My day with Tony Benn: baked beans, tea and sympathy
Tony Benn was a man who dined modestly – and never came to terms with his first-class status
TONY BENN, the Labour politician who has died aged 88, was in his heyday a divisive and mistrusted figure. He was reviled on the Right, standing in the eyes of many Tory voters as the embodiment of State socialism not far removed from Communism: and he split his own Labour party when he challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981. He was held responsible by many for Labour’s dismal electoral failures during the Thatcher years. He lost that challenge for the soul of the party by a hair’s breadth.
In Private Eye he was ‘Bennatollah’, and the Sun, having consulted an American shrink, dubbed him ‘Bonkers Benn’. But his style and humour were widely enjoyed by the public. When, he was asked on a TV show just before we met, had the Labour Party ceased to be a socialist party? ‘Never was’, he replied, ‘though there are some socialists in the party just as there are some Christians in churches’.
To those who knew him personally, he was (for politics) a man of often unusual kindness and courtesy. While he was MP (for Chesterfield) in the 1990s – by this time no longer the firebrand of a decade earlier – I profiled him for the Telegraph Magazine. When we travelled to Chesterfield together, I came upon him at St Pancras station puffing his pipe and happily reading the Telegraph itself, a paper that had once consistently attacked him.
I caught a whiff of his St Bruno’s pipe tobacco before I spotted him seated near the tea stall, dressed for our trip in a blue anorak and an ancient red and brown American hunting cap. This was long before St Pancras had been transformed into an International station, and there was something reassuringly old-fashioned about this peaceful tableau. Benn, the firebrand of popular imagination, had become an avuncular, thoroughly English, figure.
St Pancras, Benn assured me, was sometimes enlivened by the presence of actors in furs and top hats filming episodes of Poirot. Then it was that kind of station. Benn swallowed his tea – a teetotaller, he was one of the great tea drinkers, admitting to having consumed up to 18 pints a day – and tapped his briefcase which contained a Thermos of further tea, just in case of emergencies.
By chance Lord Longford, who had sat with Benn in Harold Wilson’s cabinets, was waiting for the same train – a great prison reformer, Longford was travelling to Leicester jail to visit an inmate. We exchanged chat, and then Longford, by then an eccentric, wild-looking man with unkempt hair, made his way to the cheap end of the train while Benn, socialist and man of the people, happily took his place in a first class carriage. No slumming there.
I had called him to ask what sort of ticket I should buy, and he had explained rather apologetically about his first-class status, saying that he received a warrant and needed the peace and space in which to work on his way to and from the Midlands. But he was slightly ill-at-ease: reconciling socialist principles with a middle-class lifestyle is a perennial problem for politicians of the Left.
Benn loved gizmos: he carried an early, massive mobile phone and, as soon as we were seated, he whisked out a tape-recorder. It was, he said, a habit from the days when he got a hard time from the press. By the mid-1990s the recordings were to add – along with every scrap of paper accumulated each day – to his massive archive. Benn was a notable diarist. “If you file your wastepaper basket for 50 years, you build a public library,” he told me.
He wore a National Union of Mineworkers’ tie – he was honorary member 001, as proud of that association as he was to have sat in cabinets. And he ribbed the ticket collector over the then new fashion on trains of calling ‘passengers’ as ‘customers’. Soon, he said, clergy would be addressing congregations as ‘dearly beloved customers’. Benn prided himself on calling a spade a spade.
In Chesterfield we took a taxi to his flat, two rooms behind a small hotel. He unloaded the groceries he had bought at St Pancras: white bread, cheese, three oranges, bananas, margarine, two cartons of milk and several tins of baked beans.
Benn then opened a housing association project and later held a ‘surgery’, listening patiently for five hours to sad and impoverished people. Benn had the perfect touch: therapist to a lonely man, granddad to a toddler, daughter of an unmarried mother. By the end he had flagged slightly, and I offered to buy a sandwich.
He insisted that we return to his flat, where he laid two plates and served baked beans on toast, cheese, banana and orange juice. He offered wine, which I declined, fearing that a Benn bottle had probably been open and untouched for a very long time. At an evening meeting in the Labour Club I did fortify myself with a pint, while Benn, sitting quietly in a corner, sipped Pepsi-Cola.
He was tired (he was nearly 70), but insisted on walking me through Chesterfield to my hotel, proudly pointing out the town’s landmarks. At reception he urged the hotel to take good care of his ‘visitor’, before setting off to trudge back to his lonely flat. I couldn’t then think of another MP who would take such trouble.
The last time we met in London, he offered me a lift in his little red car. I had my own car, so declined. Off he shot, turning (inevitably) left at the end of the street, thus leaving my life as he has now left the national stage. Whatever grief he once caused the country and his own party, many, many will miss his charm and attentiveness.