With Mr and Mrs Cameron, Mr and Mrs Clegg and Mr and Mrs Brown lining up with their kiddies as competing models of perfect, well-scrubbed domestic contentment, it has been a good moment to receive a sharp lesson in reality from the past.
Michael Foot and his wife Jill Craigie were not quite as trim and well turned-out as today’s political leaders but their relationship also represented in its way a sort of marital ideal. They were both members of the aristocracy of the Left. They were intellectuals of conscience, on the side of reform and social equality, serious people for whom ethics, whether public or private, were an important matter.
No marriage, as today’s leaders should note, can ever live up to this kind of billing. Michael Foot turns out to be one of the more unlikely serial adulterers of modern politics. When asked by the biographer Michael Rollyson whether he had committed adultery, Foot was silent for a while and then admitted that there had been, “two or three women”.
(Note to betrayed spouses: there is such a thing as adulterer’s arithmetic. “Two or three” in this context invariably means seven or eight. Ten, the number of affairs Mark Owen of Take That recently admitted, should be translated as “this is the lowest number of affairs I thought I could get away with”.)
Only the most unforgiving and hardline of moral fundamentalists will fail to find something sweet and touching in Foot’s infidelities. Shy and lacking sexual self-confidence, he became involved with his secretary at Tribune, Elizabeth Thomas. They would work late. Elizabeth would, in a way that was once traditional, sit on her boss’s knee. “Sometimes things happened,” she told Rollyson. The affair, which seems to have had more to do with companionship than lust, continued for 20 years. In the 1970s, Elizabeth Thomas was appointed to the Arts Council and later her ex-lover, who was by then Leader of the House of Commons, appointed her to an advisory job. It is worth imagining the moral panic which would ensue if this story related to one of today’s political leaders rather than to a sainted figure of old Labour.
There were other affairs which followed a predictable pattern. In his fifties, Foot fell heavily for an Indian-born woman who represented danger, eroticism and, one suspects, youth; his marriage was rocked, but survived. Then there was another secretary, who is now married.
Because these excitements belong to the past, they are viewed without the trills of sanctimonious outrage that greet today’s public peccadilloes. It is precisely for that reason that they are worth remembering the next time a married politician is caught in an unzipped moment.
From today’s perspective, what happened in the marriage of Michael Foot and Jill Craigie was not about sleaze, betrayal, hypocrisy or any of the other hysterical terms of condemnation that busy moralists now like to sling at their victims. It simply reflected the fact that marriage is a complicated business, full of compromise and mistakes. For politicians, it was and is all too easy for what you do in private to drift some distance from what you say in public.
Presenting their gleaming family image, like characters out of a 1950s cornflakes advertisement, our political leaders are flogging a dodgy prospectus. We are flawed creatures – at least the best and most interesting of us are – and living with another human being can be tough. Recognising that simple, obvious fact would make our world a kinder, more adult place.
Their right to a US constitution
Joining the celebrity cry-baby club in spectacular fashion, Jamie Oliver has sniffed through his tears that the Americans “don’t understand me”.
The reality is the other way around. On a mission to convert the people of Huntington, West Virginia, to the joys of healthy eating, he has totally failed understand them.
Much as one would like to support an Englishman doing his best among the ever-hungry Americans, it is difficult not to sympathize with the people of Huntington. None of them had asked Jamie to come to their town, a TV camera crew in tow, and announce that he was bringing a “food revolution” to the unhealthiest city in America that would be broadcast around the world.
His interview on local radio, which can be seen on YouTube, features that rare spectacle: the sight of a seasoned broadcaster being completely flummoxed and left looking like a sulky schoolboy. “Who made you king?” was one of the interviewer’s politer questions. Who indeed? Maybe in Britain, a town would welcome a foreigner who told them how fat they were and offered to set them on the path of healthy eating. Perhaps there would even be a sense of pride that their community was so spectacularly overweight that it had been selected by someone so famous.
In America, they admire success and celebrity, but only so far. They quite like the English, but there are limits. The right of every citizen to cram his family’s faces with junk food, to be as large as the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth deserve to be, runs deep.
Our boy may be on the side of the angels, but there is something admirable about the cussed independent-mindedness of the American fatties.
Dead sheep savages £600,000 art project
There is surely a wonderful film or TV play to be written about the controversial public art project in Wales which has finally been abandoned after the intervention of a dead sheep.
A raft of 127 flashing lights attached to buoys which could play brief messages left online was to be moored on the River Teifi in Cardigan. Designed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and commissioned for £600,000 by the Art Fund, it was to be Wales’s answer to the “Angel of the North”.
Unfortunately, a majority of the public took against this piece of public art. There were environmental concerns. Finally, after a dead sheep was swept down the river on a fallen tree and hit a boat, worries grew about health and safety aspects of the giant installation.
With gloom among the art enthusiasts and joy in the local community, the controversy may rumble on amusingly for a few more weeks. There is even a name for the play: the installation was to have been called “Turbulence”.
Independent, Wednesday, 24 March 2010