A life in the birthday of Lord Longford, his 90th. By Angela Lambert
On the morning of his 90th birthday, Tuesday 5 December, Frank Longford got up at quarter past seven as usual. He shaved without cutting himself, for once, which is unusual. He nearly always has a blob of cottonwool marking the spot where he has nicked his large chin. The use of the styptic pencil is unknown to Frank, who has never quite come to terms with gadgets or remedies, other than the copper bracelet which he wore for very many years to ward off arthritis. It seems to have worked: at 90 he remains upright, athletic, and vigorous. Although he lacked the usual cotton-wool blob, a piece of plaster covered a deep cut on his forehead. He has no idea how he came by it but this should be put down to absent-mindedness. While Frank has always been infuriatingly forgetful, he is very far from being senile.

Nowadays the monkish tonsure he's had for the past 50 years is whiter and wispier than it used to be, but it still crowns his large domed head, giving him an unmistakable silhouette somewhere between an ascetic and an eccentric.

Thirty-two years ago, when I was working as his secretary, he once asked me to hire a grey topper for him to wear to Ascot.

"How big?" I asked.

"Just get the largest they've got," he answered vaguely. "It'll still be too small."

I rang Moss Bros and asked them to send the largest one they had. It arrived on the morning of the day he was due to attend Ascot. He took it out of a hatbox the size of a small dustbin and put it on his head, where it dropped straight down over his face and came to rest at chin-level, forming a complete and effective disguise.

"Never mind," he said cheerfully, "I'll carry it."

On his 90th birthday he worried that he might be getting swollen-headed, in view of the six parties to mark the occasion, the many presents, the hundreds of cards and tributes. He consoled himself by reflecting that the cut on his forehead was a salutary reminder that reaching 90 is a fortunate act of survival but otherwise no great achievement. Frank is very proud of the book he has written on the subject of Humility.

Francis Aungier Pakenham, KG, PC, 7th Earl of Longford, is full of paradoxes. He is one of the most-beloved and most-reviled figures of our age. Ironically for a man of profound Christian piety, he is probably best known for his twin associations with pornography and Myra Hindley. He was nicknamed Lord Porn by London taxi drivers for his 1971 report on pornography and his impassioned campaign against the threats it posed. Tabloid journalists delight in mocking him. This he doesn't mind - what does enrage him is that their distortions undermine the credibility of his lifelong concern for penal reform. He has quietly visited thousands of anonymous prisoners, week in, week out, for the past 60 years, but the papers insist on sneering at his friendship with Myra Hindley, whom he has championed since 1968.

"I haven't been in the news so much since the pornography days," he said about his birthday. "Even today a radio programme rang up and asked me to talk about Rose West - whom I've never met or even talked to, though I would if asked. But she's appealing against her sentence so I won't treat her like a convicted criminal." He is predictably incensed at the lies that he says have been printed about a supposed friendship between West and Hindley. Even after all these years, newspaper distortions still surprise him.

He began the day by opening some presents from his family: from Elizabeth, his wife of 64 years, a selection of large-print novels (in the past couple of years his vision has deteriorated to the point where he now qualifies as partially-sighted); an Irish rugby union tie from his daughter Rachel; a bottle of Amontillado sherry from another daughter, Judith. "To tell the truth, sherry and wine are the most useful presents. I don't care about clothes," he adds, stating the obvious. Frank used to say gleefully that, whereas some members of the Upper House spent hundreds of pounds at their tailors, he himself always bought his suits at C&A. He seemed to think nobody could tell the difference but in this he may have been mistaken.

He went on to open a few of his very many cards, "mainly from the family, but some from unknown admirers", before going out to buy the papers. People in the street stopped him all day long to congratulate him on his birthday. "Everybody seems to know I'm 90," he said. "I'm certainly not unhappy to be 90, indeed to be quite honest, I'm happy to be given such a warm welcome. It also gives a lot of pleasure to Elizabeth, though it doesn't mean all that much to me."

Although he can decipher little more than the headlines nowadays, Lord Longford always buys the Times and the Sun - the latter so that he knows what ordinary people are being told by the tabloids - and alternates The Independent, the Guardian and the Telegraph. Occasionally he also checks the Daily Mirror to see whether it genuinely supports Labour. If Frank has one fault on which all his friends would agree, it is that he is obsessed with his public image and fascinated by what the media say about him. He knew exactly which papers had written about him on the occasion of his 90th birthday, and enquired eagerly which of these articles I had read.

