Freud on Freud: 'If words were his craft, then food was his purpose'
Matthew Freud's moving tribute to his 'polymath' father at the funeral last Friday
Monday 27 April 2009
The opening page of my father's autobiography reads as follows: "I was 12 years old. My prep school English master had given as homework 'write your obituary in not less than three pages'. I described my own death in some detail – painful, slow, suffered with not much courage. I wrote of Freud's impeccable prowess as a wicket-keeper, and the city firm he had founded which made him one of the richest men of his day. I mentioned the yacht and the women who were noticeable by wearing black lipstick, and finished the piece with the belief that 'his behaviour in later life meant that he will be little mourned'. "
It turns out to be less than prophetic. His death was so quick as to be neither painful nor demanding of courage. He was certainly an able wicket-keeper, turning out for the Lords Taverners for many years. But the city firm, yachts and women noticeable for any particular shade of lipstick were not in his future.
Most importantly, his behaviour in later life seems to have had no effect on the great number of people mourning his passing.
What he did not predict at the age of 12 was that a country that he had adopted from his native Germany only two years earlier and with no mastery of the English language would eventually adopt him so firmly as one of their own. The obituaries of the last week individually cite his achievements in many different areas of British life, but they have mostly concluded that he was one of that rare breed of person who truly warrants the title of national treasure. His fame, which irritated him during his life, produced in death not just extensive media tributes but also such a prolific outpouring of twitters and blogs and postings that one commentator described it as a spontaneous national round of applause.
My father was perhaps the definition of a modern polymath, impossible to contain in one occupational category. Conventional biographies usually abbreviated it to "writer, broadcaster and former member of parliament", but in reality he was a journalist and author as well as writer, a performer as well as broadcaster, restaurateur and cook, a gambler and horse owner, university rector, business consultant, charity fundraiser, columnist, panelist and most importantly to those of us in this beautiful church: husband, father, grandfather, friend and colleague.
And it wasn't always easy to be his friend. We had to grow accustomed to his unusual telephone etiquette, sometimes overlook his intense inquisition of hapless waiters or restaurant managers. I personally had a policy of never eating anything from his plate, for fear of what may have been added by a kitchen seeking revenge for his exacting and often bizarre requests or objections. The day after he died, my sister Emma gave my mother a gift basket containing cigarettes, garlic, perfume and a pair of Dr Scholl sandals, all of which had been on her contraband list for over 50 years.
Dad was a working journalist for 55 years, from the day in 1954 that Chris Brasher commissioned a match report of a Portsmouth home game to last Wednesday, when he died writing his column for the Racing Post. He became an undercover investigative journalist for Queen magazine and long before the Fake Sheikh his "Mr Smith" persona was stitching up the pompous and self-important institutions of Sixties London. Despite being sacked by incoming proprietor Rupert Murdoch as chief football writer of the Sun (since forgiven), he went on to become the highest-paid journalist in Britain and believed himself to be the only octagenarian to have three separate national newspapers run his articles on one day last month.
But if words were his craft, then food was his purpose. It was the constant theme of everything he did. From his early career in restaurants and hotels to his position alongside Fanny Cradock as the first celebrity TV chef, long before the term was even imagined. Cooking and eating was in almost every article, no matter what the subject on the card; indeed lists of ingredients was his long standing and very effective cheat on Just A Minute. To his family and friends, the memory of dad in the kitchen, and demanding that we eat and acknowledge the superiority of his creations, will endure for ever. As I am afraid will the disgusting taste of a legendary hot paté we were forced to eat one Christmas.
But as great polymaths do, he blended his interests. As a consultant to most of the nation's race-course caterers, he took it upon himself to visit every bar, restaurant and whelk stand, from the great tracks of the world to the lowliest point-to-point.
I am not sure there is any fraternity that will miss him more than the trainers, bookies, jockeys, stewards and racegoers of England and Ireland. So often accompanied by his closest friends, Andy Wright and Bob Solomon, he was a horse owner, a gambler and follower of the turf who championed the sport of kings on behalf of every punter who he felt deserved a reasonably priced parking space, honest odds, an adequate measure of alcohol, and a sandwich made with care and containing ingredients of appropriate quantity and quality. Whilst not always a winner, he went to Exeter races last week and we are grateful for the honesty of our undertakers who returned the £2,000 they found in the pocket of the suit he had been wearing that day and today.
Adrian Gill said the thing he loved most about my father was that he didn't just "not suffer fools gladly" but that he would go out of his way to find fools "not to suffer enthusiastically"; and nowhere did his appetite for confrontation find a better forum than in politics.
He was prouder of his 14 years as the member of parliament for the Isle of Ely than of any other period of his life. From his shock by-election victory (on the same day as Cyril Smith) in 1973 to his equally surprising ejection in 1987, he championed the rights and causes of his 70,000 constituents with a dedication and diligence that shocked those that had dismissed him as a celebrity playing at politics. I remember a childhood filled with envelope stuffing, local surgeries and fete openings, letters and petitions to challenge parole hearings and protect local businesses. Using the full force of his intellect and influence, he was a constituency MP of a calibre rarely seen then and even less now.
But his luck as a gambler did not desert him in parliament and he drew the first place in the Private Members' Bill ballot at odds of some 500 to one. And having briefly considered trying to legalise cannabis, he put forward a Freedom of Information act that, whilst not passed into law, certainly led to the repeal of the Official Secrets Act.
But above his enduring passions for writing, food, gambling and politics, I think my dad would have wanted me to talk about his family. As the product of a displaced family and famously strained fraternal relationships, he had a very clear and personal view of the family that he and my mother would create. It was firstly enormously inclusive. Secondly it was celebratory of the individual.
My dad always said that he didn't want to treat us as "the children". He would find time for us individually, taking Dominic with him on a transatlantic air race, entering backgammon tournaments with Nicky, touring the cider makers of Brittany with me and Emma. And his support in any endeavour we chose was unflinching. Whether it be funding Nicola's dubious horse trading, Dominic's university research into the effects of alcohol, coaching Emma's TV career interviewing celebrities in bed, or clearing up after my early and fantastically unsuccessful entrepreneurial exploits, he celebrated our successes and mitigated our failures with the love of a father and the pride of a patriarch.
And of course he delighted in well-earned recognition. This is the last page of his autobiography, and talks about one day in 1973: "Other Freuds had been nominated for Nobel and Turner Prizes, received honorary doctorates, academic awards, freedoms of cities, companionships of honour. This Freud had been elected to parliament to represent 70,000 citizens. 'Why aren't you looking happier?' asked Jill. Good question – it suddenly occurred to me that after nine years of fame, I now had something solid about which to be famous. I put on my happy look.
"After an hour of drinking lukewarm champagne, and jumping up and down a bit, it was decided to have a celebratory motorcade around the Isle. I was to stand in the back of an open pick-up van with Matthew, aged nine, by my side. There were 50 cars behind us, blaring horns and flashing headlights and we had been awarded a police escort.
"People waved and cheered, we waved back, and Matthew said: 'I think you are now the most important person in the whole world.' Deep down, just for a brief moment, I was tempted to agree with him. But remembering my role of father, I modified his opinion to 'one of the most important in the Isle of Ely'. Seeing his disappointment, I added 'which is one of the most important places in the whole world'."
Actually he was wrong again. To me and my family he was the most important person in the whole world and for all that he was, we will miss him everyday.
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