Saturday 22 September 2012
Further to yesterday's obituary of Charles Richardson, he was my father's executor.
The two men met when Charlie went on the run in 1980 having broken out of prison. Charlie wrote a letter to the papers protesting about the inequities of the jail system; my father, Tony Van den Bergh, a BBC freelance for over 30 years, had met his sister-in-law Maureen some years before while doing a programme on long sentences, and knowing he could make contact with Richardson approached the BBC, who commissioned him to do an interview.
After several fraught meetings – mainly in vans driven to strange places – Charlie agreed to do the programme. A few weeks later my father and his girlfriend found themselves in Paris with Charlie and the journalist Lewis Chester from the Sunday Times, with whom my father was to write an article about the prison system. The police, having got wind of the story, approached the BBC, who promptly shopped my father to them. On his return my father refused to give any information, the programme was cancelled, and he headed off on holiday. The story of the BBC shopping their own man made the national papers, adding to the embarrassment of Thames Valley Police, who had been unable to track Charlie down.
Newly appointed as National Organiser for the NUJ, I found myself in the dubious and sometimes hilarious position of being used as an intermediary between the two men. Colleagues kept quiet when Charlie dropped in to the local pub, journalists pretended not to react when he rang during meetings, leaving strange names for me to ring back, simply asking me later "was it him?" I would smile and inwardly curse my father, particularly when I was stopped by the police on my way to and from negotiations in Ireland; or another time followed home by someone who turned out to be one of Charlie's boys making sure I got home all right after a trip away. At one point his brother Eddie asked me to try to persuade Charlie to give himself up as he was costing him a lot of money and he was fed up with playing spy games. Sensibly, I didn't try.
Charlie had become politicised while in prison, and had read the whole of Marx. I got used to letters asking me about the various disputes the NUJ were involved with, and others giving me advice on how to deal with them. I didn't always appreciate his help, particularly not when carried off one picket line by a burly steward on the grounds that "Charlie said you weren't to be hurt." He had great respect for the IRA men locked up with him, looking on them as political prisoners and making sure they got the regular allowances often withheld from them by wardens.
Charlie was an extremely intelligent, well-read, self-controlled man who had largely educated himself while in prison. My father said he was one of the cleverest men he had met, and that given another upbringing would have been a superb financier. A line was drawn under life before prison; he would have told me, but frankly I didn't want to ask. It was difficult not to be aware of who he was and of what his background was; the steely blue eyes that looked directly at you somehow emphasised that point, but he was a good friend of both my father and I, came to our birthday parties and to my wedding, and we trusted him.
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