I always liked Harold Wilson. Even at the time of the anti-war demonstration to which I referred in the previous post, which was held under the auspices of the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students to whom the man was of course anathema, I felt that he was, if not stylish, if not someone with whom one could discuss one’s shared belief in the cosmic giggle, and if not even strikingly honest, at least solid. I liked to think of him wreathed in pipe smoke as in the great portrait by Ruskin Spear, to the point that he was almost invisible, and I felt that the nation was in safe hands.
God took Vicky
But let Harold Wilson Survive
wrote the poet Adrian Mitchell (or words to that effect: my copy is long gone) and I always thought that that was an unfair comparison, even though I always respected the elephantine sallies in the News Chronicle of the left-wing cartoonist, who died young and is now largely forgotten, Vicky Weisz.
At the time Wilson got no credit at all, certainly not from the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students, for refusing to send British troops to Viet Nam. Since then we have had the unedifying spectacle of the feet of our last Prime Minister but two wiggling skittishly from between the buttocks of a later American President and we are inclined to value Wilson the more for it.
I also had a personal link of a sort. When I had been at school at the start of the decade and he had still been the Leader of the Opposition I had written to him taking him to task for some supposed policy, of which I had read, of the Labour Party. He replied by return to the effect that this was ‘a typical invention of the Beaverbrook press.’ This opened a number of trains of thought in my young mind and anyway I was grateful to him for replying to a schoolboy’s letter, and so quickly.
That cold evening in 1969 I turned out from a sense of duty to the good people of North Viet Nam, with whom the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students believed that they had developed a singular rapport. I expected to put in ten minutes at most of righteous chanting and then go on for a curry. I never expected a dialogue. So when he detached himself from his goons and said, as I have recorded, ‘You’re intelligent young people. Tell me exactly what you think,’ my immediate reaction was to panic. That explains my reply.
I took a step forward and said, ‘I presume, Sir, on a correspondence between us, admittedly brief and six years past…’
‘No, no, no,’ said a fellow member of the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students – I think it was Christopher Hitchens – ‘tell him about the carpet bombing of Hanoi, the tortured babies.
‘And shout at him,’ said Christopher Hitchens, ‘for God’s sake’.
Forty years later he would have left out the ‘God’ bit.
My colleagues too stepped forward to make their points.
And that apparently saved Harold Wilson’s life. As so often it was a chain of events: his replying to my letter years before, his courage in stepping out to meet the demonstrators, my stepping forward to meet him, and Christopher Hitchens’ inadvertently interposing his body – possibly also his notoriously elegant Mao jacket from Great Leap Forward, the boutique in the King’s Road – between the Prime Minister and my double’s Beretta, the ‘cardinal’s friend’.
I’m rather proud of myself, I said to Alfredo, when I had sorted all this through in my mind.
Then I realised that that might have been rather rude.
With all due respect to you, I added.
He brushed this aside courteously.
Wilson was always about to be assassinated, he said, in those days. One week it was MI5 or MI6, the next it was the CIA. Sometimes the Russians blundered in too. Then there were groups of concerned businessmen and retired colonels, who met through the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph. It was only because of the turf wars that he survived. He carried on governing the country in his own rather decent way – don’t forget the great liberalising reforms of Roy Jenkins, which he sponsored – and when he mentioned that he was being pursued by spies with guns he was vilified as a paranoiac. I’m glad I was called off. I liked him too.
His eventual death was so sad, I said: forgotten, ravaged by Alzheimer’s. They say that near the end he would sit on a bench gazing at the House of Commons and no one recognised him.
Silence descended. We stared into the fireplace. There was of course no fire in it because of our undisclosed location in the very south of Italy.
You’ll stay the night, said Alfredo, eventually.
I couldn’t possibly put you to the trouble, I said.
I should, he said. My goons will have sabotaged your car.
I thought I’d put them out for the count.
Good heavens, no. Heads like corian.
They make kitchen surfaces of it. It’s very hard.
Ah, I said. Like Carrera marble?
Pft, he said. Carrera marble is so pre-2008.
I should perhaps mention, I said, that I have left a sealed letter with C Hoare & Co, my bankers, to be opened in the event of my failure to return.
A wise precaution, said Alfredo.
It names you.
We both inspected the fireplace once more.
A grappa before retiring? he said.
I won’t, I said. Thank you.
Also wise, he said. It’s poisoned.
I thought, I said, that we had established something of a mutual modus operandi.
I suspect that we have, he said. I’ll see you at breakfast. I don’t rise early these days. Nine suit you?
There’s no kippers, said Alfredo from the doorway, with a sudden and uncharacteristic guffaw that hinted at the abominations of which the man was capable when paid.