Sharing A Life With Mr Healey
Published in the Observer May 8, 1983
My day begins by reading the Man’s mail. It starts with five lunatics and Labour’s National Executive. A box of slides. Letters of anguish: five people want the Man to save the world and 40 want him to save the baby seals. A lady wants him to wear darker suits on TV. Three invitations to lunch. One says feel free to bring his political adviser, and I write “Accept this one” on it in red pencil. An old man urges him to reduce estate duty, which he abolished as Chancellor. An air letter from Hong Kong: five paragraphs of gnomic Eastern wisdom signed “A Faithful Fool”. A clutch of requests for a signed photograph.
Invitations to speak. Newcastle cannot get enough of him. Two nice letters from children (one with drawings). A stack of letters about foreign parts from pressure groups. The phrases merge: fascist repression, continuing crisis, hypocritical silence of the British government, demand for a clear statement by the party, by the Man. Multinationals. Arms sales. Liberation forces. Destabilization. Unity of democratic and progressive forces. Terror. Massacre. Refugees. Starvation. Disease. All over the world the four horsemen are saddling up.
Some heavy steps in the corridor. The door crashes open. Some hummed vaudeville music on a rising beat: Yah-Dah-de-Dah-dah-DAH. Arms flung aloft to greet the applause for the star of the show.
The Man gazes at me, puzzled. After all, I have worked for him for only 18 months. With a mighty effort of memory he says “Oh, Richard. Good.” Genuine, pleased surprise that I should be at his disposal. Pennies from Heaven.
The Man moves to his desk. The huge EIIR briefcase thuds down beside the stack of mail. “I was brilliant on TV last night.”
“You were rude and omniscient, as usual.”
“I called Howe a sado-monetarist.” He looks at the mail. He reaches at once for the slides. He opens the box and gobbles the contents, holding each slide to the light with intermittent noises of pleasure. One slide holds his eye. He is almost transfixed. I can just make out the subject, a grandchild holding a small bird.
Reluctantly he puts the slides away. “Anything in the mail?”
“Do we have a spokesman on baby seals?”
“Yes. I’ve checked. We are strongly for baby seals.”
“Good. Can you draft me a reply?”
He riffles through the rest of the mail. He gives a running commentary: “that’s old Tom… I took that up with Willie… we tried that when we were in office…” Then he starts to do his mantra. He says in a faraway voice “That goes there… that goes here… that I’m going to keep in my file… that one goes with me…” while shuffling papers from one folder to another. At length he achieves harmony.
Eventually I hear him say “These are for you.” The same words would announce a gift of flowers or Krugerrands. In fact he hands over a thick pile of newspaper cuttings. He has razored all of the English morning national papers, 10 journals, three foreign papers, two financial bulletins and yesterday’s Hansard. The cuttings are to file against future need. There are already three full filing cabinets. One for foreign parts: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe in permanent suspense. One for domestic and economic. One for the party. This contains one drawer labelled “Goodies” and two labelled “Baddies.”
“What have I got today?” He answers his own question by reading from his diary. “Lunch for the King of G-, Prime Minister’s Questions. Then I want to dictate to Harriet. Then I’ve got this new ambassador. The foreign affairs team. The union people. Then I’ve got to see Bugalugs.”
“Francis Pym” [Then Foreign Secretary] He peers intently at the next entry. “At 7 o’clock it says Dracula.”
The telephone rings. He answers as a Chinese laundry. “Hah-loh-er. No. He not here. This Steam Plessing Loom.” Then he puts the caller out of his misery. “Yes, it is me. You could tell by the brows. “ He listens and repeats for my benefit “Statement on Land Drainage in Wales. I can hardly wait.” He
shuts his eyes. “How many votes have we got tonight?”
“Several. They’re trying to push through a lot of clauses.”
“I have to write a major speech for that bloody Institute. I’ll fit it in somehow when we’re not voting.” He opens his eyes towards heaven. Palms upraised he says passionately “What a life! What a life, eh?”, then, complacently, “Rotten really.”