Next, after saying his prayers and doing his daily exercises, he went to see his doctor, who had been worried about the cut on his forehead. All was well and, with the plaster stuck rakishly over one eye, he came back and read the Bible for an hour, as he does every day. "I read the Gospels again and again and again, which sustains me; and also The Imitation of Christ." Thirty years ago, when he was Leader of the House of Lords and I was one of his assistants, it was normal to walk into his office with some query and find him on his knees in prayer. He was never embarrassed.

At 11.30, after several more congratulatory telephone calls, he headed off to a celebration lunch given by his current publishers, Little, Brown. The Longfords have never been privately rich but have always lived on the money they both earned: he by working first in the academic world, where he was a lecturer in politics at Christ Church, Oxford; then as a Labour Cabinet minister in two governments, under Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson, and thereafter in banking and publishing. Elizabeth, apart from standing as a parliamentary candidate and bringing up their eight children, is an authoritative royal biographer and has written more than 20 books.

"I came from Chelsea to Waterloo Bridge by taxi, I'm ashamed to say, since I have a bus card and always feel rather extravagant if I don't use it, but otherwise I would have been late." His first question when I arrived for the party was "Are you writing about me for your paper?"

The buffet lunch was attended by a selection of old friends, mainly from the press, crowded together in a fourth floor room overlooking the Thames at Waterloo Bridge. Frank sat by the door, greeting each new arrival and balancing a plate on his knee. He only picked at the salmon pie with pasta and avocado salad. He has always been careful not to overeat and, like his wife, weighs almost exactly the same now as when they married.

It was like any other birthday party, people crowding round to wish him many happy returns, to tell him he was looking good, and joke about reaching 90. Sir Robin Day was there, and Bernard Levin (who arrived early); the Longfords' Sussex neighbour Paul Johnson, and Judge Stephen Tumim, the former prison inspector. Richard Ingrams, also there, was being canvassed as Frank's ideal biographer. Standing beside Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, noticeably dapper in a Fair Isle sweater and co-ordinating rust-red tweeds. Longford's rumpled navy- blue pin-striped suit looked more C&A than ever. At least his socks matched and his shoelaces were done up, which has not always been the case. The guests drank champagne and circulated, gossiping amiably and affectionately, recalling Frank's bons mots, his absurdities and his triumphs. The atmosphere was more prep-school than gentleman's club. Robin Day dropped a blob of cream from the lemon pudding on his trousers and was scolded by William Deedes: "Nanny wouldn't like that!"

The clamour of conversation was shouted down to allow Frank Longford's current editor and publisher, Alan Samson, to point out that as well as being Frank's 90th birthday it was also the 60th anniversary of the publication of his first book Peace by Ordeal (The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921): which has since gone through five editions and has never been out of print.

Frank talked ex tempore, without notes. He recalled that in the course of his life he had moved from hereditary Toryism to old Socialism to New Labour: "quite a leap, but I just about managed it." He reminisced about politicians he had worked with, notably Attlee and Wilson, and referred with rare and uncharacteristic scorn to Michael Howard, whom he dubbed "The Prince of Darkness". Since Frank Longford never breathes a bad word about anyone, this was contempt indeed. He ended with a paean of praise for Tony Blair and above all for fellow-campaigner Judge Tumim. Someone lit nine candles on a big green-and-white cake, exactly as though it had been a children's party, and the eminent guests circled again, greeting and gossiping, people are who had known each other for much of their adult lives.

Leaving his publishers after the lunch, Frank headed straight for the House of Lords to put in an hour-and-a-half in the Chamber - "so that I qualify for the daily attendance allowance," he said slyly. (This allowance covers their lordships' expenses on trains, cabs and meals: for a country peer it amounts to pounds 139 a day.) After that he was hoping to get half-an-hour's rest, though in the light of the attention focused upon him, this seemed unlikely.

I next caught up with him at 6.30 when I arrived at the London house of his eldest child, Lady Antonia Pinter. She and her husband were giving a party attended by all their seven surviving children (one daughter, Catherine, died tragically in a car crash at the age of 23), most of the 26 grandchildren, and - it seemed - all seven of the great-grandchildren, as well as many friends.

The guests were greeted first by Antonia, tall, blonde, fair-skinned and dazzling in a white silk shirt under a long sparkling black tabard. I took a glass of champagne and glanced into the noisy room. The first person I spotted was Elizabeth Longford: frail, white-haired, but still lovely, in a crimson ruff and velvet suit. She was sitting on a sofa next to Sir David Astor. Harold Pinter was just inside the door.

"Do you think it's all right for me to go and talk to Elizabeth as well?" I asked him, knowing that she battles with increasing deafness.

"That is not a question I can answer," he said. "I cannot make that judgement."

"Right," I said. "Thank you."

In the epicentre of the room stood George Weidenfeld, sleek as a seal, beside his tall wife, her face framed in tumbling blonde hair and a black suit with a collar of vivid pink fake fur. Lord Weidenfeld was for many years virtually Publisher by Appointment to the Longford family, bringing out several books by Elizabeth and her literary daughters, and he was very much comme en famille amid this glittering tribe.

I sat down beside David Astor, who professed himself nervous at the prospect of making a speech in honour of Frank, whose oldest friend he is. Frank's other great friend, Sir Nico Henderson, had arrived by now: a commanding figure, also very much at home in this familiar mob. Several gorgeous young things hurled themselves at him affectionately. Everyone seemed to know everyone else.

I got up to talk to Jon Snow, who after 25 years of involvement with New Horizon, an organisation that looks after homeless young people, has succeeded Frank as its chairman. After a few moments, a hand tapped my shoulder and I turned to see Shirley Conran, who had flown in from Monte Carlo. More rapturous greetings, double-cheek kisses followed by urgent gossip. By now the hubbub was huge. Harold Pinter quelled the room with a stentorian shout and the speeches began.

First, some telegrams of congratulation were read out by Michael Pakenham, the Longfords' third son. They came, in order, from the Queen, the Pope, Mary Robinson, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton. If it had been a joke the next one would have been from God. But they were genuine.

David Astor made a touching speech filled with affection about their long friendship; and recalled the comment of Bernard Levin, writing about Frank a few years ago: "Is he mad? Of course he's mad - the real question is, is he right?" He pointed out how remarkable it was that Frank had twice in his life taken a dramatic step, first by changing his religion - to become a Roman Catholic - and then his politics - to become a Socialist - yet had not lost a single friend on either occasion. Here was a man loved for himself.

There can be few occasions quite so heart-warming as this: when a good man, in full possession of his faculties, still actively doing the things he has done all his life, reaches the age of 90 and basks in the love of four generations of his family and the devotion of his friends.

Finally Frank himself came forward to speak. He recalled that "my old friend John Betjeman" when asked if, looking back on his life, he had any regrets, had replied "Not enough sex." "Well," said Frank: "that's not been my trouble."

He remembered the time when someone paying tribute to Elizabeth's skills as a mother had said of her, "She's had eight children and she's done it all alone!" "I told him, 'I've played my part, you know!'" adding: "And seen a good many of the children born." Growing serious, he stated, "Christianity is not the only way to virtue, but it seems to me the best and most obvious way."

Altogether he spoke for about 20 minutes, remembering the great events of his life, his friends in and out of politics. He paid especially warm tribute to Jack Profumo, without mentioning that he had supported Profumo when everyone else had shunned him.

After the speeches the hubbub resumed. Everyone said how marvellous it all was; how extraordinary that, at this age, Frank could delight a roomful of people without needing a single note.

Frank and Elizabeth sat side-by-side on a sofa in the hall, each holding one of the tiniest great-grandchildren, and posing for photographs. It was almost half past eight, and both were in high spirits. A family dinner at Orsini's restaurant, hosted by their eldest son, Thomas, was still to come.

I went upstairs, retrieved my coat, said good-bye and headed out into the night. Snow was falling in big soft flakes; light glistened and reflected the yellow streetlamps down on to the black pavements. I set off for home thinking, if a day such as this is the culmination of a virtuous life, perhaps we should all try harder for virtue