Diary: Anthony Howard

How I became TV’s memory man...

The Barack Obama visit ought to count as a plus for Gordon Brown. True, it was all due to the luck of the draw – the UK’s chairmanship of the G20. But it’s still not every day that US presidents call in on London. In fact, in his five years in office, I don’t think LBJ ever did so – not even for Churchill’s funeral in January 1965 (though that may have been tit-for-tat for Churchill’s own unaccountable failure to attend Roosevelt’s obsequies at Hyde Park, New York, back in April 1945). Otherwise, most US presidents seem to have shown up at least once, though seldom as early in their term of office as Obama did this week. I suspect he also managed to sprinkle more stardust over No 10 than any White House incumbent has contrived to do since JFK popped in to London – ostensibly to attend his Radziwill niece’s christening – in June 1961.

What precisely is the case for, and the justification of, the House of Lords as it is at present constituted? I was invited there for lunch last week and was struck more than ever by what an antiquated anomaly it has become. Almost a sixth of its members still sit there by virtue of birth (forget about that 92 figure usually given for hereditaries – with office-holders thrown in, it’s more like 100 plus) and most of the rest are either dodgy government placements or self-nominated, self-promoting worthies masquerading as “people’s peers”, all backed up by a dingy collection of party has-beens or never-weres owing everything to the 18th-century principle of patronage. It defies belief that a supposedly reforming government should have let this bizarre assembly of lucky-dip legislators survive for as long as it has – indeed, right to the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

It looks to me as if the OUP has caught a bit of a cold with the latest Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Why else should it be flogging off the remaining sets at £1,500 when the original price was £3,250 (for, admittedly, 60 volumes)? But meanwhile a word of welcome for the first supplementary volume to be brought out, covering the years 2001-2004 – even if its price is a prohibitive £95 (or almost four times the average charged for each of the other volumes). But I was still pleased to find included in its 1,250-odd pages an elegant entry on Mary Holland who, both before and during her banishment from the Observer at the hands of Conor Cruise O’Brien, did some excellent pieces for the New Statesman back in the 1970s.

I recall especially one on Harold Wilson’s behaviour on polling day in February 1974. According to Mary, he looked “shrunk and sick” and kept going to the loo. The poor fellow was sure he was going to lose – as it was, he squeaked in by just four seats over the ruling Conservatives – and Mary brought out better than anyone else the mood of gloom and apprehension that prevailed on that dark, damp February evening in Wilson’s own constituency of Huyton. What she was best known for, of course, was her coverage of Northern Ireland, both here in the NS and in the Observer. Full marks to Mary Kenny, who by no means shared her political viewpoint, for writing so fair-minded and sympathetic an entry for her in this latest addition to the ODNB oeuvre.

Years ago there used to be a figure on BBC TV known as “the memory man”. His name, I think, was Leslie Welch, and his claim to fame lay in supplying answers to such abstruse questions as what year Huddersfield Town first played in the FA Cup, or when W G Grace last appeared at Lord’s. It was a task that he always brought off with great aplomb, and much of my early youth was spent gazing up in awe and admiration at him on the silver screen. Little did I then think that one day I would find myself stepping into his shoes, if in the even more arcane field of British politics. But that is, weirdly, how things have worked out. When I’m approached nowadays to appear on TV, it is nearly always to take part in programmes looking back on the past. There have been at least two such in the past couple of weeks: a rather good one, I thought, on that old High Church reprobate Tom Driberg – who used to write this column for the NS – and the other, equally nostalgic, on the friskier, multi-item days of that now sadly castrated BBC warhorse, Panorama. Both went out, predictably, on BBC4, just about the only civilised TV channel left, and one that at least tries to hold the line against our contemporary celebrity culture.

To my local Waterstone’s last Thursday, to catch my friend Stanley Johnson launching his characteristically spirited book of memoirs, Stanley, I Presume, to a packed house. He was interviewed by his daughter Rachel, but inevitably most of the discussion – and a fair share of Stanley’s answers, too – focused on his son Boris. For 50 years this country got used to a royal personage known as the Queen Mother. Should we now not adjust to the constitutional concept of the Mayor Father?

Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman (1972-78)

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue