The day Michael Foot stood me up for Margaret Thatcher

Twenty years ago . . .

It was late 1990, and as a middling, slightly distracted student, I was struggling my way through a dissertation on 1930s Labour foreign policy. The conceit was nice -- was there a coherent, thought-through alternative to appeasement? -- but progress was slow and meandering.

Fortunately, for me and my 10,000 words unwritten, I was going to meet Michael Foot. Foot had been Labour leader just seven years before, but I was going to talk to him about events six decades earlier.

He was the perfect "primary source", as a founding staffer from early 1937 of Tribune (issues of which I pored through for a week at Labour's old Walworth Road HQ), but also as co-author of Guilty Men. Writing under the pen-name Cato, he and his fellow authors took apart Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy; the book was a bestseller.

It took a couple of false starts before I finally made it to Norman Shaw North, where his parliamentary office was based. On one occasion, Foot cancelled on me because he wanted to be in the House for Margaret Thatcher's final Commons appearance as leader. (Asked many years later by Channel 4 News's Jon Snow what he made of Thatcher, he looked, laughed and just said: "Unspeakable.")

I was halfway down the M1 between Leeds and London when I was stood up, but it was worth the wait and the inconvenience.

When we spoke a week or so later, Foot was articulate, deeply knowledgeable, enthusiastic and, above all, enormously generous with his time: our discussion ran across one and a half TDK C90 cassettes.

During those two hours or so, he recalled the events and minutiae of the 1930s with a clarity at odds with his Fleet Street caricature. Despite his amazing contribution, I still wouldn't recommend the dissertation, but the tapes would be worth a second listen. If only I could remember where I put them.

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder