I suppose I'd been pushing my luck a bit. I'd asked him to imagine that Tony Blair had been an MP while he was Prime Minister and wondered what the reaction in Cabinet might have been if Tony had expressed hisNew Labour beliefs. But Lord Callaghan was having none of it. "On the whole I think he's done brilliantly, there's no doubt about that," he said. "But I'm not going to make any comparisons or discuss anything of that sort."
We were speaking in his London bolthole, a flat in south-east London five minutes' drive from the House of Lords. The occasion for one of his rare interviews was the publication last week of Kenneth Morgan's biography, Callaghan: A Life, which weighs in at just under 800 pages and is considerably more entertaining and enlightening than itsunimaginative title suggests. And it's some life: childhood poverty in Portsmouth, service in the Navy during the Second World War and a political career that, uniquely, took in all four major offices of state - Home Secretary, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.
The subject of the biography has read it and seems to approve. "It's rather like reading your own obituary," he said, laughing. The reviews have been favourable and have tended to be reviews not just of the book but of Callaghan's career, and in particular his Prime Ministership. The Callaghan government and the woeful Winter of Discontent were swept under the carpet by the New Labour apparatchiks and Callaghan has maintained a dignified silence on the matter. "Yes, I've been blotted out of photographs, as it were", was all he would say when I mentioned this. But it seems that the time may have come for him to be rehabilitated. There's a view that if he'd gone to the country in 1978, instead of waiting until the next year, he might have sneaked in and lived on to reap the benefits of North Sea oil. There's also a general consensus that Callaghan is above all a very honourable and decent man.
He's 85 now and still sharp, although slowed down by arthritis. The south coast vowels are as fruity as ever. He's a regular attender at the House of Lords, where he can now run into his daughter Margaret Jay, who was recently elevated to the rank of Baroness. I wondered if they took the opportunity to sit together. "Oh no. She sits on the front bench and I'm only a humble backbencher," he said. "Now and again I slide on to the front bench and have a word with her."
He keeps himself busy. He's involved with various charitable organisations, enjoys his Sussex farm and his family is constantly growing (he has 10 grandchildren and three great-grand- children). He reads a lot, including a poem a day, and he writes occasional articles. "What else do I do with my time, dear?" he asked his wife Audrey. "I wash up, don't I?" Another guffaw. "Sometimes," he added slyly.
He told me he's in support of the increasing number of women in the House of Commons and wanted to take issue with one reviewer who called him chauvinistic. "I think I've always been in favour of women being able to live their own lives and follow their own careers," he said. "Would you say that I'm a chauvinist, dear?" Audrey thought not.
If he hadn't been a politician, he thinks he might have ended up as the General Secretary of his old union, the Inland Revenue Staff Federation. He might even have ended up in the Navy, Admiral Callaghan - it has a certain ring to it. "I doubt it," he said.
As he showed me to the door, he pointed out a photograph of a meeting of his old Cabinet. One by one, he went through the smiling faces of the Labour government the party chose to forget. It turned into a roll call of death. "Gone, gone, gone, he's still here, gone, gone, gone... It's extraordinary," he concluded sadly. "All that lot have gone..."
Going back to my roots
If you have an unusual surname, something like this may well have happened to you too. Last week, a letter dropped on to my doormat bringing me exciting news. "Dear Mr Hulse," it began, "I have exciting news for you and all Hulses!" It was from Brian R Hulse and he wanted to tell me about The Burke's Peerage World Book Of Hulses, "the only worldwide registry of families bearing the Hulse surname today". Brian informed me that the book covered topics such as "how the old and distinguished Hulse family got its name and what the Hulse name means". As it happens, I already know that it's an old Cheshire name which is a corruption of the word "hollows", which means my ancestors probably lived in the ground in Macclesfield or something.
The letter was accompanied by a postcard of Harold Brooks-Baker, the publishing director of Burke's Peerage. I got hold of his number and rang him up. He told me that these books cover about 3,000 names. They sold 106,000 copies last year and this year they've sold around 60,000. For the company, it's a profitable sideline to their core business of ancestor research. "There are some people who don't like it," said Mr Brooks-Baker, "but I don't agree. I think elitism can be carried too far." Presumably the affable fellow at Burke's Peerage who'd given me his number wouldn't agree. "I think they're awful," he said when I spoke to him. "People absolutely lap it up, it's quite funny."
Electronic hair net caught in the web
"Everybody's got a problem with their hair," says Grant Peet, managing director of Trevor Sorbie, and that, apparently, is why the Covent Garden- based salon set up an Internet site. Visitors can read about Trevor's hairstyling landmarks, such as The Wedge and The Scrunch, and they can write in with their hair problems. "There's a lot of home colouring and perming going," says Grant."We get a lot of people who've been using these colours from pharmacies and it didn't turn out as they expected. We invite them to come and have a consultation." So is Grant a Nethead? Far from it. "I play with the Internet a bit," he says. "I like to, er... surf? Is that what the word is?" The website is at http://www.trevorsorbie.com.
Will a food critic eat his words?
This month's issue of Tatler is accompanied by its glossy Restaurant Guide, an annual event which reminds me of one of the publishing world's finest howlers. It happened in the 1993 guide. One of the categories describing the restaurants was "feel". The Canteen was "stylish, elegant and clean", Claridge's was "grand and luxurious" and so on. The entry for Mogens Tholstrup's restaurant Daphne's, however, was rather enigmatic. It read: "Rory to supply words."
"It wasn't my fault," says Rory Ross, who as restaurant critic for Tatler has been supplying all the words for their restaurant guide for most of a decade which has seen the rise of the celebrity chef, the arrival of fusion cuisine and an explosion of new restaurants in the capital. Rory likes "simple restaurants with good service and good food" and his personal favourites are "the Halkin hotel for the food and wine, and Zafferano for the overall feeling of warmth and loveliness".
As a result of an enforced change of venue, the launch party for the new guide won't be taking place until next Tuesday. In previous years, it's always been held prior to publication. "Everyone will have seen what I've said about them," says Rory nervously. "So I expect a queue of little rat-faced chefs saying, `You said the vegetables were underdone. I totally disagree with you. How dare you say that'?"
Gordon counts his blessings
IF YOU'RE a nerdy mathematical type who knows what a Mersenne prime number is, you can skip this paragraph. For the benefit of everyone else I can tell you that if you multiply the number 2 by itself a certain number of times and then subtract 1 from the total and the result is a prime number, then what you have is a Mersenne prime number, named after a 17th century French monk. An example is 2 to the power of 3. Until last week, there were only 35 known Mersenne primes, but now there are 36.
It was Gordon Spence, an IT manager who discovered that 2 to the power of 2,976,221 minus 1 results in what is the largest known Mersenne prime number, one which would fill a 450-page book. He read in a computing magazine about the search for Mersenne primes co-ordinated via the Internet by George Woltman in Florida. He became one of 2,000 volunteers who check ranges of numbers using Woltman's software. Each number takes about 15 days to check on a computer running 24 hours a day.
"I'd been away for the weekend," says Gordon. "I came back and the computer was beeping away. I thought something had gone wrong, so I turned the screen on and it said: `New prime number.' I thought it must be a mistake." But he found it wasn't a mistake. "It was quite a good feeling," he says. "The odds are thousands to one against."
Although his discovery has no practical use whatsoever, the method used to find it does have applications in the field of computer encryption. And the search for further Mersenne primes continues. "We estimate the next one should be about 12 to 15 months away," he says. "As we speak, the computer is running away. You never know, if I've found one, I might get lucky and find another. It'sunlikely but not impossible."Reuse content