Michael Foot: Books, books, and more books - a passionate literary man
Wednesday 03 March 2010
Michael Foot was a passionate politician and parliamentarian, but he was no less passionate a literary figure. Two or three rooms in his Hampstead home were stacked with books from floor to ceiling, all of them carefully annotated.
He was not only a voracious reader but was a prolific writer as well. And it was not only political books which he loved, but also the works of essayists, poets, social historians and novelists.
In short, Michael Foot had a lifelong love affair with books and literature generally. It was this profound knowledge of English literature and history which set him apart from most other politicians at Westminster.
Most of them are obsessed with the political process to the exclusion of all else. Mr Foot, easily the most attractive Parliamentary speaker of his day, had much more to offer Westminster than the great majority of his colleagues. He had a life outside the hothouse of Parliament.
The spontaneity of his oratory in the House of Commons was a delight and in marked contrast to the days when he was a minister and was compelled to read from ministerial briefs compiled by some unimaginative civil servant.
This he hated and regarded as a chore. He found it difficult to read this turgid, flat prose in anything other than a wooden manner.
His own major political work was his biography of his soulmate at Westminster, Aneurin Bevan, first published in 1963 and reprinted in many further editions, including in paperback. It is now regarded as the definitive work on Bevan and is required reading for anyone who has ambitions within the Labour Party.
Another political work of his was Another Heart And Other Pulses - The Alternative To The Thatcher Society, and Britain In Crisis, De-industrialisation And How To Fight It, of which he was part-author.
But to the general reader, his strictly literary non-political output was always hugely attractive. His friend, the Labour peer Lord Hattersley, has described his book Debts Of Honour as a compilation of "stupendous biographical essays". They included The Defence Of Beelzebub, which is a vigorous defence of the former Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook.
Foot was the biographer of H G Wells, produced The Thomas Paine Reader and wrote a "vindication of Byron" called The Politics Of Paradise.
He was also responsible for another fascinating work, A Complete Collection Of Genteel And Ingenious Conversation.
And although Foot was editor for a time of the London Evening Standard, he was never a journalist in the hard-nosed sense of a reporter. He was more like a GK Chesterton figure, the type of person who haunted the Fleet Street coffee shops and discussed literary matters in the most discursive and relaxed way imaginable.
His one-liners in the House of Commons and elsewhere were legendary. Once when a Conservative MP rebuked him by saying "That's only words", he retorted instantly: "What do you expect? Algebra?"
One commentator praised him thus: "He is the only man who can get an audience to its feet by exclaiming 'And!'."
But literature was far from being his only passion outside Westminster. Throughout his life, he was a fervent supporter of Plymouth Argyle, the town of his birth.
As a boy, his father regularly took him to Home Park, and he loyally supported them ever since.
Foot became a director of the club in 2001 and two years later, to mark his 90th birthday, the club "signed him up".
Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Michael Foot appeared some years ago in the Daily Mirror. It simply said this: "He was a good man, fallen among politicians."
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