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21 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:08pm

Michael Heseltine’s Diary: Remembering Roger Bannister, Brexit boredom and the trouble with early snowdrops

Roger was one of only 19 men to break the four-minute mile and a legend for sportsmen everywhere. 

By Michael Heseltine

To Munich on business with Kevin Costello and Brian Freeman, Haymarket Media’s long-serving managing and finance directors. Over a leisurely dinner, the conversation inevitably turns to Brexit. It was with reluctance that eventually our hosts answered our questions about the prevailing view there over Britain’s departure from the European Community. Boredom was the uncomfortable consensus. We have our own problems, they told us. The debate has moved on. In quite different circumstances, the previous week, a senior American banker with good political contacts placed Brexit ninth in points of interest for the United States. We are faced with a calamitous decision to leave the top table of European politics. The outside world looks on at first amazed, incredulous, now bored.

Roger and the four-minute mile

To Westminster’s College Green at the invitation of the BBC. Outdoors has many disadvantages for interviewees – rain, honking, protesters, aircraft and police cars are difficult backdrops. On the other hand, this creates a sort of Middle Eastern souk, where an interviewee is open for business for any camera or recorder. Four broadcasts later, I left to reach Oxford in time for Roger Bannister’s memorial service.

Arriving with time to spare, I sought sustenance in The White Horse opposite the Sheldonian, where to my delight, I found my old friend Jeremy Isaacs, who succeeded me as president of the Oxford Union in 1954, and went on to create Channel 4 and to run the Royal Opera House. We sat together as the ceremony began. The tributes were memorable, among them to a loving father by his daughter Charlotte Bannister-Parker, and his career as a pioneering neurosurgeon described by Professor Dafydd Thomas. Steve Cram told how Roger was one of only 19 men to break the four-minute mile and a legend for sportsmen everywhere. Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, named him as a man of classical stature. The standing ovation was for Roger’s wife, Moyra, who touched the hearts of everyone as she described the man she loved and was married to for 63 years.

Facing the epimediums

Back home, outside in the arboretum at Thenford, as the planting programme gets under way. Throughout the summer, our stock beds have filled up with gifts, purchases, seedlings, cuttings: all waiting the decision to move from the relative security of our standing beds to the altogether more rigorous climate of the arboretum itself. Eighty different box shrubs, 300 different roses, and 280 different epimediums, about a third of which lost their labels in the move. A job for the flowering season!

I still can’t get used to the snowdrops fighting it out with the cyclamen. Like everyone else, our website makes clear our open days for snowdrops are early in February. So what’s going on? Is this global warming gone mad? The answer is much simpler. Galanthus reginae-olgae are the leaders of the autumn flowering species and, as with their February colleagues, there is now a growing range of sub-species and hybrids. Out of our collection of more than 600 different varieties, 35 flower before Christmas. It’s not the same. As crusaders of a new season, they bring a new reassurance that better times are ahead. The days are lightening, the temperature shortly to rise, the sun about to utter its call to nature to straighten its back and renew that sense of hope that we gardeners treasure.

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No room at the inn

To the local doctors’ surgery. Arrive 9.25am for 9.30am appointment. Sitting in front of nurse at 9.28am for routine diabetes check. On my way 20 minutes later. How we should treasure the NHS. I have never been in the front-line of health politics, although any constituency MP must be familiar with the processes and problems. Most of its difficulties seem to me to arise not from medical issues, but from the rarely recognised fact that our NHS runs the biggest hotel business in the world. But it does so without the escape hatches available to the commercial operators. If hotels are full, they can turn people away. People book for specific periods and then leave. Unprecedented events creating unexpected demand is a problem for the visitor, not the hotel. See it from the NHS viewpoint. They are expected by a vigilant media to keep their beds full. Everyday emergencies arise creating demand for beds with no way of calculating in advance the required occupancy time.

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And then comes the epidemic. Most knew it would come, but not when. The queues are lengthening, frustrated patients are angry. Bed-blockers have nowhere to go. The press are circling. The headlines grow larger and blacker by the day. Each secretary of state does their best to defend a system that by its very nature is compelled to run close to capacity and close to breaking point.

Bronzing the coral

Finally, to Chalford, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, with Anne and my sister, to visit the Pangolin Christmas exhibition as part of a celebration of my sister’s birthday. Behind the scenes, in an old asbestos factory, suitably cleansed, is one of Britain’s hidden jewels, the largest sculpture foundry in Europe. Nearby Stroud is a centre of creative art but Pangolin is at the beginning, middle and end of the process that gives us perhaps the most permanent art form.

Rungwe Kingdon and his wife, Claude Koenig, created the company with an initial overdraft of £1,000. Today they employ 179 people. They work for artists across the world making the moulds, casting the work and often assist in the marketing. They are deeply involved with a conservation project at present, for which they travelled to Mauritius, to make rubber moulds of living corals only exposed at low tide, from which they then cast bronze replicas. At the other range of their skills, we learned of the growing importance of digital creativity in the world of tomorrow.

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis