Harold Macmillan and Robert Blake feasting!

Elections – how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Well, maybe not quite so much now as at the very beginning but basically it would be true to say that I do love an election. This has very little to do with an innate love of politics. I am as likely as the next person to be cynical and depressed about the state of the nation. My love of elections has more to do with talking to my father. He died in 2003 but, as we all know, we do not stop talking to our parents simply because they’re dead.

He was the politics don at Christ Church College Oxford for many years and that is a college with a very proud political heritage. Of the twenty-six prime ministers produced by Oxford thirteen came from Christ Church. He taught people who went on to be politicians and political journalists. He wrote books on politicians. His first book was on Bonar Law – The Unknown Prime Minister. He then edited the volume of Anthony Eden’s diaries that covered Suez. Next came a hugely well received biography of Disraeli followed by A History of the Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher. So politics  was what he did for a living. When he was younger there had been the suggestion that he become an MP. However my mother did not think this would suit his personality or perhaps she did not fancy being an MPs wife. Sensible woman!

Disraeli by Robert Blake

Disraeli by Robert Blake

My father was a very nice man and he was also viscerally conservative. He had considerable charm and generosity along with a wry sense of humour but small talk was not really his thing. Like many experts in their field he was used to people asking him questions and then answering. He lectured for a living, he wrote articles for papers and he appeared on radio and TV. So one way to connect with him was to ask him political questions. He would talk. I would listen. Some of it went in. It wasn’t necessarily that I was always interested exactly but I think I realised from a very young age that it was a way to engage his attention. So if that involved asking him about the single transferable vote when he was Chairman of a Hansard Committee on Electoral Reform so be it.

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising champagne!

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising Moet et Chandon champagne!

My childhood was spent surrounded by politicians, both real and antique. My mother was not a woman to pass an antique shop without going in and my father’s interests became hers. Plates, cups, pressed glass were all covered in politicians. I knew what Disraeli looked like from a young age because there he was hanging on the wall and on the cover of my father’s book. I also knew that if I’d been a boy I would have been called Benjamin after him. That focuses the mind. I went on to meet all kinds of politicians in the flesh: Alec Douglas-Home appeared at the back door one day like a very charming wraith; Ted Heath had a huge amount of medals across his chest and a very plummy voice. Later, as PM, his arrival was preceded by sniffer dogs and the kind of red telephone that Almodovar would have approved of. My mother had flu during that visit and was, if not A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a woman who could not care less if the cake forks had gone missing. ‘Cake forks?’ she said grimly from her sick bed. ‘He can use his fingers.’ Harold Macmillan, very elderly and very handsome, declined to watch himself on television but stayed talking to my mother. Michael Foot was a rarity in being a Labour politician but he had a fascination with Disraeli so he and my father got on like a house on fire, the archetypal odd-couple.



So Dad loved elections. He only missed one campaign in its entirety and that was the first one Thatcher won in 1979. He’d been offered a place to write abroad and we flew out of the country on the day the election was announced and the pilot told the passengers the result on the plane as we flew back. As I remember it, the whole plane burst into applause. Ignorance was bliss. I was about fifteen at the time and I remember being pleased that my father had cheered up. While we were away he was supposed to be writing a book, Disraeli’s Grand Tour, and I suppose some writing was done but he did also exhibit all the signs of a man wishing he was somewhere else. He was not a man who travelled very well at the best of times. In the mornings there would a feverish search for English newspaper and in the evenings he became rather morose. Cut off from friends, London life and club gossip he pined to be back in the centre of things. The company of the BBC World Service, me and my mother was little compensation. As soon as we arrived back in England, he was a man transformed.



So on May 7th when I use that stubby pencil to vote I will be missing my father. And I will be reminding myself that there was a time before google when there were experts who could access extraordinary amounts of information not at the press of a button but from their own elegant and incisive minds. I will also remember fondly the short period of time (Iraq war onwards) when our political views coincided (although for entirely different reason) in a hatred of Tony Blair.

Will I stay up? Usually I intend to but then get driven to sleep by pure boredom and irritation around 2 o’clock. However over the next few days I will be having many conversations with my Dad.

