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Michael Foot … above all else a lovely man

Posted on 3 March 2010 | 2:03pm

The tributes will focus on Michael Foot the politician, the minister, the leader, the wonderful orator.

They will highlight too his journalism and his writing, and the great causes he supported.

I hope that what also comes through is what a lovely man he was, right to the end of a life so well lived.

The sadness I feel at his death is exacerbated by the fact I was away when Fiona went with Neil Kinnock to see him recently. She  came away sensing he did not have that long to live.

But at least he was still in his own home, the one he shared for so long with his wife Jill Craigie, and still surrounded by his books and his memories.

His friends had worried that he would not really be able to cope after Jill died. They were close, and mutually dependent. She was always the one I thought would live forever. But somehow he was able to continue to pursue his interests and his passions.

He was a very old friend of Fiona’s parents, Bob and Audrey Millar, but she and I really got to know him best after he had stopped being Labour leader.

He and Jill invited us over to dinner at their home on the edge of Hampstead Heath regularly, often with the Kinnocks and Salman Rushdie. The author found in the Foots a passionate supporter when ‘Satanic Verses’ made him the target of such hatred that he required round the clock protection. Michael’s home was one of his sanctuaries. Michael was an engaging companion because nothing passed him by, he was well read, on top of every detail of every major debate, full of strong views but also an understanding of the views of others.

On the Old-New Labour-ometer, fair to say that Michael might be placed closer to the old than the new. But he was a phenomenal support. He took as much pride in the three election wins under Tony Blair as anyone and was delighted to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2003 at a party in Downing Street garden surrounded by family and friends from across the political spectrum. And whenever we were under the cosh, Michael would always be on with a word of support, advice or encouragement.

The last time he came to our house for lunch, he was barely able to walk. Yet he sat and gave his views on all the big issues of the day, illustrated by colourful tales of the past. ‘Was there really as much division in the Wilson Cabinets as the books suggest?’ I asked him. ‘Oh far more,’ he said.

Whenever we spoke, there were always three regulars in the conversation. First, his determination that we should go to one final Plymouth-Burnley game. Second, if I had a pound for every time he thanked me for helping him get a large cheque from a newspaper which suggested he had been a Russian spy, I’d be a lot wealthier. ‘Welcome to the kitchen,’ he used to say. ‘You helped pay for it.’

Third, and most importantly, his desire that Labour should win another General Election. He did not agree with everything the Labour government did. But he delighted in so much of the change made under first Tony and now Gordon, two men of whom I never heard him say a bad word, even when disagreeing with some of their actions. And to the end, the very end, he would argue with anyone who cared to engage that in the choice between Tory and Labour about who should run Britain, there wasn’t really a choice at all.

Even as his health failed, his eyesight virtually gone, his legs weak, he was still able to engage in debate. Last summer Fiona got in touch with him to ask if he would have some time for a 16 year old pupil from a local school. He wanted to discuss George Orwell with Michael for an essay he was writing. Michael invited them both to tea and spent over an hour with the boy in his garden, reminiscing about Orwell and the rise of fascism. When they left he gave the young man one of his precious books. It was typical of Michael, his mind and memory as sharp as ever, gracious and decent to the end.

  • Andy Freeman

    A fitting tribute Alistair, to the man as well as the politician.

  • Fugitive Ink

    I met Michael Foot once, in 2004, when he attended a Sohemians event in a room above a pub, wherein Francis Wheen was talking about Tom Driberg. Sitting in the front row, he heckled the speaker frequently – very much in the spirit of the event, by the way – as genial as he was genuinely witty, which is saying a lot. Afterwards, the rest of us – some of who come from very different political traditions indeed – ended up hugely impressed by Foot’s absolute lack of pomposity, his willingness to engage in debate (again, even with those who shared few of his ideological convictions) and his robust good humour. There was something inspiring about being in the company of a mind still clearly so lively and inquisitive, nine decades on! Anyway, for all of our various differences, I agree – he did come across as a lovely man. RIP.

  • Gari MacColl

    A lovely tribute to a wonderful man. An honest, decent human being. He will be sorely missed.

  • J-P

    What a great man. Thanks ALastair, I hadn’t heard the news.

  • Carole Lynsey

    we need some of that passion back in Labour politics. Never forget it is all about fighting for beliefs not just nuts and bolts of policy

  • John Mallon

    We’ve missed him on 24 bus too… RIP lovely Labour man

  • Annie

    A great tribute, from you, alastair, for a great man, may he be forever remembered

  • Catriona Smith

    Alastair, thank you so much for posting this very personal tribute to a truly great man. I was very lucky to meet him at the launch of his ‘The Uncollected Essays Old and New’ at Stratford library in 2003. I was with my two sisters and we had travelled from Scotland (one from the Outer Hebrides) especially to attend Michael Foot and Hillary Clinton’s book launches,both of which happened in the same week. Michael was very taken with the fact that we had travelled so far to see him and was so charming to us. I am looking at the book and photo as I write and notice that he signed himself Michael Mackintosh Foot.An honourable, intellectual and KIND man, whose honour, intellect and kindness will be sorely missed.

  • Andrew Turner

    That’s a pitch-perfect tribute, recalling his passion and his humility (“No truly great person ever thought themselves so” – Hazlitt). Tremendously sad to lose a man of such qualities, decency chief amongst them. Truly, a great life well-lived.

  • Patrick James

    Michael Foot was the leader of the Labour party when I was becoming interested in politics for the first time and was an inspiration for me.

    He never seemed to become cynical no matter how difficult the circumstances.

    My guess is that a huge number of current Labour party people were also inspired by Michael Foot to get into politics.

  • Mark Wright

    He was a politician of the old school from a time when policy and debate based on principle and integrity were the key to either election success or election defeat. Michael Foot encompassed all of these things and more. His spirit will forever live on in the Labour Party that he held so dear. RIP

  • Jane A

    A lovely tribute, AC. Every word well written.

  • Denise

    Truly a great man.