Interview: Martin Bell - Not so much a party animal, more a party poope r
Deborah Ross talks to Martin Bell
He offers tea, but then retracts because he doesn't have any milk. Would I accept a gin instead? Not half, I reply. We had spent a good portion of the morning with the Friends of Handforth Station. People who are friends with stations, I now know, wear zipped-up anoraks with tightly laced-up hoods and don't mind rain and get excited about plans to renovate waiting rooms. A gin might perk me up nicely. It might even warm me up. Martin seems perfectly contented, though. The Friends of Handforth Station are "the salt of the earth, don't you think?"
He pours himself a whisky, then settles at the kitchen table to open his mail. First off, does he wish to partake in the annual Brain of Budworth Quiz? No, he thinks not. "Not my scene, really." Next, would he please sell the enclosed raffle tickets for some local good cause? No, he won't. "I just don't have the time. I'll buy them all instead." Then, will he jump on a plane to Iraq and do glamorous and brave things as whizzy bullets speed about? No, only joking. He doesn't get requests like that any more. The next is actually a request to open some forthcoming donkey derby. Martin will probably accept this invitation. He's already done one donkey derby and "it was so sweet it brought tears to my eyes". No, he doesn't think it'll be necessary to take along a satellite link.
He insists he doesn't miss his old life in the least. When he was asked to stand against Neil Hamilton he was pretty much ripe for the picking, he says, in that the BBC had probably had enough of him - "they didn't know what to do with me any more" - just as he'd had enough of them. He is much against the increasing "Murdochisation" of BBC News which means, he claims, everything must be geared towards commercial advantage. He is not impressed with the new 24-hour station. "It seems to me extraordinary that the BBC is celebrating 75 years with the biggest waste of resources in those 75 years. What we need is less news, not more news." These days, he likes Terry Wogan and Radio 2.
Before he was approached he had never considered becoming a politician. Hadn't even voted for years. So what appealed to him? "The novelty, I suppose." The novelty? Surely if he'd been after novelty he could have just danced naked on the stage at the Windmill, which would have not only been novel, but also over with in one night instead of five years. "I'm not very good at dancing," he replies.
I suppose some people might argue there are no flies on Martin because he has bored them to death. Certainly, he is not very jokey and has a very big, solemn face. He would look good in a Strindberg play.
Anyway, mail dealt with, he lumbers off. He has osteoarthritis of both hips - brought on, he thinks, by years of wearing BBC body armour - and walks slowly and painfully like some sad, old circus bear. A watery, tinkling sound comes from the next room. I assume he is watering the plants because that's why we've come here. "I must pop back to water my plants," he had said after Handforth Station. I wander after him, gin in hand. He is not watering the plants. He is having a pee with the toilet door wide open. The thing about Martin Bell is that he really doesn't care who gets to see what. And I get to see quite a bit, as it happens. Actually, cancel out that Strindberg nonsense. He would go down rather well at the Windmill. He might even make a Chippendale, if only he could be encouraged to dance ...
Yes, he is very open, which is what made him the perfect anti-sleaze candidate. He doesn't even seem to have any hidden depths. By this, I don't mean he is stupid. He isn't, by any means. He just seems relatively uncomplicated and, yes, good.
Last week, he met Neil Hamilton for the first time. They met at Martin's office in the House of Commons. Neil is now Martin's constituent. Neil wanted Martin's help in appealing against the damning verdict of the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges. Martin has agreed. He will be raising a question about it today in the House. Martin could not turn him away. "He is my constituent, plus a very desperate and troubled man. He's been savaged by his enemies. He's been savaged by his friends
Has he ever done anything he is ashamed of? Yes, he confesses. It was in 1983, when the BBC was very interested in minor royals, and there was a rumour about the father of some duchess having fought alongside the Germans in the war. Martin, then in Washington, was dispatched to Industry, Illinois, to talk to the duchess's sister. "I felt a real creep. The story was not in the public interest at all. I was just playing the good soldier." He found the sister, who was nursing a husband dying of cancer. He got the quotes and sent them back. "I prayed the satellite would fail, but it didn't." And that's the worst thing you've ever done? "Yes."
Our day had actually started much earlier, at 9.30am, in the public library in the village of Handforth where Martin holds a surgery once every two months. He arrives with Pauline, his constituency manager. Pauline is a retired lady priest who wears a dog collar and carries a mobile phone. Martin, of course, turns up in one of his white suits. He has several, ranging from "pure white to off white". He started wearing them after he wore one once in a war zone and didn't get hurt.
