TALKING TO DAD ON ELECTION DAY

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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.

‘SUCCESS IS THE ABILITY TO GO FROM FAILURE TO FAILURE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR ENTHUSIASM.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

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.

‘ONE SECRET OF SUCCESS IN LIFE IS FOR A MAN TO BE READY FOR HIS OPPORTUNITY WHEN IT COMES.’

BEMJAMIN DISRAELI

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?

ON BECOMING A WRITER: PART ONE

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Truman Capote (above) said:

‘I started to write when I was eight years old. I mean really seriously. So seriously that I dared never mention it to anybody.’ CONVERSATIONS WITH CAPOTE: LAWRENCE GROBEL (NAL BOOKS 1985).

Good for Truman!

He certainly had a head start on me. I came to writing much later. Many writers, like Capote, start making up stories from a young age but I wasn’t one of them. The only story I can remember writing as a child was for a competition set by The Puffin Club. For which I received a notebook with ‘The Posh Puffin Pad’ emblazoned on it in gold letters. I think they gave them to everyone who entered.

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I was well into my twenties before I began writing seriously.  For a long time my dream of becoming a writer absolutely terrified me. And yet in answer to the question: What do you really want to be?  it was always writing that came up and specifically writing fiction.

Why the terror?

Having a respected writer for a father probably had something to do with it. I remember reading a review of his highly acclaimed biography of Disraeli. Harold Macmillan had written of the book:

‘It is outstanding. Robert Blake is a great historian – sympathetic, exhaustive, and with a light touch withal. He has not attacked; he has defended. He has portrayed, with delicacy and penetration, the most exciting and, in a curious way, the most modern of all Victorian statesmen. A great book.’

I felt tremendously proud but also rather alarmed; it seemed like a lot to live up to. It also made me think there must be hidden depths to the shy, courteous man who sent up smoke signals of burnt toast every morning.

I did not enjoy my degree and reading out essays in tutorials was always an embarrassing form of torture.  By the time I left university I was right off writing. I was right off everything.

And so, uncertain how to pursue my dream of writing fiction, I decided to make myself as miserable as possible by training to be a solicitor.

To be continued…