”
The lock-out would never have happened had he chosen to stay at Farm Lodge or The Consulate, instead of putting up at Plantation as a guest of Governor Andrew Gurr.
Mr Lancaster confirms the story, and settles the unresolved question: who was it that locked him out?
It was not some hapless member of staff after all, he reveals.
“Crawled back about two am having been in the nightclub on the front,” he writes in an email. “Despite having given me the key, the Governor had accidentally bolted the outer door, so I spent the night on the bench rather than wake him up.”
We must be grateful that Mr Lancaster – now luxuriating on the government benches in Parliament – did not allow the incident to turn him against the airport project.
“After an evening of St Helenian hospitality,” he generously concedes, “a bit of fresh air did me the world of good.”
And it gave him a heady experience of St Helena’s greatest spectacle. “Living most of my time in smoggy London,” he says, “the chance to lie on my back staring at the stars all night was too good an opportunity to miss.”
Come the morning, he no doubt refrained from referring to his host as Governor Grrrr.