The surgery goes on until noon. There's a nutter who complains the council are harassing him over the unkempt state of his garden. "It's upsetting my elderly mother," he says. "Oh, she lives with you, then," says Martin. "No, but it's still upsetting her." There's a CSA case, a father who claims he is paying too much towards the maintenance of his children. "I'm an expert when it comes to getting on with ex-wives," reassures Martin, who has two. Lastly, it's a woman worried about nuclear waste. "You've brought his problem to the right man! I was on Three Mile Island! I'm the most irradiated MP there is." He promises all his constituents that he will write to the relevant authorities. Afterwards, it's off to the station, so it really is just one thrill after another. How does he bear it? "It's all part of life's rich tapestry," he replies. "And I can really help people."
Certainly, he is beginning to find his feet. Last week, he attacked Labour in the House over the Formula One business, which he agrees is "shoddy" and "disappointing". The attack was good, he says, because it proves once and for all "I am an independent, and not some Labour stooge". He has never met Tony Blair and although he was recently invited to a reception at Number 10, he couldn't go because "I had a prior engagement to speak at the Cheshire Ladies' Tangent Club". Does he have any policies yet? "The wonderful thing about being an independent is that you don't have to have policies." How will he vote, say, when it comes to the ban on fox hunting? "I won't be voting for it. I'm a libertarian. I am here to defend people's liberties." Oh come on, I say. Surely democracy is as much about denying people liberties as awarding them. I mean, would you award people the liberty to attend public hangings? He accepts I have a point. Usually, I am not so clever. It must be the gin.
He was born in Suffolk, the grandson of Robert Bell, one-time news editor of The Observer, and son of Adrian Bell, farmer, author and compiler of the first ever Times Crossword. "He was a wonderful man. He was very clever, but very shy. He would spend hours in his study, groaning a lot. He had opinions about everything, and liked being known as the sage of Suffolk." His mother was a fine person, too. "She was very gentle, very lovely. Everyone adored her. The only time I ever saw her angry was when my father died. How dare he die and leave her alone? He had been her whole life. They were absolute best friends." When Martin appeared on In The Psychiatrist's Chair, Dr Anthony Clare tried to relate the serenity of his childhood to his later taste for war. Did he need to expose himself to danger to compensate for having had such an easy ride through his early years? Martin dismissed all this as "psychobabble" then as now.
He was dispatched to boarding school at eight because there were no good schools locally. His parents, who were not affluent by any means, had to make a lot of sacrifices to pay the fees. They never went on a holiday, as far as he can remember. To pay them back, he worked very hard, and went on to get a double first in English at Cambridge. He rather regrets this double first now. "I should have spent more time having fun. I was always slaving away. There was footlights and amateur dramatics and politics but I never did any of it." Girls? "Only in the most desultory way." When did he first lose his virginity? "I am not going to reveal that because I was very late, and I don't want to expose myself to contempt and ridicule." So he does have a secret. But I doubt there will be questions in the House about it.
He married a woman called Helen when he was 31, and had two daughters, Melissa and Catherine, who are both very beautiful. "Yes, aren't they?" Melissa, of course, packed in her job at Reuters to become Martin's PR manager during his campaign. "She offered her services after that business with Christine Hamilton on Knutsford Heath." He thought he had lost the election there and then. "I came across as a hopeless amateur, which I was. But I now realise the people of Tatton wanted a hopeless amateur, rather than a professional politician." He is a good father, I think. "My daughters are the best thing I ever did. I like having them around. I like their company."
This first marriage broke up after 10 years because he fell for an American TV reporter. "So, yes, my fault entirely." Guilt? Yes. "I can only put it down to the foolishness of youth." He married her but it lasted only four years. He currently has a lady friend and "has not ruled out" a third marriage.
Anyway, he's got to go and give a talk at some Royal Television Society do in Manchester. Can he give me a lift to the station? Yes please, I say, clambering into his Rover which is full of rubbish and gifts from constituents. No, not cash-stuffed envelopes, just books on the Cheshire countryside and big posters showing the scholastic achievements of various local schools. He doesn't think they need registering. Yes, he did once hear from Al Fayed. He called Martin when Martin announced he was standing. "He wanted to know if there was any way he could help me with my campaign. I told him he could help me by steering clear until after polling day." He drops me at the station. It is dark. "Thank you very much for a lovely night, Mr Martin Bell, MP," I say in my loudest voice. "Same time next week. Same rates?" He speeds off. Whoosh! A good man, but not very jokey, like I said.
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