  • Do you like Cameron or do you think he’s just a PR man at heart?
  • What coalition would you prefer? Tory-Lib, Lab-SNP, Tory minority, Labour minority etc…etc…
  • Do you think the Tories will vote tactically in Sheffield to keep Clegg in?
  • If Clegg and Danny Alexander lose their seats then who negotiates a coalition?
  • Can you really imagine the blond buffoon as PM? You can’t can you? Please tell me you can’t.
  • Do you think after another hung parliament we’ll finally get some electoral reform?

I wonder what he’ll reply?

What do/did you talk to your Dad about?


The Provost's Lodgings, Queen's College, Oxford

The Provost’s Lodgings, The Queen’s College, Oxford

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live now? The flesh and blood people you live with – your community of friends, husband, wife or partner? The place you raised or are raising your children? The bricks and mortar of the house or flat? The surrounding city? The country? Your childhood home? The people you were raised by? Mother, father, grandparents, brothers and sisters? Over this festive season lots of people will have been travelling home with all sorts of expectations and with varied outcomes. Coming home is the central theme of The Odyssey and if you think a bit about what home means to you and how complex that is and how the meaning changes over time, you’ll see why the dramatic possibilities of the ‘homecoming’ have been so popular with film makers, playwrights and novelists ever since.

The University Church, St Mary's and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

The University Church of St Mary’s and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Recently, I went back to the city that was my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, Oxford. The last time I was there was for a literary festival in my old college. Before that it was for my father’s memorial service. I don’t go back very often. I walked around on a sunny, bitterly cold, winter morning. I sat in a restaurant, eating on the exact same spot I had come to with my father to set up my first bank account. I listened to the bell of Tom Tower ringing 101 times at 21.05 pm. I had breakfast in The Grand Café which is, I think, on the site of the old Co-Op shop, where I was sent to get milk by my mother. Today this café has golden plaster, Jean Cocteau arms, reaching out of the walls, holding candlesticks, and a sign on the wall saying it was the earliest coffee-house in England. I was not chased up and down by a fat woman in a nylon coat, crackling with static electricity, who thought I was going to steal her sweets.

The Queen's College library, Oxford

The Queen’s College Library, Oxford

This time I enjoyed my visit and I marveled at the beauty of the city. Was I really brought up here, I wondered, and what effect did that have on me? My memories were no longer tinged with grief. It’s only taken thirty years! Oxford, I have come to the conclusion, is not an easy city to leave. When I was twenty-one, I was naive enough to think it was as simple as getting on the bus to London.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

The second half of the Odyssey is given up to what happens to Odysseus once he returns to Ithaca nineteen years after he set off to the Trojan War. One of the first things is a spectacularly flirtatious scene with Athene ‘of the flashing eyes’, who first appears to Odysseus as a beautiful, young male shepherd. Odysseus immediately lies to her. He can’t help himself. It’s his nimble wits. Does she mind? No, she does not. Instead she is highly appreciative. She caresses him, turns back into a beautiful woman and says

‘What a cunning knave it would take to beat you at your tricks! Even a god would be hard put to it.’ 

Later she adds

‘How like you to be so wary! And that is why I cannot desert you in your misfortune: you are so civilized, so intelligent, so self-possessed.’

Magdalen College tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Magdalen College Tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

You see? Very, very flirtatious. Athene – get a grip, girl! Fortunately, she does just that by turning him into a withered old man. It’s a disguise to protect him but I have the feeling she’s also reasserting her power over him just a little.

One of the most touching scenes in the whole book occurs shortly afterwards when Odysseus is reunited with his son, Telemachus, who was a babe in arms when he went off to war. I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole book


‘… Telemachus softened at last, flung his arms round his noble father’s neck and burst into tears. And now they both broke down and sobbed aloud without a pause like birds bereaved, like the sea-eagle or the taloned vulture when villagers have robbed the nest of their unfledged young. So did these two let the piteous tears run streaming from their eyes.’ 

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

This is also an example of something else that I love in the book. Men are allowed to express powerful emotions by crying and this is not viewed in any way as unmanly. Odysseus cries a great deal. Given what he goes through this is not at all surprising. He is also a mighty warrior, ‘a sacker of cities’ but there is no suggestion that his masculinity is compromised by his tears. The Greeks, it seems to me, were obviously a lot better adjusted around manly tears than we are!

Do you have a favourite homecoming scene in film, theatre or books?