My friend Footy : A review

Tawfiq Chahboune

 

ICONOCLASTIC FRIEND

 

Has anyone noticed that there is nothing in the Observer? And that nearly every single one of their "writers" are not worth reading. A pad of blank paper is more engrossing than the unobservant Observer. Even before the brilliant Richard Ingrams departed for the Independent, I would mutter to myself, "Where's the news in this bloody newspaper? One or two good articles isn't worth buying a Sunday paper for." Anyway, what are Ob readers now left with? Other than Nick Cohen, who is, I must say, another intriguing journalist when he's not on another silly "Islamo-fascism" bender, which is all too often these days, well, there is… nothing. Occasionally there is the shockingly bad Andrew Anthony - someone so fantastically awful that I make a special effort to search him out. In the Ob's sister paper, the Guardian, Anthony writes a "Milady's Boudoir"-style column about, and what can only be described as, "What the Well-dressed Man is Wearing" - and apparently it's a black corduroy jacket and comfortable underpants. I've always thought that Anthony was modern journalism's answer to Bertie Wooster. Now there's irrefutable proof!

 

I like Ingrams's iconoclastic and ruthless style. So I was not surprised to read the following from Ingrams on his departure from an eighteen-year stint at the Observer: "And it's a bit of a thing to write for a paper that you don't read any more" because there is nothing in it. Roger Alton, Observer editor, replied: "On the whole, when people leave a newspaper, they go out with grace, rather than putting the boot in." Well done, Ingrams, but he really ought to have put the other boot in too. One is especially heartened to learn that one of the reasons Ingrams left was because of the Observer's attitude to the war. I was even more cheered to find this Ingrams quote: "I think Julie Burchill's a frightful monster. I find it a great mystery that people pay to print what she writes." Has anyone ever put it better? 

 

There are few columns able to match Ingrams's perceptive and witty take on the week's events. His libertarian outlook, coupled with his withering contempt, has me in agreement, usually laughing, most of the time, although he does write the very occasional nonsense. To many a fellow "conservative's" chagrin, his honesty and instinctive compassion for the underdog shines through - Palestine and Northern Ireland are but two. Whether he is naturally so inclined, or has been infected by the character of a "Dave Spart"-like fellow is an open question. (Ian Hislop claims that Dave Spart is based on Paul Foot, and something he took in tremendous good humour.) I therefore looked forward to reading Ingrams's memoir of his late friend, the incomparably great Paul Foot. Entitled "My Friend Footy", this is, and Ingrams is perfectly candid about it, a personal, in some ways intimate, memoir, not a biography, of his dearest friend. Naturally, at just over a hundred pages, this can only touch on the life of a fascinating and brilliant man.

 

Here is the point where the author usually says something about being an interested partisan and is writing with bias. My feelings are best summed up in a letter Flaubert sent in 1872 (from Julian Barnes' enchanting book Flaubert's Parrot, which also has an alluring list of eerie comparisons between Emma Bovary and Eleanor Marx): "When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him." And this review allows me some revenge. As some will know and testify, Paul was one of my great heroes, and I find it almost impossible to find fault in him. I would later have the great honour of being able to call him a friend and comrade. There are many things I can't help but remember from the day of Paul's funeral. Other than what Clare, his delightful partner, said to me, the one other thing I'll not easily forget, as it moved me deeply, was something Ingrams alludes to early in the book. Ingrams gave an exceptionally beautiful eulogy. Naturally disturbed, with voice breaking and holding back tears, Ingrams said in reference to Paul's atheism: "There is nothing now to stop us now from praying that our beloved Footy may rest in peace." And though those with a religious persuasion may wish him peace (unless, that is, you are the demented Telegraph obituary writer who couldn't help but give the great man one last kick, although, I'm sure, Paul would have been cheered by this), the apposite words on his gravestone, opposite Marx's bizarre grave/monument, rally us, his comrades, to something different: "Rise like lions after slumber…" No peace without victory.

