Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Brian Brivati on Michael Foot

Brian Brivati is a Labour historian and a good friend of mine, and a devoted friend of Michael Foot. Earlier on, I texted him to commiserate as I knew he would be feeling desolate at the news of Michael's death. He replied, saying that he heard the news on Old Street station platform and simply burst into tears. That's how much Foot meant to him. Later, he sent me this piece he wrote about Michael, four years ago on his 92nd birthday. It is a piece of writing full of warmth, humour and devotion. He has kindly given permission for me to publish it here. I hope you enjoy it, no matter what your own politics are.

There are two sure signs you are in love with someone. You spend idle moments imagining gifts you could buy them. You want to punch anyone who puts them down. I confess to having had both these feelings about my friend Michael Foot. The person I wanted to punch had asked why we should care about someone who looks like they have had a reverse lobotomy. To understand why we should care about him, why we will always care about him and why we should punch people like Tony Parsons who say things like that, I want to think about the giving of gifts.

Aside from politics, people, dogs, whisky and Plymouth Argyle, the only things that seem to matter to Michael are books. Anyone who cared about food would have stopped eating at the Gay Hussar in Soho decades ago. It is best not to mention his dress sense. Jill, his late wife, taught him all he knows about art and, I suspect, music. But words are his domain.

He writes his name in pencil in all his books. He puts in the date, and if it is interesting the place he first read the book and on each re-reading he writes in the book again. He likes reading books in places that are appropriate to them. He underlines, comments, inscribes and consumes books - all habits learned from his father Isaac, whose collected writing he is editing for publication. "Read every damn word, the whole lot," is a characteristic phrase.

When he gives you a book, he writes in it, often at length. Most of the gifts he has given me over the past 10 years have been books, or conversations about books or politics or my kids - especially the fact that my son could wear long trousers at the age of three - "Look at that, huh, we couldn't wear them for years."

Sometimes I have been treated to a monologue, but I usually get a word in. Our friendship has been an extended seminar featuring an amazing set of introductions, with the occasional lecture full of instructions about what to read and how to read it. We have been joined along the way by Byron, Hazlitt, Heine, Swift, Montaigne, Sterne and all the rest.

It began with Bevan and the battle of the abridgement. Sean Magee, a London publishing institution, was at the time commissioning editor of Victor Gollancz and wanted to bring out a single volume edition of Michael's two-volume life of Nye Bevan - a book many have described as the greatest political biography of the age. As a sustained piece of celebratory life writing, it is matchless. The problem is that it is sustained for rather too long for contemporary taste - 1,400 pages. I had written to Foot during my PhD for an interview, but he never replied. I had spoken to him only once. Needing permission to quote from Richard Crossman, I called Foot as executor. "How did you get this number?" It was Jill in Amazonian mode. "Urrr ... Peter Hennessy gave it to me." "Well, I wish he bloody well wouldn't do that ... hold on ... MICHAEL!"

Michael gave the permission straight away. "Did Jill shout at you?" He was laughing and then he rang off. Sean now introduced us. I decided to go on the offensive: "You never replied when I wrote to you as a student and your wife shouted at me over the phone."

"What? I always reply to letters, are you sure? Jill? Shouted? Huh." Then: "Bloody good book you wrote about Gaitskell. Got the Nye bits right."

"Would have been even better if you had given me an interview."

"What ... " Then a big laugh which seemed to say: "He'll do."

My job was to cut the book in half. "Butcher the bloody thing," was Michael's opening shot, which set the tone. He fought every cut - "vandals", "brutes" - with Jill occasionally coming over to make the peace and check that I was OK. He tried to sneak sections back in again after we had agreed to cut them. (Though he now denies this.) In the end, we got it down to 650 pages. We had to cut all the epigrams from chapter heads. Ten years later, when signing a book for one of my students, he copied the opening epigram back in, muttering, "Always better with epigrams," still fighting for his words, with his words. It has been a huge privilege to work on three books with Michael, and in that time his gifts have not just been books but lessons about life.

