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Posted: Thursday, August 27, 1998 1:00 am

You don't expect to encounter a British lord in the smiley aisles of Hy-Vee in Iowa, but it happens in Cedar Rapids. Richard Gerald Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, Fourth Baron Acton leads a double life, and he's just as much at home in the Iowa supermarket as he is when he's sitting in Parliament in London.

Lord Acton looks at both sides and makes astute observations with unfailing wit and good humor in his new book, ``A Brit Among the Hawkeyes,'' just published by Iowa State University Press. The book goes back and forth across the Atlantic, just as he does, and his passion for history will enlarge your knowledge about his native land and ours.

He's in Iowa because he married Patricia Nassif, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, in 1988, and there's a fascinating story about the person responsible for their meeting in the book.

Her name was Opal Whitely, and who is to say whether she was truly the daughter of an Oregon lumbercamp family or of the blood of Bourbon-Orleans, the royal house of France, as she herself believed? From early childhood, she kept a diary, and she kept the fragments after her sister tore it up, painstakingly putting them back together to reveal French words and names that no American six-year-old was likely to know. Lord Acton calls this ``an Anastasia story.''

Patricia Nassif's brother, Robert, is a composer, and he was working on a musical about Opal. He sought out Lord Acton's aunt to learn more about Opal and Richard Lord Acton was staying in her home when Mr. Nassif brought his sister along for a visit. The rest is history. The musical, ``Opal,'' opened off-Broadway to excellent reviews, and Richard and Patricia fell in love and got married.

The first part of the book reports on Lord Acton's adventures in a strange land via letters to his brother Edward, a history professor in England. He wonders about things that many take for granted. For instance, why are Iowans called Hawkeyes? Because they didn't want a nickname like the ``Suckers'' of Illinois or the ``Pukes'' of Missouri, preferring the name of the hero of ``The Last of the Mohicans'' which also evokes Chief Black Hawk and keen vision.

He has a great deal to say about the character of Iowans. He notes that his Uncle Douglas once said, ``If you sent a telegram to every man in London that said, `All is discovered, flee at once!' at least half would start packing,'' adding ``The Iowans I have met simply don't give one that feeling.''

He thinks Iowans are obsessed by temperature (as in Fahrenheit) and writes, ``Iowans are genuinely and wildly overstimulated by the daily temperature.''

As for the supermarket, he writes, ``I've decided that Hy-Vee is the modern equivalent of the medieval village.'' The manager is always friendly, greeting him with, ``Hello, Lord.''

He talks about driving on the ``wrong'' side of the road, the glories of the Old Creamery Theatre, the joys of Prairie Lights book store in Iowa City, and the wonders of the Iowa State Fair. The account of his first baseball game is a hoot, and so is his intrepid tracking through the mail of a gift plum pudding sent to a newspaper with a policy against receiving gifts.

His adventures in London, ``the greatest city in the world,'' are great short travelogues for American readers. He talks about everything from the black taxis that are ``the nearest thing to heaven on wheels,'' the Americanization of London, his narrow escape from having his intentions misunderstood by the police at Buckingham Palace, and traveling through the Chunnel to the ancient Inns of Court, climbing the tower of Big Ben and Nelson Mandela's moving entrance at historic Westminster Hall.

The section of youthful memories of M'Bebi, the family home in Southern Rhodesia, is wonderfully absorbing. He was one of six children when they moved there, and four more were born in Africa.

The writer Evelyn Waugh was a friend of his parents, and after a 1958 visit to M'Bei, he wrote a description of total chaos, dreadful food, ants in the beds, and untrained servants. He also referred to the ``serene sanctity radiating supernatural peace'' of Daphne, Richard's mother.

They drank South African white wine that ``was both delicious and had a kick like a mule'' and ``would reel out of dinner'' after consuming ``Mummy's white thunder.''

Whatever went on there, Richard Lord Acton writes, ``When I die, I want to go to M'bei.''

In those African days he was obsessed with horse racing and considered stealing a girlie magazine picturing a very bare Diana Dors. He also has strong memories of wild fire, murder, and the results of a leopard attack.

He writes of his first day in the House of Lords, explaining that he was a cross-bencher -- beholden to no political party or interest. He maintained that position until 1997, when he moved to the Labour benches after the election of Tony Blair's Labour government.

Explaining the origin of the Order of the Garter, detailing the spicey but unhappy history of Queen Caroline, and admiring his wife's perfect curtsey to the Queen (learned at childhood ballet lessons in Cedar Rapids), Lord Acton shows a wonderful zest for life.

Toward the end of the book is a tasty melange that includes an essay on his great-grandfather's famous saying, ``Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'' Most people skip the ``tends,'' and this drives him wild.

The absolute finale is titled ``Fragments of Iowa's Past,'' and it includes much that most Iowans don't know, such as information about the birthday of the Territory of Iowa in 1838, the state's first official Thanksgiving in 1844 and the history of the death penalty in the state.

It also details that hideous vaudeville attraction, The Cherry Sisters. When Effie, the last of them, died in August 1944, the New York Times described their act as ``artistically the worst on any stage,'' concluding, ``They gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good.''

The collection of essays, articles, reviews and radio scripts ends with a piece on Bonnie and Clyde in Iowa. What a bloody mess!

The postscript speaks of how kind the people of Iowa are, giving a stunning example involving a Cedar Rapids postal clerk, and the last words to Edward are, ``Do you wonder that I like it here?''

Richard Lord Acton is a happy man in our midst, except on the 4th of July, which understandably gives him fits. Iowans are happy that he's here half of the year. They enjoy having a lord to call their own.

This book will make any Iowan feel proud and offer anyone a delightful read. The price for the 207-page hardcover book with a funny ``American Gothic'' parody on the jacket is $24.95. It's available at area bookstores.

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