AS our columnist Illtyd Harrington, the former deputy leader of the GLC and the architect of London’s freedom pass for the elderly, snapped at the hypocrisy and self-inflated egos he could see in politicians in all parties, his waspish articles may not have been to the taste of all. You may call him a bit of a bitch. I suspect he might have liked it if you did. But his colourful sketches, roasts and anecdotes in his As I Please column, when he was on form, kept many entertained and I’m glad he got so many written down before he passed away last week, aged 84.
One minute he’d be reminiscing on a party with Bing Crosby and Twiggy, then next he’d be taking down Jack Straw or tracing the trail of his own life back to Merthyr Tydfil. So here are just a few excerpts from his CNJ column; bitchy, sometimes, yes, but very often nailing the point. I wish I had been on a fly on the wall when he woke in a hungover haze in New York to find jewelled bowls of cocaine in front of him.
On John Prescott and Alastair Campbell
Recently I woke in alarm from a nightmare and quickly realised that I was awake already. John Prescott was everywhere: Desert Island Discs, in the Sunday Mirror (“John punches hard”) and on Newsnight. John told Ed his leader to stop appearing in his shirtsleeves. Can this be the same stolid John who watched approvingly as Blair addressed the world outside Number 10 without his coat, clutching a mug of tea with “A present from Alastair Campbell” inscribed on it?
This, then, is apparently the key to progress – a coat.
To add to my confusion, the scowling Alastair has taken to smiling again, so his elderly neighbours should be warned not to venture out after twilight. Is there any political reality confronting this government?
On the value of Question Time.
I am not a level-minded person when it comes to Question Time. There is more to a quiz evening in an old people’s lounge.
The participants are, for me, like a troupe of toothless, doddery, Rottweilers.
Why don’t they put Baroness Williams back in the window of the Old Curiosity Shop and keep Melanie Phillips in her secure cell at the Daily Mail? And Dimbleby simpering and smooching. It sends the average citizen to a cup of hot Ovaltine.
They stifle the voice of the people in this land.
Reviewing Jack Straw’s memoirs
Soon the parliamentary gift shop will be selling Jack Straw weather vanes. This man is weighed down by his self-importance and his formidable achievements. On the front cover his newly published memoir there is a face rather like an unfinished gargoyle. This is a man steeped in self-righteousness.
Vanity is not a characteristic he admits to but if you turn to page 361 he writes without a blush on his grey cheeks: “I could have prevented the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iran-Iraqi war.” Presumably using his legal expertise, since he wasn’t in government at the time. After one and a half million people had died. But in his own words: “I could have stopped it.”
On winding up Margaret Thatcher in a museum lift.
Five years later I was in the municipal museum in Venice. Refusing to walk any further, I summoned a rickety old lift. The grille opened and there she was for all the world like an irritated housewife at Brent Cross.
“It’s full,” she said autocratically and up she went. I waited and pressed the bell. The cage came back and a very irritated Mrs Thatcher snarled from behind clenched teeth. “Not you again.” Later I met one of her protection squad who told me that in the lift she had said: “Is that that awful bearded Welshman from the GLC?”
I felt my day had not been in vain.
We met again after the Cenotaph Armistice Day at a reception in the Home Office. I was for once sartorially impeccable. She looked me up and down like the school matron. “Nice to see that the GLC can at least turn you out well.”
I blushed in shame at her approval.
Watching Andrew Neil and the guests on This Week talk about poverty
They concluded their midnight thoughts when Neil sarcastically commiserated with Diane Abbott – at one time she sat on the couch with Portillo – who had lost her job as shadow health minister. It was rather hard-nosed of him then to invite her on to Annabel’s, a very expensive club in Berkeley Square, where champagne was on offer.
What fascinated me after this non-discussion on poverty was the expensive hairdos that the three men supported. I rang a friend of mine who was a West End hair-stylist. They looked to her to be in the £100 class.
A vignette from Brighton
A wonderful incident happened to me on Sunday. I got marooned on a traffic island with an old lady, as it seemed that every available policeman in Sussex was hurtling past me with dogs and horses. I expressed my surprise. The unflappable 90-year old assured me, “It’s English Heritage having a meeting.” Unfortunately, it was part of the infamous English Defence League.
Reflecting on the living museum that is Camden Town
Camden High Street is one of London’s enduring routes. It bangs a drum for life; action, melodrama, con-merchants, a medieval market, a place where things can happen suddenly, a caravan of fascinating events. They ought to declare it an area of outstanding historical and cultural interest.
Oxford Street is a cattle stockade, while Kensington High Street is still grieving the death of Queen Victoria. Camden High Street can still spring upon the unwary like a leopard.
At a party with Bing Crosby and Twiggy
Bing had studied law nd was no slouch, although it took me some time to explain to him what London Government was. The intellectual temperature dropped to freezing point when Twiggy, the skinny model from Neasden, joined in.
Bing asked her: “Well Illtyd is a socialist. What are you?” She chirped in her nasal north-west London voice: “Ooh I dunno. I’ve got a lot of money, I suppose I gotta be a Tory.”
Conversation seized up.
A peek inside the Merthyr Express, and thoughts on Timothy Evans, the wrongly-executed man played by John Hurt in 10 Rillington Place
Late in the November gloom of 1949 I wandered into the newsroom of the Merthyr Express – a rather grand term as we only had one room. The editor allowed me to function there at a very low level. “Harrington,” he tried and failed to be authoritative. “Go over to the police station and try hard to concentrate on finding out what’s happening.”
A man originally from our valley had returned unannounced from his pathetic accommodation in Rillington Place off Ladbroke Grove. The Merthyr constabulary was not given to quick thought and no one in the nick took much notice of him and his mental capacity.
He’d said his baby had been murdered. In his early 20s, he looked bewildered and desperate. He was eventually charged with murder. Four months later he was executed by Albert Pierrepoint assisted by one Syd Demley with gruesome ceremony in Pentonville. It is said that his last words to the hangman were: “I didn’t do it Mr Pierrepoint.”
Watching Ed Miliband at a Labour Party conference in Liverpool
Liverpool is a nation state which loves an argument. Unlike the delegates trapped in the security bubble who only showed signs of life when the hallowed name of Tony Blair came up. They booed. No one was ejected for heckling; no 90-year-old was rushed to the door for dissent as happened in Brighton.
Miliband, I thought, had misread his autocue: “Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are great men.” Blow me down. One has gathered more wealth than Croesus. The other is a violent psychopath with a retinue from the Clockwork Orange, if Alastair Darling is to be believed.
Ed said later he believed in capitalism but as a socialist democrat. You could trust him on the school run, yet he has the fatal flaw in the leadership so brilliantly held by Tony – duplicity and arrogance. He has his hand on his heart and even a lachrymose eye.
On drug laws.. and being chastened for overindulging.
In 1975 James Callaghan was Home Secretary and he invited myself and others to a weekend retreat in a large country house. I palled up with Bill Deedes who was then the editor of the Daily Telegraph, a sage and worldly man. We were joined on a short walk by the chief constable of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. He was one of those almost military policemen, and he told us in a firm voice that he would stamp out drugs at the forthcoming Isle of Wight festival, a disastrous prediction. If you get time, go to Glastonbury and smell the air.
I remember once being rebuked by a hostess for drinking too much at a party. In the cold light of a New York morning I felt chastened by the verbal lashing, until I saw the bowls of cocaine in the dining room, each with an individual spoon made by New York’s top jewellers.
On the lack of wit in politics
Parliamentarians are all graduates in the school of deference. There is no time in their hallowed surroundings for anger or contempt. Whatever has happened to wit, irony or sarcasm? It has all been swept up into a chocolate box – sweet, cloying, but ineffective. Everyone agrees not to disturb the peace.
As in the current London theatre, no one moves or heckles in spite of appalling performances or content.
It got so bad during the last election that party leaders only appeared in front of selected groups. Politics has lost its colour. In the 18th-century parliament, the obnoxious Earl of Sandwich yelled at John Wilkes: “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or the pox.” To which Wilkes, the great libertarian, snapped back: “That depends on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.” That would have been unacceptable in the restraints of a modern House of Commons and yet these are momentous times.
Can you believe that Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions chose The Sunday Times brazenly to justify their second attack on the welfare state? Few families on basic benefits, I feel, can afford £2.50 for The Sunday Times to read of their grey future.
It started one wintry evening in 1976 when I was about to leave County Hall. My PA ran after me and said: “We’re in trouble. Can you stop and host the Russian ambassador Viktor Popov and the first secretary at a Festival Hall concert?” This I did reluctantly, but I knew Popov was a funny man who was sophisticated and had enjoyed his years at St Anthony’s College Oxford – more perestroika than politbureau.
Come the interval his excellency suddenly rose and begged my pardon: there was an emergency. Whereupon he and his party departed in haste. I later found out that one of his military attachés was pursuing a guardsman in the hope of procuring secrets in the toilets of a Chelsea public house.
Watching Jimmy Carr and co on 10 o’clock Live
I got angry with my television set for accidentally tuning into Channel 4’s 10 O’clock Live programme which has evolved into a platform for sneering synthetic cynics and an audience which responds like a cuckoo clock.
The object of their contempt was George Clooney the film star and they speculated on his “true” reasons for leading the protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington.
What a pity that these four shallow inquisitors did not comment on the man by Clooney’s side – a very elderly grey-haired figure with an incorruptible face. It was Clooney’s father, who had stood up for others when Senator Joseph McCarthy hit Hollywood. That’s where the Clooneys get their sense of social responsibility from – tried and tested.