The gifts of how to live that one gets from knowing him are first, how to be, then how to read, and finally, the importance of being yourself. The first way he teaches you how to be yourself is in his political philosophy and attitude to the sanctity of humanity. He is not a pacifist, but he puts humanity first. Giving is his natural way of being and it is infectious as a way to live. The second way is by personal example, by the way in which he has stayed himself. The makeover, reinvention, therapeutic culture we inhabit hit a granite sense of self when it came up against Michael Foot. It is shattered by his canon of ideas, writers and values. In a world in which people struggling to be individual end up being more and more like each other, he has managed to stay himself. He teaches us that it is essential to be ourselves, no matter what the world says. This is a self in which the needs of others are as important as the need to be me. It is socialist, but libertarian socialism of a utopian kind which sits more easily with his long commitment to freedoms of expression and lifestyle than with his abiding respect for trade-union restrictive practices and closed shops.

Nye Bevan used to say: here is my truth, now show me yours. This is what Michael pretends to believe. But when it comes to literature and ideas he does not really think there is another point of view worth hearing about his heroes, or a real alternative to his own position. He is the antithesis of postmodernism because he loves the words themselves and is prepared to judge them. Michael keeps the words in their place. Words are not masters of our fate but we must respect them, think them through carefully, turn them over the tongue and feel them through the heart.

Words are also his weapons of choice, more powerful than virtually anything else. His view is that if something appears in a newspaper it matters, that the world has changed and moved on. That there is a public conversation and debate that is sufficiently closely observed that a well-placed article can change its terms. In all of this, the words are central: words for love but also sometimes for hate.

Like anyone in love, I cannot understand why everyone cannot see how perfect he is. I am amazed that there are still many people who hate him. There seem to be few left who he seems to hate but he does have an instinctive, guttural, anti-Toryism that contrasts with his love of humanity. Perhaps this comes from growing up in a Liberal household in which, after his father lost his seat to Lady Astor in 1910, they used to sing:

Who's that knocking at the door?
Who's that knocking at the door?
If it's Astor and his wife, we'll stab 'em
with a knife
And they won't be Tories any more.

In turn, middle class, white English people of a certain kind can become quite vexed on the subject of Michael's politics, even as they admit to now liking Tony Benn. This is in part the tribal sectarianism of British politics. Michael has always been entirely loyal to the Labour tribe; Benn's politics left the party decades before he retired. Foot is still inside Labour fighting his corner.

They cannot forgive him for that.

Birthdays for 92-year-olds cannot avoid the subject of death. There is the physical evidence of preparation. Whenever Jill worried about money, Michael used to say, it will be OK, we'll sell some books. Each time I go around, there are more books in piles, new books, revisited books, books for review in the pages of his beloved Tribune, piles of his own books for giving to visitors, but there are also more and more spaces on the shelves as sets of books are given away. A life library is being broken up and disbursed so that the books can have new lives in new hands, but it is a sad sight nevertheless.

The whole lot and the wonderful house they sit in should be bought for the nation and preserved as a monument to one of the great political and literary lives of the past hundred years. I am sure Brown's Treasury could spare the cash. When Michael reads this last sentence he will snort: "Bollocks." Not his most eloquent debating phrase, as his late nephew Paul Foot used to comment, but often his most effective.

Happy birthday, Michael.


Craig Ryan said...

This is lovely. Thank you for posting it, and thank you to Brian for writing it.

Large Melot Please said...

Brian does an outstanding job in paying tribute to Michael Foot. He was also interviewed for the Sir Laurence Olivier narrated "World At War" on the political and social life during the war. Foot said that WW2 was the nearest the UK had come to a socialist state where people all pulled together.

I am not a socialist but I think he was a well meaning and erudite man.

Jimmy said...

Thanks for that Iain, and indeed for the tone generally.

Bird said...

A mite sentimental Iain.
I think history will judge him as a political failure.
He finally got the Labour leadership pretty late on and then lost disasterously on a red-blooded socialist ticket.
Among the plaudits that will flood in (including this sly one from Hilary Benn; "He stood for substance rather than air-brushed show". Who could he be referring to?), I'd like to know how he avoided active service in World War 2. He was 26 when it started and he lived for another 70 years.
Was he an ARP warden?
Why did he take Beaverbrook's shilling and write for some years in the right wing Daily Express?
I just heard Neil Kinnock eulagising him on the radio. Check Guido's site to see an old Spitting Image sketch to show how Kinnock, Hattersley and Co thought of what they considered to be an old verbose bore.
I'm not sure when he finally realised the Soviet Union wasn't a force for good in the world.

Jimmy said...

"I'm not sure when he finally realised the Soviet Union wasn't a force for good in the world."

Then you should probably do some reading. He was a vehement anti-Stalinist. He worked for Beaverbrook during the war as their views on appeasement coincided.

