Just as well he's hard to discombobulate ...

Interview; PADDY ASHDOWN

It is 2.30pm in Bridgwater High Street, Somerset. Paddy Ashdown, out pressing the flesh and distributing yellow balloons to gawping children, approaches the flower-seller on the corner, who gives him a big bunch of something yellow "for the wife".

Jane is about somewhere, but Paddy can't locate her. "Janie? Janie?" he cries. No response. So he whistles a well-practised, high-pitched, three-note whistle.

"It's the family whistle," he explains, "although when you do it in the house you never know if you're going to get the wife or the dog." He laughs heartily, as does the flower-seller. Then Paddy quickly adds: "That wasn't a sexist remark. Jane whistles for me, too."

Jane and the dog eventually turn up. They look a bit sour and tired. Perhaps neither much likes being whistled for. But then again, it's already been quite a long day.

It started at the crack of dawn, when the Liberal Democrats' battle bus left Westminster for a campaigning day in the West Country. Paddy has a nice little office on the top of the bus, with phones and faxes and a bit of a desk and squishy seats. I think, probably, Paddy would like to hear it referred to as "presidential".

Jane Ashdown, who is wearing something sturdy in tweed, is with Paddy today. She doesn't always accompany him; she has a lot to do in the constituency. She has brought Luke, the family mongrel. Last election, Luke was pictured with Paddy on the front of The Sunday Times. "After that," she declares gaily, "we got lots of letters from people who said, no, they weren't going to vote for us, but they'd vote for the dog."

Paddy is a big man - stirringly fit-looking for 56 - with a sculpturally crinkled hairdo, a large nose with a bluish tinge to it and a Mongolian look around the eyelids. Apparently, a lot of women find him quite sexy. But does he think he's sexy? "Well, I know I'm not ugly."

What does he think his image is? "I really couldn't say," he retorts stiffly, while looking towards Jane, perhaps in the hope she will say something nice. "Well, I know what he isn't," she says. "He isn't any of those Action Man, Rambo things. All that macho stuff ... it's crap."

Paddy looks a little crestfallen. I suspect he rather likes all the former marine, saw-live-action-in-Borneo stuff. Certainly, a lot of what he says begins with: "When I was in the Special Boat Service ..." Or: "When I first joined the Navy ..."

For most, though, Paddy will always be seen as less of a he-man than a Walter Mitty sort, someone who has spent much of his life chasing dreams that will never come true. Paddy in No 10? Paddy as the power broker in a hung parliament?

So what is Paddy Ashdown actually for? "I am," he announces in his big, beautiful, reverberating voice, "one of only three people in Britain who can stand up and say how the country should be run." It won't bother you that you'll never end up in a government, then? "Thoughts like that never even cross my mind," he cries. "I am a very happy, fulfilled man."

I wonder, though, whether he sometimes gets downhearted. He says not. He says work "is the only way I know I'm alive". When he was a marine, he continues, he could never be broken during interrogation exercises. No matter that they took away his clothes. No matter that he was cold. No matter that he was hungry. No matter that he hadn't slept for five nights. Ultimately, his commander said to him: "Paddy. There's only one thing that would break you. If I locked you in a room and gave you nothing to do, you'd soon spill the beans." Paddy reckons he was dead on.

Would he describe himself as a workaholic? "Perhaps," he shrugs. "Yes! He is!" hollers Jane. "Well, let's put it this way, I never leave anything in my in-tray overnight." he concedes.

Certainly, little beyond politics seems ever to touch him. In the past 13 years, he reckons he has seen only five films. He is not terribly gregarious, certainly isn't clubbable, and might even be a loner. He isn't into soaps - "I have never knowingly watched an episode of EastEnders in my life" - or Hello! He reads only one book a year, a biography while on holiday in the summer, even though he claims to love words. "Words," he cries, "are the stuff of politics." Does he have a favourite word? Yes, he likes "discombobulate". No, he does not like "hypothecation". "It's a very bad word for what is actually a very good thing," he says.

Possibly, he works all the time because he's frightened that, if he doesn't, he'll lose everything. His father, who had been a colonel in India before returning home to Northern Ireland to run a pig farm, lost everything. His business sense was poor. And it was, says Paddy, a terrible thing to witness.

"I watched it all happen very close up," he recalls. "My father carried it all with immense dignity, but was in the most appalling pain. He couldn't bear it that he couldn't care for his family. There was this appalling dinner where, in his faltering, rather ineffective way, he tried to explain to my brother and sisters and me (Paddy's the oldest of seven) why he had failed. The tears ran down his face. And mine." He then adds: "That was the saddest day of my life."

The Ashdowns' first grandchild is due any day now. Will he be capable of leaving off sufficiently to make it to France, where his daughter now lives, when the baby is born? It seems unlikely, but he claims he will. "I won't like letting people down, but family must come first," he insists. He then says all these rumours about him not wanting to be seen as a grandfather, because it will age him in relation to Major and Blair, are absolute rubbish. "I long for this grandchild, long for it," he howls.

Noon, Weston-super-Mare. Paddy meets the local candidate - a man who, judging by his green-black, Leonard Rossiter suit, could profit greatly from a session with Colour Me Beautiful - then visits the shop and storerooms of Avon Community Energy Services Ltd. After a fascinating talk with the owner about boiler cladding, it's off to the home of some Lib Dem- supporting pensioners due to have draft excluders installed. Paddy says he's not going there on the bus. Instead, he'll go with John, one of the workers, in his van. Paddy tries a Starsky and Hutch-style jump into the passenger seat, but manages to give himself a knock on the shin. This might be a trick he picked up in Borneo.

While his parents and siblings upped it to Australia, he stayed here, applying for a naval scholarship to avoid his father having to pay further school fees. Paddy had attended Bedford School, an English public school, from the age of 11.

He joined the Marines, then married Jane. They met when he was 18. It was, he recalls, 16 December 1959, the day of a Marine Christmas ball in Exeter for which he didn't have a proper date. It was, in fact, unlike Paddy not to have a proper date. In his penultimate year at Bedford, they took away his prefect status for arranging liaisons with pupils from a local girls' school. ("I never knew that!" shrieks Jane.)

He took a cousin along, while Jane was the cousin of one of Paddy's fellow marines. Jane had heard a lot about Paddy, and had even been warned against him. "My cousin, the miserable bugger, told me I was too young and naive to meet this rumbustious Irishman." But she did meet him. Then she danced with him. Then, the next day, they wandered around Exeter cathedral musing upon architecture and poetry. In those days, he had time to look at buildings and read a bit of John Donne. They married when he was 20 and she was 21. "Yes, we were achingly young," says Jane.

She has always been a supportive wife, and no more so than during the "Paddy Pantsdown" episode. Who knows what possessed Paddy here. But I reckon Jane loves him dearly, as he does her. He says she is "the centre" of his life - a brilliant cook, a brilliant mother, a terrific gardener. Last year, he boasts, she won their village's Garden of the Year contest. "But Paddy, there are only three-and-a-half gardens in the village," protests Jane.

In 1971, he left the Navy to join the Foreign Office, becoming a diplomat based in Geneva before returning to this country, to Jane's home town, Yeovil, to stand as a Liberal candidate. Why did he chuck in what could have been a high-flying diplomatic career? Because, he says, "I really wanted to do something for the country I love. It sounds pompous, I know, but it's true."

It took him seven years to overturn the large Conservative majority in Yeovil. The night he won, he says, was the best night of his life. "I thought I would never achieve more."

1pm. Weston-super-Mare. Home of Mr and Mrs Brian Hampson. Paddy leaps from John's van, taking in the Hampsons' little pebble-dashed semi. "Ah, Thirties," he says. "No, post-war, actually," says Mr Hampson. "Ah, yes, post-war," nods Paddy, without seeming discombobulated in the least.

Mrs Hampson is all of a dither. ITN have turned up, as have Sky, the BBC, Channel One, the Press Association, IRN and umpteen local reporters and photographers. "I've only put four cups out," she keeps wailing unhappily. Paddy nails a plastic draft-excluder to the front door. "Round of applause, please," he cries when he's finished. The Hampsons ask for Paddy's autograph, and present their autograph book. "Oh," whoops Paddy enthusiastically. "Have you got a lot of stars in there?" "We've got David Steel," the Hampsons chorus.

As we leave, Jane looks back at the house and her husband's attempt at carpentry and says: "I'm sure they'll put it right later." Paddy, she then complains, is useless at DIY. "You can always tell if Paddy's put something up, because its crooked and has his blood on it somewhere."

We talk about the things you need special hormones for. If you have the special hormone for DIY, you can do it, no problem. If you do not, you will never be able to.

Jane and I reckon there's a special hormone for getting out of taxis elegantly. Paddy reckons women have a special hormone for knowing which colour goes with which. "I come down in a shirt and tie - in my favourite shirt and tie - thinking I look very nice, only to have Jane scream: 'Those colours clash terribly. Go and change.' I can never see it myself."

I ask if he has the tidy hormone. "Yes!" he says. "No," retorts Jane. "You do in your office, but you don't at home." "Yes, I'm obsessionally tidy in my office. I must know where everything is. When I first became an MP I shared an office with Penhaligon. He had piles of papers everywhere, plus piles of old copies of the Cornish Times, plus his underpants hung out on the radiator."

He shudders with horror, then says you need a special hormone to live in north London. Beg pardon? "I had to go to Willesden recently and it was like Uzbekistan, just great desert tracks." Then, panic-stricken, he turns to Jane and says: "Do we have seats in north London?" No, she says, we don't. "Thank God for that," he gasps thankfully.

3pm. Bridgwater. The Fire Station. Paddy is asked if he would like to go up in the new, hydraulic, 23-metre ladder on the back of one of the fire engines. Paddy doesn't look keen. The firemen tell him Tom King, the local MP, did it. Paddy gets the safety harness and helmet on. He goes up, comes down, then has trouble getting the helmet off. We must remember Marines have never been big on helmets. As we leave, one fireman says to another: "Bloody hell, we've got another five weeks of this."

Come the election, the Liberal Democrats are as likely to lose seats as win them. If they do end up with fewer, will Paddy be considered merely a spent force atop a third party of diminishing importance? And, if so, will he resign? He says he will do whatever the party wish him to do. Although I think what he really means is, Not On Your Nelly. I mean, what would he do all day? Apart from whistle, and see who came bounding in first, the wife or the dog.

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