There are two sure signs you are in love with someone. You spend idle moments imagining gifts you could buy them. You want to punch anyone who puts them down. I confess to having had both these feelings about my friend Michael Foot. The person I wanted to punch had asked why we should care about someone who looks as if they have had a reverse lobotomy.
To understand why we should care about him, why we will always care about him and why we should punch people who say things like that, I want to think about the giving of gifts.
Aside from politics, people, dogs, whisky and Plymouth Argyle, the only things that seem to matter to Michael are books. Anyone who cared about food would have stopped eating at the Gay Hussar in Soho decades ago. It is best not to mention his dress sense. Jill, his late wife, taught him all he knows about art and, I suspect, music.
But words are his domain. He writes his name in pencil in all his books. He puts in the date, and, if interesting, the place he first read the book, and on each re-reading he writes in the book again. He underlines, inscribes and consumes books – all habits learned from his father, Isaac. “Read every damn word, the whole lot,” is a characteristic phrase.
Our friendship has been an extended seminar featuring an amazing set of introductions. We’ve been joined along the way by Byron, Hazlitt, Heine, Swift, Montaigne, Sterne and all the rest.
It has been a huge privilege to work on three books with Michael, and in that time his gifts have not just been books but lessons about life.
The gifts of how to live that one gets from knowing him are first, how to be, then how to read, and finally, the importance of being yourself. The first way he teaches you how to be yourself is in his political philosophy and attitude to the sanctity of humanity. He is not a pacifist, but he puts humanity first. Giving is his natural way of being and it is infectious as a way to live. The second way is by personal example, by the way in which he has stayed himself.
The makeover, reinvention, therapeutic culture we inhabit hit a granite sense of self when it came up against Michael Foot. It is shattered by his canon of ideas, writers and values. In a world in which people struggling to be individual end up being more and more like each other, he has managed to stay himself. He teaches us that it is essential to be ourselves, no matter what the world says. This is a self in which the needs of others are as important as the need to be me. It is socialist, but libertarian socialism of a utopian kind which sits more easily with his long commitment to freedoms of expression … than with his abiding respect for trade-union restrictive practices and closed shops.
Words are also his weapons of choice. His view is that if something appears in a newspaper it matters, that the world has moved on. That there is a public conversation and debate that is sufficiently closely observed that a well-placed article can change its terms. In all of this, the words are central: words for love but also sometimes for hate.
Like anyone in love, I cannot understand why everyone cannot see how perfect he is.
Each time I go around [to Michael’s house] there are more books in piles, new books, books for review … a life library is being disbursed so the books can have new lives in new hands, but it is a sad sight nevertheless. The whole lot and wonderful house should be bought for the nation and preserved as a monument to one of the great political and literary lives of the past 100 years. When Michael reads this last sentence he will snort: “Bollocks.” Not his most eloquent debating phrase, as his late nephew Paul Foot used to comment, but often his most effective.