Miles Kington: A peculiar Sunday lunch with Sir Edward Heath

I can't remember much about the other guests, but we all had one thing in common. None of us could make out why we had been invited
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The Independent Online

Sir Edward Heath was not what you might call a comic figure, at least not intentionally. I cannot recall anything he said in his lifetime that made me fall around. So I feel I must record, with some surprise, that posthumously he has made up for it. When I read the details of his will, I couldn't help laughing out loud.

The joke was that although his estate was worth over £5m, he made only two specific personal bequests. One was of £20,000, left to his sister-in-law. The other was of £2,500, left to his housekeeper. The rest - all that five million - went into the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Trust, which was set up to preserve his house in Salisbury. The house, called Arundells, is to be preserved on two grounds: architectural, because it is a nice old house, and "special historical interest because it was the home of Sir Edward Heath". (His words.)

Thus does self-regard last beyond the grave. You cannot take it with you, but you can use it to get someone else to convert your house into a multimillion-pound shrine to your memory, while leaving a bit of small change to the housekeeper.

The funny thing is that I rather think Sir Edward Heath's house was becoming a shrine to himself long before he died. I think that, because I had been there and seen for myself. This happened about a dozen years ago, when my wife and I were surprised to receive an invitation to Sunday lunch at his house in Salisbury - surprised, in that although I had once or twice shaken hands with him at functions, I don't think he had the faintest idea who I was. Still, Salisbury was just down the road, a free lunch is a free lunch and curiosity is curiosity, and as both of us were intrigued to see how a retired statesman lives, we duly accepted, got dressed up, arrived, passed through the light security cordon and assembled for lunch with the other guests.

I cannot now remember much about them. One was a bishop, I am pretty sure of that. Another was an American, and one was a young man involved in sailing. Perhaps they were both the same person. But we all, about 10 of us, had one thing in common. None of us could make out why we had been invited.

There was a point in the lunch when Heath was called out to take the telephone - I think he was being briefly interviewed down the line by BBC radio - and during his absence we all got talking about our previous relationship with Heath. None of us really had any. We had all been asked out of the blue, for no reason we could think of. I managed later to have a quick word with his secretary, who was on duty, and she said, Oh, Sir Edward had asked her to put together a guest list, and she had put me down because she recently enjoyed some pieces of mine and quite wanted to meet me ...

A man without friends, then? I have no idea. What I do know is that it was a house which did not feel lived in. When we had a pre-prandial drink, we stood in the sitting room which housed one of his Steinway grand pianos. Heath was well known to be a man who liked to play, so I could not understand why the piano was not ready for action. The cover was down over the keyboard, and the main lid, which has to be open for a grand piano to sound properly, was down. Nor could it be raised in a hurry, as it was carefully covered with framed photographs. And all these photographs were of Heath himself. You and I have photos of other people in our house, but Heath had only pictures of himself, and only in the company of famous people. Heath with the Pope, Heath with the Queen, Heath with Indira Gandhi...

People who play the piano like to have one available for playing. They do not like to use it as a display case for self-portraits. I felt instinctively at that moment that if Heath had ever once been a spontaneous musician, the day had long passed. It would have interfered with the creation of the shrine, which was already well advanced. The "home of Sir Edward Heath"? I fancy it might be nearer the mark to say, "the house in which Sir Edward Heath lived".