It was after an interview. I had, so I mused, been brilliant. Of course, I did not get the job.
With an hour free, I walked to St. Stephens in Walbrook, a Wren masterpiece, usually empty but free to enter and, let me say without fear of contraception, just about the most beautiful place on earth. An old man in a black cloak was shuffling around the entrance; obviously once tall, he was now stooped and ungainly. I recognised him, remembering his once eagle eyes as well as that clipped imperious speech, now muted to little more than a mumble. As I approached, I noticed that he was inspecting what looked like a log-book, signatures of and messages from visitors. “All the great befrienders from over the world have pilgrimaged here”, he rasped out loud to no-one in particular, “and written their names”.
Together we strolled around altar, admiring the perspectives, as he himself must have done a thousand times. Soon the large medieval-aspect door came into view; it led down to the vaults where, many decades before, the story of his most humanitarian public service had begun. We stood and he asked me who I was and whether I had had a connection with the place. In fact, I had met him several times in decades past, usually in those wee small hours; not everybody liked him back then and he had some highly vocal critics. In the midst of all that activism and turmoil, he could not possibly remember me.
I took another tour of the church. Alone, he busied himself, tidying inconsequentially, moving things around, noisy as he shuffled. Soon, I heard him pushing open the big door, about to disappear. Suddenly, he turned round and I heard that imperious voice once more, one last time. “Jim”, it declaimed, “be sure to sign the book before you leave”. Then he was gone, leaving me with an unnameable discomfort and feeling about ten feet tall.
Many years ago, after she returned home to Britain, I heard Dr Cassidy speak on a few occasions. At least one such event was organised by a certain solidarity-with-the-oppressed-of-Chile campaign. The others were more religious in character. At the very first event, she was dressed all in black with a large wooden cross around her shoulders, a version of holy orders, I guess. Having read her autobiography, I was braced for her story, the story of receiving electric torture from the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. She had been a volunteer doctor in Chile and having been found treating a perceived enemy of the state she was considered, to twist a phrase, fair game. Braced as I was, the in-person account of her brutalisation was unbearable. The audience winced out loud.
I did not like what she was wearing, thinking it a collapse and a retreat and a clutching; I was ashamed of this feeling back then and I still am rather. Some time later, I went to hear her speak once more, really keen – for reasons now lost in mists – to actually talk to her, about Chile, survival, etc. But I was without bottle. As the session ended and the crowd dissipated, I stayed in my chair, alone, while she, dressed now in civvies, chatted with those fans who had approached the podium. Suddenly, in a flash, she was bending over in front of me, saying something about how lost I seemed. Grabbing myself together, I immediately told her about the previous event and, rather winningly, she said something about how fetching she always looked in black. We both laughed at how gloriously inappropriate this sounded : her intention.
At that first event, she had recalled a verse that had sustained her during her captivity. I was able, as she stood beside me, to repeat it for her there and then.
“If I have freedom in my love / And in my soul am free / Angels alone that soar above / Enjoy such liberty”.
After I had delivered the line, we both stared into the middle distance. Nothing more to say.
When we met, his best health was clearly behind him. His hands shook violently as he lifted the cup from its saucer and worked the coffee into his mouth. Though I was an invisibly junior functionary, he was scrupulously interested in me, asking about my accent which he pinpointed, inaccurately but with brio, as pure Inverness. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a programme of commercial activity in central Africa; it does me no credit to acknowledge that I have no idea what happened to the plan. By that time, his famous court case was long since behind us all – but his shattered reputation had plainly not damaged his perkiness with an audience. In his Africa, I was not really interested. I just wanted to see the ogre up close.
His charm was positively pornographic. He told a funny story with such a professional delivery that squirmingly I laughed out loud from the side of the room. He looked at me as if to say : “Yes, I still have it, don’t I just?”. A bit perversely, I felt sorry for him. And I am glad that I met him only once. Like eating a whole plate of macaroons.
By then a sustained acquaintance more than a friend, I came across Barbara, long since out of government, once on a plane. Fate placed us in contiguous seats. Fate also decreed that I happened to be carrying a copy of her latest book, a short history of the suffragette movement. Over the meal, I asked her to sign it for me, adding to my lasting shame and trying to be funny : “just in case you are famous someday”. She looked like she was about to stab me in the throat with the plastic fork. Then she laughed, took the paperback and wrote “To the redoubtable Jim”. I have it still and, one of these days, I will take a deep breath and look for “redoubtable” in the dictionary.
Many years later, I found myself interviewing young graduates, able to bestow some really rather good jobs. As part of my technique (sic), I asked them to name their heroes and heroines, the famous they had admired. One of them was stumped and, trying to be helpful, I heard myself say to her “How about Barbara Castle?”. I was met with a blank. There was no folk memory of the Cabinet Diaries, the safety belt for cars, contraceptives from the GP, the EEC referendum, leadership in Brussels, someone who was so nearly Labour’s first female PM…
Around the wreck, boundless and bare….
Of course, Barbara was preternaturally talented. She understood that success in argument, as in life, was determined by one’s willingness and ability to process facts and details. Prodigiously well-informed, she had no time, no time at all, for twits. More than once, I myself felt the sharp edge of that tongue whipping across my head, both in private and in company. It was a perfidy of her socialism to argue without substance. Once upon a time, at a meeting, I had made a not-so-short intervention about the need for any radical administration to prioritise the protection of sterling’s value on international markets. I could feel her contempt wafting purposefully in my direction. “Well, everyone”, she suddenly said, “Jim has adequately set out the problem – he will now summarise the exact plan and the policy we should follow in government”. The rest of the party tittered. I stumbled and they tittered a whole lot more. Radiant, Barbara sat back, her job done. I had been barb-slapped.
Much much later, I met her again at the funeral of a common friend. We sat together at a table where the post-service tea was being served. She did not remember me and I was oddly happy to chat as if we had just that hour been introduced. Here, groping among the sandwiches, was the ghost of ages past : essentialisingly, nobody remembered and nobody cared. All interred with the bones. That she had battled with me so was, most emphatically, a memory to no-one but my wrinkly self. Here today, gone tomorrow.
I rather regret not knowing him better. But I had the chance.
One evening, I was invited to escort him from one common room to another. He was then a Sir and soon to be a Lord, master of the college and historian to trade. It was a bright Summer evening as we walked through an estate which had been so much of his own conceiving and making. Our conversation was meant to be politely inconsequential but I jumped on the opportunity to voice my opinions – that evening, opinions about the supremacy of continuous assessment over (as I saw it) winner-take-all Final exams. The old boy could hear the bee in my bonnet and when I finally asked (just about) for his own opinion of the subject he abruptly stopped. The procession behind stopped with him and waited.
He turned round to me and offered, in crisp and structured and patient sentences, his evidence against continuous assessment, praying in aid the recent example inter alia of the authorities in Sweden who had apparently experimented with the system only to ultimately repudiate it. Adding his own reasons, he treated me throughout like a fellow intellectual, not a punter and not a student (both of which I, of course, was). Much later did I learn that prior to his famous report on industrial democracy he had, for our public authorities, been commissioned to produce a definitive study of continuous assessment, as a means of measuring student output in our universities. As he spoke to me that evening and as he so sedulously interrogated my own views, he never once mentioned his sophisticated connection with the subject and not for a moment did he invoke that connection to give himself a superiority. The rank is but the guinea’s stamp and all that.
We were never friends. He did not care for me. But when I asked for a hardship bung to get to a research institute in Paris, the cheque was, no questions asked, produced. As I sat though his memorial service some decades later, I thought about the lesson he had obliquely taught me that evening, a lesson I did myself try to use in later business life and beyond. His kindness was fuss-free, almost clinical; I am aware of others who were serious beneficiaries. Maybe I do wish I had known him better but really I knew all I needed to know – and he would not have been interested anyway.
Like that Marcel Proust says, it is so often those who recognise the limits of friendship who make the best friends.
By the time I finally met an ageing Bob, I knew very well who he was and what he had been. Having made his way to London after France fell, he joined De Gaulle’s Free French and helped to kick the Nazis out of Europe in WW2. Parachuted into occupied France – alongside among others one Violette Szabó – he sabotaged the German war machine as best he could. Soldier, agent, spy : he did his bit, did the lot. And he survived. I last met him – not too long before he died – at the unveiling of the memorial to SOE F-Section women in Tempsford. Good that he lived long enough to see it. Saw the tear in his eye.
I also met a guy who, in the Free French too, had been billeted in, as it happened, my home town in Scotland. His presence – as he was being prepared to run a team of agents like Bob in occupied France – was a total secret. Nevertheless, he woke one morning to the sound of the milkman whistling La Marseillaise in the darkness outside his window. It was a little thing, illicit in its way, but it gave him great heart for the terrifying journey ahead. Decades later, he was still speaking of that moment, hearing that tune, with an emotion that overflowed.
I had been meant to take Bob across the Thames to show him the bust of Violette which, facing the Palace of Westminster, stands just by Lambeth Palace. He so wanted that pilgrimage. But I had pneumonia and his wife upbraided me for even thinking that the journey was possible; though still great fun, Bob himself was not particularly mobile by this time. The moment was lost. An excoriating pity.
I should have found him in the 1970s. But you know our sense of timing. We always wait too long.
In one of the interstices between his premierships, Michael came to, yes, Yorkshire. It fell to me to greet him and carpool him in somebody’s old Austin 1100 (sic) from Leeds-Bradford Airport to the conference hotel in Sheffield. Plainly, I did not have the rank to welcome such a distinguished visitor but, if he felt anything of the sort, he did not mention it. Indeed, he chatted as if I were every bit as equal. This introduced a special mood, the kind that one remembers.
His conversation had two themes. Firstly, he was rather concerned that English batsmen (sic) would not be able to put up a decent show against a pace attack from the West Indies bowlers; such a failure might well ruin the Test series… Secondly, he talked about how nervous he could still become before big events, such as political rallies. Just before our encounter, he had addressed an apparently huge open-air meeting of supporters in Kingston. Rather to his surprise this had gone well even though the speech was without fire-crackery, concentrating mostly on the – in his view, tedious – plans for budgetary reform in Jamaica. Pedagogically did the audience listen; enthusiastically did they follow and applaud.
The point? I myself learned too late that nerves affect everyone and cannot be hidden, no matter how hard you try to blag. Best plan is to be open, find therapy in even the most casual disclosure thereof. Friends, colleagues, audiences see them and feel them and know they are there anyway. Even opera singers, supermodels, leaders, stars…. get the blues, believing before any big leap that the phoney in them is what is most real. Our doubts, like the lord Hamlet says, are traitors.
And yet my man Manley was, unlike the driver, unquestionably a star; even in an already geriatric 1100 you could feel his charisma spreading out over the Pennines. What was it that he could tell me? What example could he set for me, really?
Loved the bloke. But…