"Check Guido's site to see an old Spitting Image sketch"

I suppose you could do that instead.

John East said...

I disagreed with most of his beliefs, but always respected him as an honest socialist. He was a great speaker and although I think he was misguided he would have done his best for the nation had he become PM.
What a contrast to the venal hatred displayed towards Margaret Thatcher at every opportunity by most of the left to this day, and which will probably get even worse when she passes away.

Anonymous said...


Labour can do nothing wrong! A Campbellian?

Anonymous said...

I disagreed with almost everything he stood for ... but he was more decent, passionate and politically honest than the entire current cabinet of pygmies combined.

brian said...

Bird, is that what you need to know? what would michael say to such a question i wonder? there was nothing he would have liked more than to fight nazis. Your ignorance is clear, he hated the soviet regime. he loved freedom. i disagreed with him on most questions of macro economics but on few questions of life or literature. he was an expert on swift, byron, hazlitt and wrote wonderful books on each. my sense from your comment is that you did not know much about him beyond the narrow lense of party politics. so my advice is to find out. read foot on byron. read foot on hazlitt. read foot on swift. read any of the essays or read the speech in the falklands debate. then come back and tell us what you think of michael foot.

Anonymous said...

A lot of words about a minor player. He was a public schoolboy though.

Bob Piper said...

Iain, that is a wonderful tribute to a fine man.

For all of those who say they disagreed with everything he stood for, could I point out that he was the last Party leader in Britain to go to the electorate with a radical manifesto commitment opposed to the descent into Eurofederalism. Here you go...

"We will also open immediate negotiations with our EEC partners, and introduce the necessary legislation, to prepare for Britain's withdrawal from the EEC, to be completed well within the lifetime of the Labour government."

Michael saw the rise of the undemocratic European state whilst Margaret Thatcher, so idolised in these columns, dug us further and further into it.

Bird said...

I read a couple of Foot's books and certainly read a lot of his journalism. He was a good writer.
I was also a good speaker, if you could take the debating society mannerisms.
I was actually a fan of his in the sixties and worked for the Labour Party as a ward secretary and chairman up till the late seventies.
Then somebody turned the lights on.

Foot would have been a disaster as Prime Minister. He was a better read version of peter Sellar's union shop steward in I@m All Right Jack. ("All those cornfields and ballet in the evening").

tory boys never grow up said...

Re Bird's comments - he didn't serve in the 2nd World War since he had asthma and excezma which persisted until his 40s. He worked for Beaverbrook fro many reasons which he detailed in his essay "The case for Beelzebub" but pretty near the top of his list was that he shared Foot's opposition to appeasement. The Soviet Union slur has already been dealt with.

I would like to emphasise Brian Brivati's point about the importance of words and writing to Michael Foot. He was probably the last Party Leader who was was capable of putting across connected ideas clearly in sppech and writing. He was not one for the use of often meaningless and vacuous soundbites, which do little more than set the mood, he actually wanted to say something. Sadly, we had moved into a soundbite and presentaion is all period by the time Foot became Party Leader as he found out to his cost. Over on Guido's site we have commenters making similarly uninformed comments about Foot being an appeaser and a KGB spy - all of which say more about themselves than they could ever say about Michael Foot.

The other point to make is role that Foot made in healing the wounds within the Party when he became Leader - and it this which was the greatest service to the Labour Party and ultimately the country. He actually demonstrated to many young people in the Party at the time that it was possible to try and seek a fusion between the Party's values and their practical application - it may have taken 16 years for that work to come to fruition, but Foot played a pivotal role in starting that process.

Finally, Iain thank you for showing an appropriate level of decorum.

Unsworth said...

De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.

Goodbye, Michael Foot. I shall not miss you.

Dick the Prick said...

Being only 34 I have little direct and mature knowledge of the man and histories can only really be understood when we have aged sufficiently to fill in the gaps.

It was, as perhaps are most times, a turbulent era in British politics when he came to the fore and his conviction shouts out like a tour de force; a man on a mission.

96 is a bloody good age for a bloke and he appears to have had a cracking life, loved and loving. A sad loss but also a great political life. It's not a time for sorrow really except that Old Mortality has closed this game.

All condolences to his friends & family.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for alerting the world to BB's birthday wishes.

Linked to you here in a post which contains an excluisive picture of Foot and ne taken by Brian Brivati as it happens: