One of the many good things about Michael Foot, who died this week aged 96, was his refusal to accept honours. With his many achievements as a politician and a writer he could have had anything he chose – Sir Michael, Lord Foot of Hampstead Heath, the Companion of Honour, even the Order of Merit. But he went to his grave as plain Michael Foot, an example to us all.
I find it hard to think of him in isolation from his extraordinary family – the patriarch Isaac Foot (Methodist, Liberal and pillar of the Temperance League), his brothers (all distinguished in their different fields) and his beloved nephew, my great friend Paul. All of them showed the traces of a Cornish accent and an admirable – even if mistaken – faith in the essential goodness of the human race.
Addiction is known to run in the genes, and three generations of Feet – Isaac, Michael and Paul – suffered from bibliomania, the addiction to second-hand books. The bibliomane is no different from any other addict. Going into a bookshop will give him the same feeling of excitement and anticipation that an alcoholic experiences on entering a pub.
Suffering myself from a mild form of the compulsion I used to accompany Paul round the London bookshops and he would be welcomed by booksellers who already knew Michael as a valued customer. Sometimes we would run into Michael himself hurrying up Charing Cross Road with a precious bundle of books under his arm.
Neither Michael nor Paul could hope to match the old man Isaac, whose library numbered at least 70,000 books. It was said of him that he was so obsessed by the printed word that he was unable to throw away even the booklet of instructions which came with a bottle of aspirin.
That nasty-party tag won't go away
In his racy, very readable new book The End of the Party, Andrew Rawnsley relates how Tony Blair relied on his charm to secure his aims and how very often it was successful – except when it came to rallying support for the invasion of Iraq from uncommitted countries at the UN.
And the charm factor is still being marketed. You can see it on the jacket of Blair's memoirs due out in September and titled simply The Journey. (From where to where, we might well ask.) Here is Blair in his open-necked shirt smiling at us in that wistful way of his in the hope that we will part with £25. It remains to be seen if the old magic still works.
David Cameron models himself closely on Blair but lacks the essential charm factor and for that reason may not be so successful. Cameron is at pains to persuade us that his party has changed. It is no longer the nasty party but has a modern and compassionate face, which means being very keen on women, gays and members of all the ethnic communities – not the poor or the old, you note, because there is nothing very sexy about them.
Unfortunately, there are signs that there is still nastiness around despite attempts to keep it concealed. This is the trouble with Lord Ashcroft, doubts about whose tax status have been rumbling away for years. But more damaging to Cameron are the clips on TV of Ashcroft in his House of Lords robes. Appearances can be deceptive. All the same, I am left with a strong feeling that Ashcroft is not nice and may even be quite nasty.
Searle's a rarity: a cartoonist who can draw
I was at the Bath Literary Festival on Tuesday helping to promote a book of cartoons from The Oldie magazine. I pointed out to the audience that there were basically two schools of cartoonists: those who can draw and those who can't.
The most famous of the can't-draw school was the American cartoonist James Thurber, who invented an entirely new type of cartoon not only badly drawn but surreal in inspiration. "That's my first wife up there and this is the present Mrs Harris," says a party host pointing to a female figure crouched on top of his bookcase. Thurber's editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was baffled and demanded to know if the woman was alive or stuffed.
The best example of the cartoonist who can draw is Ronald Searle who this week celebrated his 90th birthday at his home in France. Appearing on Channel 4 news he looked alert and lively and is still hard at work. Searle's drawings from a Japanese POW camp drawn on any bits of paper he could find show his skill as a master draughtsman. As for his cartoons he will always be remembered for St Trinian's and for Nigel Molesworth, however much he may want us to appreciate the rest of his massive output.