I spent some time talking with Lord Longford in 1968. (I deeply admire his portrayal by Jim Broadbent; without the advantages of physical resemblance, he did portray someone very like the person I met). This is how it came about.
In summer 1968 there was a big meeting of most of the students and staff of Hornsey College of Art, at which the majority decided to accept a deal with the authorities and to call off the Sit-In. I was in the minority who voted against this deal. Our pessimism was justified: the authorities, on entering the college again, tore down all the posters (many of which were by any reasonable definition, works of art, some of them from Paris). Shortly after term ended, they locked us out while they fortified the College, and they didn’t let staff and students back in until six weeks after the beginning of the Autumn term, and then only partially, as a revenge for the six week Sit-in. But that’s another story.
Then a Commission was set up to enquire into the causes of the Sit-In, (funded partly by the Henry Moore Foundation), and to recommend reform for the future. The second Chairman of this Commission was Lord Longford.
The first occasion on which I met him was when he invited Martin Walker, one of the most influential student activists, and myself, to visit him at the House of Lords. Longford’s room was like an Oxbridge student room. We drank whisky, though there was a problem about glasses (I think one of us used a toothbrush mug). In the middle of a friendly conversation he suddenly fixed his eye on me and said “ A very heavy responsibility will weigh on you if you lead these young people in the direction of violence!” Martin was shocked. He stepped back a pace or two. “Good God”, he said, “You surely don’t think I do things because he tells me to?”
It was some time after this, when the Commission was in full flow, that Longford invited me to lunch at the Russell Hotel. I felt I should dress up for the occasion, so I put on a clean pair of jeans, a clean shirt, a red neckerchief and a jeans jacket I had recently bought – I was practically in a suit. I met Lord L in the foyer of the hotel; he shepherded me to a table in the large dining room, and we were sitting talking when the Head Waiter approached, cleared his throat, and said “I’m sorry my Lord, but I can’t serve him.” He added “Other guests would object.” Lord L was taken aback, but replied “Well, I’m sure we can find some other establishment which will not object.” We walked back through the crowded dining room; half way across Lord L turned back and shouted “I believe you’re wrong, my man”: the Head Waiter, who was still watching us depart, shouted back “ I’m sorry, my Lord”; and so we re-entered the Foyer.
“Would you call this sartorial discrimination? said Lord L; “ Now I’m embarassed: I invite you to lunch and this happens. The question is, what to do?” I said “We could go to the pub round the corner.” He said “But I asked you to lunch – it would hardly be right to go to a pub. “ I said “ It’s quite acceptable to meet people for lunch in a pub – I do it often” Reluctantly accepting this he followed me, and we set off for the Friend at Hand. It was obvious when we got inside that he wasn’t familiar with pub procedure ( in this case that was drinks from the bar and Irish Stew from the counter, taking one’s turn in a queue) so I had to steer him through it; for a while he had the barman scrabbling about below to see if he had a half-bottle of wine, though at that time it was a good pub that sold wine by the glass at all.
Eventually we sat down and talked, more at one another than with. I was presenting myself as a calmly rational Oxonian, to counter any stereotype of the revolutionary rabble-rouser, and picking my way in more precise and latinate language than I would normally have used. Coming from the opposite direction he was telling me about his early days in Government, and how his radical opinions got him into trouble with the party bigwigs. Eventually we got onto the immediate situation, the state of Hornsey, the causes of the trouble, and so on.
It was all going quite well until he became aware of a large man reading a newspaper on the other side of our table. He leaned over, tapped the newspaper with a bony finger, and said “Excuse me, but we are discussing Hornsey intimacies here, and I must ask you to respect our privacy and not to repeat anything you may hear.” The man opposite looked stunned. “Gee,” he said, “I haven’t heard a word: I flew in from Toronto yesterday, and I’ve absolutely no idea what you might be talking about.” Lord L replied
“I’m glad that you haven’t heard anything: indeed, from our point of view it would be an advantage if you were deaf and dumb. But I must repeat the request that you respect our privacy.” The man shrugged and shook his head in disbelief; shortly afterwards he got up and left. Lord L said “Do you think he was planted on us by the CIA?” It didn’t sound like a joke. I’ve never been sure whether he thought that I was paranoid, or that he thought the Hornsey Sit-In of major security importance. It’s true however, that another paranoid, the Principal of Hornsey, put it about that the whole event was financed by Moscow gold. The reality was more hum-drum – namely that the Hornsey Canteen, now run by students, some of them very attractive, was now frequented by the local police, lorry-drivers and so on, and making a profit for the first time in its life.
Lord L continued to worry, when we left the Pub, about the propriety of giving lunch in such a place. One the pavement we bumped into P., who was hurrying to meet him for a meeting of the Hornsey Commission. I said “Tell Lord L that it’s ok to take someone to lunch in a pub.” Absolutely,” said P, “Do it all the time.” He still looked dubious.
To help him keep in contact with young people Lord L had taken a young assistant. P. & I met this girl, and laid out for her, at some length, our understanding of the Hornsey situation. “Why are you telling me all this?” she asked. “Well. because you are Lord L’s assistant, and when this issue comes up you can brief him, so that he understands our position.” “But what makes you think he’ll take any notice of what I say?” she said.
What surprised us was the way in which, by his own processes, he finally arrived at a clear view of what had gone on. It wasn’t just an invincible sense of right and wrong: in the long run the Holy Fool was very shrewd.