I indicate assent.
“Can you check a number of things? When did I last go to Cheshire and what did I do for Cheshire when we were in office? Remind me what were Carter’s proposals for deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Can you get me some stuff on the Health Service pay dispute? Oh, and can you look into the sea?”
“The Law of the Sea.”
Of course. He continues “I bought a superb record today.” I sit back to learn when he first bought the work on 78s and where, and with whom, and where he first heard it performed live, and with whom, and when he played the piano part and with whom, and what had happened to everybody.
Big Ben chimes and he breaks off. “I’ve got to do this King now.”
“That’s what Hamlet kept saying.” He grimaces and tells an anecdote about a former Danish statesman, whose name, and the point of the story, is pronounced like a mild obscenity. It is funny, but also a reminder. The Gang Boss tells the Bag Carrier: I make-a de jokes.
He leaves for lunch with the King. I start drafting a press release about Central America, about which he is to talk next day. I begin “Central America is a charnel house.” After some sentences I stop. The whole thing is too purple, too “literary”. The Man would never say it or release it. When he does issue a press release it will be plain and direct, a combination of insult, analysis and masterplan. I turn away and draft some routine letters for his signature. Requests for fraternal greetings to remote outposts of socialism. A reply to a clergyman about the Bomb. A nice reply to the child who sent the drawings. I remember to leave a big space at the bottom of the letter.
The door crashes open. A snatch of opera. “Dreadful lunch. I had Onslow.” He makes it sound like a sudden illness. [Cranley Onslow MP was a pompous junior Foreign Office minister]. The telephone rings. He answers in the Chinese laundry voice and then again owns up. He listens for a while, then says levelly: “No, it really didn’t happen like that at all.” He runs through the story of his darkest moments as Chancellor, which have acquired a thick layer of legend and shibboleth. He narrates the events with no attempt at retrospective heroism, no denial of responsibility. He hangs up and makes a face. “He’s a baddie. He won’t print any of that in his article.” He looks at the annunciator: “PM’s Questions.” He disappears. I look at the blank folders on my desk, and start writing some letters about baby seals. I try to make them sound friendly and determined. Why should people trust us to save the world if we cannot save baby seals?
He returns with a number of Labour MPs. They are discussing the subject he intends to raise that evening in a meeting with Francis Pym All the MPs are part of a different spectrum in the party from his own. All have invariably voted against him. They all have a great deal to say. One uses the phrase “worldwide solidarity with the toiling masses.” The Man scrawls notes and asks occasional questions. Then he says slowly “Obviously the government are just trying to please the Americans again. None of the Europeans are taking our line. The American policy is self-defeating because it forces people into the arms of the Soviets or the Cubans. Quite apart from the question of double standards on intervention,” he adds hastily as he sees the MPs preparing to speak again. “I’ll have a good go at Pym.” There are smiles and thanks.
The MPs leave. He looks at his watch. A moment of flurry, a touch of the White Rabbit. “I must get Harriet.” He telephones for her. “We can do a few letters but then I’ve got this ambassador. I know… rotten life, really.”
I hand over some of my letters. “That’s very nice,” he says about the reply to the child who sent the drawings. He draws some funny faces in the blank space at the bottom. “That’s a bit hard,” he says about the reply to clergyman about the Bomb. “I don’t really want to say anything like that. The real problems in this area…” I listen to the real problems. They are obstinately practical and political. Can one find a policy which will avoid blowing up the world, the NATO alliance or the Labour Party?
Harriet comes in. She has been his secretary for some years. She is married, with grown-up children.
“Hullo, gorgeous.” He blows her a kiss. Harriet looks harassed but chic. “You look mean, moody and magnificent.” But before he can talk about Jane Russell Harriet gives him some telephone messages, all requests for meetings or interviews. He replies successively “There are no votes in Peru… he’s an old bore… that is a very good constituency… I’ll put it to one side.”
He starts to dictate some letters. The running commentary resumes: “he’s a twerp… she’s forgotten what we did in office… they’re a bunch of baddies.” Quite frequently he says “I’ll put that to one side.” At one letter he stops dead and gives the history of the family in question for the last 25 years. At another letter he sighs, “This chap’s in a hopeless muddle. It’ll take years to sort him out,” but then he looks closely at the address and glances at the street map of the city he represents. Then, beaming, he dictates “Dear Mr -, I was sorry to hear about your difficulties but I am afraid I cannot help you since your MP is in fact Mr –, and I have sent your letter on to him. Heh-heh-heh.”
The piles of letters goes down slowly but there are still a lot left when the ambassador arrives.
The ambassador represents the Socialist Republic of M-. I introduce his Excellency to the Man. It is a “courtesy call” devoid of real diplomatic or political significance. I sit back to watch the performance. The Man rattles off several phrases in the M- language. He gives an account of his visits to M- just after the war. He asks after several M- personalities. He praises the Opera House and a blend of vodka. He quotes Marx and Engels, repeating the best jokes in German. The ambassador delivers an invitation to visit M-. The Man makes a wide gesture with both hands, expressing simultaneously the unimaginable delight of visiting M- and the hopeless odds against achieving it.
The ambassador takes his leave. By the time I return from showing him out the Parliamentary foreign affairs team have arrived to discuss tomorrow’s Foreign Office Oral Questions. They plough through the Order Paper, deciding how to intervene on any particular question, how to embarrass the Government, express party policy or “do something” for a friendly pressure group. The discussion on each question ends almost always with the same conclusion: “we’ll just have to see how it all goes, really.” They settle the world thus in 10 minutes. In another month’s time they will meet and decide to see how it all goes really again.
The telephone announce the arrival of the union delegation. They have travelled from the Man’s city to talk about some government proposals for privatisation. He has a strong constituency interest. I meet the delegation in the Central Lobby and give them a little guided tour on the way to the office. I point out various sights: statues, kings and Alan Clark. I show the delegation into the office. The Man leaps to his feet in a boxing stance. “Now then, young Sid”, and he aims a series of jabs at young Sid, who is about 60. There are equally expansive greetings for the rest. Young Sid hands over a long brief, from which he reads out highlights. The Man occasionally mutters commendations and asks questions: “the government gave no undertakings about jobs or pension rights?” Then he runs through several pages of financial projections. The proposed privatisation appears completely pointless, with no gains to competition, efficiency, investment or public revenue. He lets young Sid finish and asks the other members of the delegation to contribute in turn. They discuss tactics: lobbying, questions in the House, a short debate, use of the media, use of the House of Lords. Then they chat. He remembers details of spouses and children. They are well into reminiscences of 30 years ago when I remind him about the meeting with Pym.
He rises to his feet. Again there is a momentary flurry: where are the cuttings, the folder, the scrawled notes from the meeting with MPs? Then he says “Don’t bother. I’ve got all that stuff in my head.”
He says goodbye. I show the delegation out, making a point of apologizing that he had to go to see the Foreign Secretary. “Terrible week of meetings for him,” I continue, and drop a series of names, stopping just short of the Pope. Is it for their benefit or mine?
I am alone again. The telephone rings. It is a mad person. I promise the voice that the Man will do something about the Beast whose number is 666.
The door flies open again. He is humming “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
“I had a very good go at Pym. They really are in hock to the Americans. I don’t think Pym believes any of it. It’s She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
The Man stretches. “Bloody hell, I’m tired.” The phone rings and he answers. It is his wife: I can tell because he puts on the strangulated German voice. Then he sighs and says in a normal tone that he cannot come home, there is a series of votes, between which he will see people and write a major speech. He gestures that I am free to leave and I nod good night. I hear him say “I am now going to show my face in the Tea Room in a suggestive manner,” and then “I know… rotten life, really.”