 

"BLOODY GOOD STUFF"

 

It is unfortunate that Ingrams writes very little or nothing at all about Paul's phenomenal books. There is nothing on two of Foot's early great works, Immigration and Race in British Politics and The Rise of Enoch Powell. These two books are classics. The latter is as devastating a job as one can wish for on Powell. Neither is there anything on Red Shelley nor The Vote, Paul's final book, which took him a lifetime to write. The only books Ingrams refers to are those dealing with miscarriages of justice: Murder on the Farm, The Helen Smith Story, Who Killed Hanratty? and Who Framed Colin Wallace? At the launch of The Vote, a magisterial book of scope and intellect, Paul's son Matt told the following hilarious story. Matt and the rest of the Foot family were forever catching Paul reading his own work. He would reply in mitigation: "This is bloody good stuff. I've forgotten how good my stuff is!"

 

Given how much time Paul spent on miscarriages of justice, it is appropriate that Ingrams highlights them. Ingrams does retrieve, to some extent, Paul's "tarnished" reputation on the Hanratty case. Recent DNA evidence seems to settle the Hanratty case in the way Paul least wanted: guilty as charged. No ifs or buts. We are, however, reminded by Ingrams that Hanratty had a solid alibi - he was many miles away at the time of the crime - and that, DNA or not, the Hanratty case is not as clear as some suggest. It is testimony to Paul's journalism that after more than forty years of astounding journalism, the Hanratty case is the one thing Paul's detractors lunge for and call upon as evidence to slur him with. I'll have to spell this out slowly: If Hanratty is not at the scene of the crime when the crime is committed, one is naturally inclined to believe that maybe, just maybe, he didn't do it. As ever, Paul put the case forward with devastating wit: "Even a Lord Justice of Appeal can work out that if you are in Rhyl, you cannot commit a murder near Bedford." Evidently, this is too much for the dim-witted Foot-haters to take in. A miscarriage of justice Ingrams does not refer to is that of Patrick Nicholls, who spent twenty-three years in prison for the murder of a woman who had had a heart attack. As ever, Paul's scathing humour was in evidence: "Up to now we've had people convicted of things that they didn't do. And now we've got someone convicted of something that didn't happen. I mean, that, I think, is a new phase of British injustice."

 

Nevertheless, Ingrams does refer to Who Framed Colin Wallace? It would be an injustice to call this a staggering book. I can't think of another British book in the same class, although Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within is the nearest competitor. Dark Alliance and Whiteout are two almost comparable books, but they are concerned with American political intrigue. Ingrams sums up the whole Colin Wallace machinations rather nicely: "But to this day the extraordinary story of how British Intelligence tried to undermine a democratically elected government in 1974 has never been officially investigated and probably never will be."  Wallace, an intelligence officer who ran the military's dirty tricks operation in Northern Ireland, refused to work on black propaganda against the British government. He soon found himself in prison for murder.

 

Of Foot's interest in his case, Wallace said: "Paul Foot was well known to me from my time in the security services." Paul would later write: "I became fascinated in particular by people who were brought up to believe in God, Queen and Country, but who were treated shamelessly by all three." And Wallace's case is the archetype. Colin Wallace later said of his case: "By taking on my case he was taking on the intelligence community and the whole of Whitehall." And that "by January 1990," he added, "Margaret Thatcher was forced to turn by Paul Foot's book on my story." Foot had helped overturn yet another miscarriage of justice and thus instrumental in forcing out of the government one of the funniest excuses in political history. After Foot, Wallace and sympathetic MPs forced the government to hold an unwanted inquiry, the MoD conveniently concluded that there had been "a total discontinuity of collective memory" concerning Wallace's case.

 

Arthur Koestler once said that success could be measured if one's books were still read a century hence. Is it possible that historians will overlook The Vote or Who Framed Colin Wallace? Is it conceivable that literary critics will not take note of Red Shelley? For sociologists to ignore Immigration and Race in British Politics?

 

As Ingrams is not claiming to be writing anything but a personal memoir, although he curiously underestimates the degree to which socialism shaped his friend, he can hardly be criticised for not giving a detailed discussion of Foot's books. The only mild criticism one can level at Ingrams is his unfathomable exclusion of Foot's remarkable discovery of a planned peace treaty between Argentina and the UK. Having flown to Lima, Paul discovered that the Peruvian government had acted as mediator between the belligerents in a peace treaty regarding the Falklands. Nevertheless, on that very day the treaty was to be signed, Thatcher gave the order to torpedo the Belgrano - and the peace - knowing full well the consequences. We have recently learnt that Thatcher threatened to nuke Buenos Aires. After ensuring war, the Thatch was content to bring about a nuclear holocaust. If that's not madness, I don't know what is. Nonetheless, this is a lovely introduction for those who know very little about the finest journalist of his generation.      

 

"DEGREE OF NERVE"

 

Ingrams is an extremely lucid writer, appropriately enough for a fan and biographer of William Cobbett. Like "Goldenballs", Ingrams's engrossing book on James "Up Your Hacienda" Goldsmith's attempt to destroy Private Eye, My Friend Footy zips along. It retells some of the quite extraordinary stories in the Foot-Ingrams partnership (if it can be called a partnership) that changed the face of British journalism. After all, as impossibly brilliant as Footy was, one does need an editor with nerves of steel to print what Paul was dredging up.

 

What is lost on many of us today is how unimaginably, impossibly abysmal journalism was in the sixties - imagine Andrew Marr being considered a radical. How shocking, unnerving even, it was to read someone like Foot: "in retrospect, it is sometimes hard to realise the degree of nerve it required to write some of these stories," Ingrams notes. And that's putting it mildly. Claud Cockburn's The Week, Private Eye's "forerunner", had long since disappeared. Cockburn's description of the thirties can be extended to what Footy encountered: "They have produced a situation in which the merest squeak has the effect of a scream." Like Cockburn, however, Footy didn't squeak - he roared.

 

Ingrams, to his credit, is altogether too modest at times about his own bravery. Can it be controversial to say that Foot was the finest journalist of his generation? Indeed, is he not one of the finest to have ever lived? (At this level of brilliance, the differences between an Orwell, Cobbett, Reed, I.F. Stone, Fisk, Pilger, or the marvellous Cockburns, Claud, Alexander and Patrick, become a matter of personal preference.) If one can say that about Footy, what should be said of the editor-friend who never buckled, and stood by Paul in court? Remember, this was a time of nauseating deference. A time when one could be physically assaulted in the street for saying something mildly critical of the Queen (Gawd bless 'er). Indeed, Ingrams could have lived out a most comfortable life writing satire.

 

One is, in some ways, a little surprised to learn that Paul was not always so great. There was a time when he was just another public schoolboy and unimpressive Oxford undergraduate. Somewhere along the lines, however, his supremely talented school friends - Ingrams, Rushton and Booker - would be left in his wake (apologies for the hackneyed phrase, Paul), as Footy overturned, almost single-handedly, the utter drivel passing for journalism in Britain. His friends would have to settle for being merely supremely gifted. Foot would be in an altogether different class - and in my estimation, a class of one. By the way, can you imagine sharing a class with four of the sharpest wits in the past fifty years? Just ponder Foot's possibly unique range: reporting (and the range here is breathtaking), essays, reviews, political pamphlets, political and sociological books, books on miscarriages of justice, political history, a biography-cum-commentary on Shelley. Other brilliant journalists were capable of doing some of the above. No other journalist, as far as I know, was, or has been, capable of all. Ingrams put it more succinctly: "As a journalist he was irreplaceable. No one could rival the quantity of his output or his ability to turn his mind to any subject." It's a pity Paul never quite get the grasp of modern technology: he had a mobile phone he couldn't use and access to email that he had no idea of how to use. Matt Foot once told a story how Paul looked in awe at a fax he was receiving, finally asking: "How do they get the paper down the wire?"  

 

Nick Cohen called him a saint. Even though Cohen has slightly lost the plot, Footy refused to give up on him. I remember a meeting when someone really tore into Cohen and Francis Wheen as imperial warmongers and, using rather fruity language, some other things too. Footy wouldn't have any of the insults (imperial warmonger was not an insult, just a fact): it was fair to criticise them for their inaccurate and misleading journalism; to litter rude insults at them was unacceptable. To me, though, Paul always seemed more like a prophet. He had the tablets on which the laws of journalism were written. Naturally, he wandered in the wilderness for a long time and, though he could see it, would never enter the promised land.

 

Incidentally, it is, shamefully, something so infrequently alluded to, but Paul had a coruscating sense of humour. Anyone who knew Paul will smile knowingly at Ingrams's description of "his love of jokes and second-hand books - jokes especially." Like eating a doughnut and not licking your lips, or coming across a Stewart Grainger film not described as a "swashbuckling adventure", it was impossible to be in Paul's company and not end up falling about laughing. I know that I will never again experience laughter like it. And as for the books, anyone who visited his house will have a mental image of Paul's prodigious reading. Put it this way, imagine adding the normal contents of a house to a large lending library. In order to grasp Paul's voracious reading, look to Red Shelley. Foot references the following book: History of the Trades Council and the Trade Union Movement in Aberdeen (1939). Not just any history of trade unionism! But specifically that of…Aberdeen! I mean, really, why would anyone read that?

 

EARLY DAYS: A LIBEL WRIT!

 

We pass quickly from their years at Shrewsbury School to Oxford. In doing so, however, Ingrams quotes from an interesting letter Paul sent to his old headmaster about his old school and public schools in general: "I remember far more good than evil. Journalist yes. Socialist yes. But always an upholder of the Public Schools. We may find each other in that last ditch." I'd imagine this letter was written at a very early stage of Foot's socialist journey.   

 

While an undergraduate, Paul received his first libel writ as editor of the Oxford magazine Parson's Pleasure for printing a rather silly slur he and Ingrams thought would be taken in good humour. Foot learnt his lesson (every meeting with Paul I had, had him gently rebuking me for alleged sadistic excesses). Not long after, upon taking the editorship of the university magazine Isis, Foot apparently drove an Oxford don to the verge of mental breakdown by reviewing in print her rather dreadful lectures. Having decided to enter journalism, Paul found himself in Glasgow at the Daily Record. Here he came in contact with Trotskyists and anarchists. Given what we now know of Paul, this, of course, was a life-changing moment, to say the least, more so when one considers the fact that Foot was as Establishment as one is likely to get. Or as Dave Spart called him: "a total scion of the aristocracy" - with the scion producing "skyon". It was also the cause of a change of hairstyle. Apparently, Foot could not continue to grace socialist circles with that "weird haircut". He changed it to the Beatles-style moptop he would famously sport for the next four decades. Paul, however, could not do anything about his voice. A good thing to: it was a beautiful voice. 

 

Soon after, the owner of the newly-launched Private Eye wanted Paul to edit the magazine. Paul replied that he was "part of a movement" and turned the offer down. Would the Eye have been better if Paul had been editor? Possibly Ingrams has an answer. In any case, Footy was a journalist, not an editor. I'm forced to add that having had him as an editor for a couple of years before he died, he was the best, most inspirational and funniest one could want. And it would be interesting to learn in what ways Socialist Worker - one of the very few publications he edited - changed during Footy's editorship.

 

We learn later that when Ian Hislop assumed the editorship of the Eye, a virtual wildcat strike was in operation. One can hardly blame Footy for not sympathising with the strikers. I mean, any strike that includes Nigel Dempster must be a bit fishy. What possessed the super-funny Auberon Waugh to join the "strikers" is another matter. Many of the regulars were aghast that Hislop had replaced Ingrams and refused to contribute anything to the magazine. Paul, however, intervened and wrote so much copy that the magazine was able to go to press. On Footy aiding the maltreated Hislop, Ingrams says Paul had "saved his bacon". Paul would only say that "anyone whom Richard thought worthy of the post deserved at least a chance".

 

About midway through the book, Paul gives a razor-sharp description of Peter Cook and the Eye, not realising he's really giving the best description possible of himself: "…they spotted a very elementary fact, which is that the world we live in is run by hypocrites and humbugs who are mainly helping themselves to money which has been provided by someone else and then slapping themselves on the back for this brilliant achievement. Whatever his political approach, he recognised that the most powerful weapon to use against such people, the one that goes really deep into them, is mockery. Nothing hurts important humbugs more than the sound, the huge roar of the people laughing at their absurdities." Perfect. And Paul made us roar with laughter at so many humbugs, hypocrites, shysters and thieves.     

 

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

 

Leaving Glasgow for London, we learn that the great man worked for six months at, ahem, the Sun (it was, I believe, a very different paper back then) and then for two years at, AHEM, the Sunday Telegraph. He moved on from the then not quite so fanatically mad Sunday Telegraph to work fulltime at the Eye. A drop in salary resulted, but Foot was insouciant. He was only interested in the fact that he had two pages to write. Footy was only too happy to get away from the Street of Shame. Thus started the government's increasing paranoia with Private Eye. It was all so reminiscent of Ramsay MacDonald's paranoia with Claud Cockburn's The Week. The sociopath James Goldsmith, so writes Ingrams, believed that there was some sort of "Marxist plot to undermine the capitalist system, a sinister 'cancer' spreading through the media, all of it linked to Private Eye. And a key figure in the conspiracy, possibly its mastermind, was the notorious Trotskyite agitator Paul Foot." How unhinged do you have to be to believe this? And how much fun did Paul have knowing this?

 

The Wilson government was not that far from believing Goldsmith's fantastic nonsense. All governments see plots where there aren't any, find dangers where there aren't any, and are more scared by a few disorganised peace campaigners than they are by neo-Nazis. In the last few days we have learnt of the US security service's bugging of a vegan group in its "war on terror". Edward Heath once told the utterly insane but true story of a red-hunting MI5 agent discussing in all seriousness the possibility of shadowing every Mirror reader! Heath thought him mad. Quite simply, the spooks are demented, as are all governments. In any event, Wilson must have gotten over his paranoia: there is an embarrassed-looking Foot receiving an award from the Marxist-paranoid Wilson. (There are quite a few nice pictures.) 

 

In 1972 Foot left the Eye for the Socialist Worker, and another drop in salary resulted. Contrary to popular belief (and my own), Paul did not leave because of the attacks the Eye was incapable of restraining itself from launching on Angela Davis and Bernadette Devlin, although Paul said of these: "I just couldn't bear these attacks". More likely, Ingrams notes, 1972 felt like a revolutionary year and, presumably, Paul wanted to be close to the action. It was, wrote Foot, "a time of huge convulsions and great hope for the future"; moreover, he was "confidently expecting a revolution". No matter where Foot found himself, he remained part of the Eye "gang": it was his spiritual home. "Dave Spart" apart, one wonders what treatment the Eye would have dished out to Paul had he not been one of the "gang". By 1978 Paul had returned to the Eye, but not for long. In 1979 the Mirror offered him a column. Now, if I may be so bold, here comes one of the most telling quotes in modern journalism. Foot says that he felt "Delight that such an unlikely dream had come true." Read that again. Yes, faced with the finest journalist of his generation, breaking story after story, a national daily finally realises that it might be a good idea to hire the great man! It only takes a major newspaper well over a decade to figure this out. Indeed, Foot himself realises how unlikely it is for someone like him to get a column in a major national newspaper. Alastair Campbell, a self-confessed former prostitute and pornographic hack, would later be the Mirror's political editor. That says it all.

 

Even more telling is Ingrams's own admission: "Paul was always grateful for my echoing his opinions in the Observer, if only because nobody else was." There are two things to say about this. One, Ingrams is regularly vilified when he makes common cause with unfashionable campaigns, and so he should be commended for his willingness to write about important matters when he is in a position to easily knock up a humorous piece and live the quiet life. There is a tremendous difference between being a serious columnist (a rare breed) and a Foot-inspired columnist (a very rare breed, which has been hunted to near extinction). Two, Paul uncovered the most incredible stories and most of the time no one else seemingly followed them up. We're left with newspapers full of "lifestyle" (a lot of which seems to be the "I'm a woman journalist and I don't know how I do it"), "human interest" (phallic-looking vegetable), leg-over stories and all that other guff which some how passes for "journalism". 

 

Footy's fourteen years at the Mirror were, nonetheless, an exceptional period in British journalism. Here is certainly not the place to recount Paul's achievements. Read his collections of journalism to get a flavour of what he was capable of. The most astounding thing about Foot's time at the Mirror is the following statistic, courtesy of John Pilger: Foot received in excess of 150,000 letters - and he replied to every single one. It seems that things were going rather swimmingly for Paul until the disgusting Robert Maxwell came on the scene. For Maxwell, Paul was not only a "space imperialist" (something Paul would later teasingly call me!) but the worst thing about journalism. By 1993 things came to a head, and Mirror journalists eventually went on strike. While other journalists could be humiliated and sacked, Foot was high profile. It is said that Foot even took to picketing Maxwell's house. When the Mirror offered to pay Paul sick pay so as to silence him, he answered sarcastically: "I don't want to defraud the company. I'm not sick. They want to pay me money for me being sick when I'm plainly not sick." ITN reported: "What happens next is anybody's guess." No need to guess - the outcome was obvious. Footy was sacked from the Mirror. Paul would always have a home at Private Eye, and so he returned and wrote the kind of terrific copy the Eye had missed. For once, the Guardian did the right thing and offered him a column.

 

"BETTER THAN THE BEST"

 

In 1999 Paul was rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack. Unfortunately, an aorta burst not long after doctors got to work on him. There seemed little hope for Foot, who had now sunk into a coma. Shocked by the treatment Paul was receiving, Tariq Ali wrote what can only be described as a "do you know who he is?" letter to the hospital. Apparently, says Ingrams, Paul was treated somewhat differently afterwards. Thankfully, Foot came through and eventually returned to journalism. For the next five years, though, Paul battled many illnesses. And although he always seemed cheerful, bustling and vivacious, his courageous battles for health were grinding him down. Ingrams quotes Richard Stott, former Mirror editor and friend: "I felt that he had a fatalistic approach, but told me he was philosophical and prepared for it. He seemed almost to be embracing it."

 

On 18 July 2004 Paul Foot died. Footy's funeral was, to quote Ingrams, "an astonishing affair". Some 2000 people, probably more, attended. The police are known for a tendency to undercount: I'd imagine that the police counted only a few hundred people at the February 15 anti-war demonstration - and most of them were American tourists looking for Lie-cess-ter Square. We had come to bid farewell to one of our own. He was the best of us. And we loved him. One wonders how many mourners will attend the funeral of a Littlejohn, Kavanagh, Marr or Platell? Foot is irreplaceable. Many of us will know, and even feel, exactly what Ingrams means when he says that "his absence is like a great hole". To this day I still think that Private Eye did Paul a disservice (if that is the right word) when he died. They should not have had Paul on the cover with the emblematic crooked sword (inexplicably, even Denis Thatcher was awarded this honour). Footy was a warrior-journalist and words were his weapons, and a courageous warrior needs a mighty, straight sword.

 

Tony Benn, quoting from the Clarion's obituary of William Morris, said this of Paul:

"He was our best man, and he is dead ... It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater ... he was better than the best. Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. Strike at him where you would, he rang true ... he was our best man. We cannot spare him; we cannot replace him. In all England there lives no braver, kinder, honester, cleverer, heartier man. He is dead, and we cannot help feeling for a while that nothing else matters."

 

I may yet forgive Benn all his past, present and future follies for this.

 

I'll end with the following verses from Shelley's poem Ode to the West Wind, which are never far away whenever I think of Paul:

 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

 

 

 

 

Jan 2006

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