How we met? Glenys Kinnock and John Mortimer

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The Independent Culture
Glenys Kinnock, 54, was educated at Holyhead Comprehensive and University College, Cardiff. She has been a schoolteacher; in June 1994 she was elected to the European Parliament for South Wales East. She and her husband, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, have a son and daughter. They live in Brussels and Wales. John Mortimer, 75, is a barrister, playwright and author. His work for television includes Rumpole of the Bailey, adapted from his novels. He is on the board of the Royal Court Theatre and President of the Howard League for Penal Reform. He lives in Henley-on-Thames with his second wife, Penelope. They have two daughters, and he has a son and daughter by his first marriage

GLENYS KINNOCK: The first time I met John was when he came to our home in Ealing to interview Neil. As I recall, he was doing a profile a few months after Neil became leader of the party in 1983. An interview had been agreed and he'd gone to Neil's office in the House of Commons. Neil's press secretary had come in with her notepad and sat in for the interview. John had not liked this set-up and felt it was inhibiting, so Neil said, "OK, John, come to our house and we'll have a cup of tea and chat again properly." So that's what they did. I can remember warming to him immediately. He's one of the easiest people to feel relaxed with, and from the outset he obviously was very fond of Neil.

I think he was wearing a suit - it would always have been appropriate for John to wear a suit for such an occasion. And a silk handkerchief flopping out of the pocket which vaguely, roughly matches the tie.

From then on we saw each other regularly. Penny and John are very close friends of ours now.

John Mortimer has that twinkle in his eye, and a kind of outrageousness about him. He's always very challenging and we have a strong affection for each other. It goes beyond our close political interests. All through the years when Neil was leader, and since, John and Penny were the bedrock of the kind of support from people in the arts - literary people - which meant a great deal to us. After the '92 election defeat that support was immediate, and warm, and it still is.

Being with them is always good fun, relaxed and there's lots of gossip, which they're both brilliant at. I just love listening to them retell anecdotes - never viciously. John's such a wonderful raconteur and, as he does in his novels, he can paint pictures. You're immediately part of whatever he's telling.

We are always invited to parties in their house, and sometimes on our way to Heathrow from South Wales we'll go via their home in Henley and have Sunday lunch with them. And every summer we see them at the start of our holiday. We can't begin to unwind without spending at least a few days with them in Tuscany [above right, at the Mortimers' house near Siena]. This year we all went off to San Gimignano, to the opera. Opera is constantly booming out from John's room.

They always have a houseful of people, friends we don't see much of but love to be with. Kathy Lette and the Eyres were there last time. And there's a lot too much eating and a lot too much drinking, wild dancing and all of us behaving in ways that do not befit people of our age. It's a let-your-hair-down time. We have an evening sitting around seeing who can remember the most songs from the 1950s, or dancing over the furniture to Sixties music. It's certainly not the smart dinner table conversation routine. John just sits and laughs at it all. His singing is not something you encourage.

In summer '97 John was setting up the film he made with Zeffirelli, Tea with Mussolini. You'd take a phone call and it'd be Zeffirelli, or Glenn Close. It's exciting ... And everyone reads avidly. We have lots of novels, share them and talk about what we've read. It's such a change from politics, especially in Brussels where you tend to be with people who talk shop a lot. So it's wonderful to be with people whose shop is theatre, the film industry, novels and writers.

And John writes, always. He's up before anybody and working very early in the morning. He works till lunchtime and it's downhill from there on.

I've had a couple of "Poems and Pints" evenings in Wales, in the constituency. He's so willing - comes and reads poetry and court cases, and has everyone enthralled. He's a great draw.

He's not moody, and even if he's not feeling terribly well or is frustrated by not being able to get about as much as he would like, he's always the same: warm and kind, although I can imagine he's capable of being otherwise. He wouldn't have been a very successful lawyer if that were not the case. He's a great intellect. Sometimes people who are great intellects are daunting and you're not comfortable with them, but John's not like that.

What's also remarkable about John is that he's interested in everybody. It doesn't matter who they are, he'll always talk to people - he's never haughty.

He loves debunking. He loves it if you attack pretentiousness or poseurs - there's a lot of that in his writing. I think he quite likes no-nonsense people.

I have the deepest affection for him, and respect. It's the kind of friendship where you don't have to go through the preliminaries, you immediately pick up from where you left off.

JOHN MORTIMER: I did two interviews with Neil: the first at the House of Commons. I remember he had a hymn board, which Glenys had given him to count his score of winning questions against Mrs Thatcher. Then I went to their house in Ealing, to interview Neil for the Spectator, and it was there that I met Glenys for the first time. She was probably wearing jeans. She was busy and the children were there and I didn't get to know her all that well.

Having heard she was this bossy lady, she wasn't being bossy at all. When I was interviewing Neil, she was very much in the background. In fact, I've never really seen that bossy person. But she is much more down- to-earth than Neil. He goes off at great tangents, on flights of fancy. She always brings him down to reality.

The only time I've heard her imposing her will was when I did a Poems and Pints evening in his constituency, Islwyn: pub gatherings when people read poems and drink pints of beer. Just beforehand, she told us a joke in the bar about Winnie the Pooh and a nursery school teacher, then we went off to the Poems and Pints. Neil introduced it and said, "I must tell you a story about a nursery school teacher." Glenys got up and said, "That's my joke!"

She's a very good cook. She cooks what you would call quite classy, modern food: vaguely Italian, and with lots of wine.

When I was starting to chair the Royal Court we did a Brian Friel play, The Faith Healer, and they both came backstage. They used to go to the theatre together regularly. We did a season of Royal Court plays in Brussels, which Glenys was instrumental in organising. And I met Neil in Brussels on my 75th birthday last April. He gave me a big dinner party and a Common Market bow tie and braces.

We meet a lot in Italy in the summer. They would always arrive having had terrible disputes about the driving. Every time Neil drives she whistles "Whenever I feel afraid I whistle a happy tune".

We have very happy times. We make jokes. We talk about the people we know - we've got a lot of mutual friends, the children, opera, life, the disgraceful behaviour of everyone ...

Neil does Sixties numbers and has a lot of CDs of the Sixties. There's a great big room downstairs where there's always dancing going on. I remember Glenys singing "Viva La Revolucion!" Neil dances around in a cowboy hat and sings. Sometimes there's a backing group consisting of Glenys, my wife and Sinead Cusack. I know the words of all the songs but I can't sing in tune, so I just listen.

Last year we went to the opera in San Gimignano. Neil was getting the tickets from the mayor, a sort of Communist in an Armani suit with a very beautiful wife. They're great friends of theirs.

Another thing I remember terribly well was their 25th wedding anniversary party in the Temple, my home territory, just before the 1992 election. All the children were there.

Glenys is very sensible, direct and practical. She's been working for War On Want for a long time. And she's funny. Her sense of humour is acerbic. She's quick to spot pretentious people.

I think we probably disagree on fox-hunting. Penny, my wife, is a great pro-hunting person. I should think Glenys doesn't approve of it, but broadly speaking, my opinions are very much the same as hers.

I don't honestly know what her weaknesses are. She isn't a boringly politically correct Labour Party person. She likes to drink - she's quite keen on champagne, like me, and that's no bad thing.

I think they're both very much at home among people they know and like - people like Ben Elton, Jon Snow and Emma Thompson. Their weakness perhaps is that in alien circumstances they are not good at mixing. Glenys and Neil are at their best when they're with people who are their own "kind", particularly in Wales. I think they find it difficult to charm alien bodies.

She seems very happy. I think that she has blossomed. They've got a little grandchild, and she has a really good job, which she should have had all along. I'm sure she would do any job wonderfully.

John Mortimer's latest novel, 'The Sound of Trumpets', features a New Labour candidate (Viking , pounds 16.99)

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