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15 August 2005

Differences don’t matter now

Robin Cook: a tribute

By Margaret Cook

When Robin Cook left me eight years ago almost to the day, the grief was very like a bereavement. One thought I had then, amid the swirling emotions, was that if there was a sudden nuclear catastrophe, a doomsday event, long-established ties would override new ones and he would return to be with his family at the end. Almost, it feels as if that has happened. His untimely death has made history of recent conflicts, and I personally feel I can reclaim my part of his life. At times like these there is a whole host of superficial differences that no longer seem to matter.

Someone asked me this week, will Robin have a church funeral? Surely he was an atheist? Yes, but he had a spiritual element. Like a surprising number of politicians, Robin had been attracted to the church as a career in his teens. He then found his intellect could not accept the concept of God. Having signed up for Divinity after his MA, he was told that his disbelief did not necessarily disqualify him from the church ministry! I can just see his curled lip and sardonic expression at this assertion. Rank hypocrisy and intellectual laziness were sitting targets for his sharply eloquent rejoinders.

He sublimated the visceral need for spirituality by his strong social conscience and work ethic, and the Labour Party stood in place of the church. This conflict between the cerebral and the visceral was only one of the many inner battles he struggled with. I think the awakening of less worthy traits as power approached, contradicting his long-held philanthropic principles, baffled him as much as it did his friends. Alongside his ferocious ambition, Robin always needed to approve of himself. In his best oratory, he was the Presbyterian minister manque, superb at demolishing the opposition, but less sure-handed at handling power.

His mother used to tell the tale that once, when he was a baby, a gypsy had foretold that he would be something very great in authority – an ambassador, maybe. Becoming foreign secretary fulfilled that prophecy, she thought. One of the ambitions Robin harboured was, indeed, to be ambassador to Paris, maybe at the end of his political career. This desire was reinforced when we visited the British embassy there in the 1970s. He had romantic notions that one day his demon-drive would be appeased and let him off the hook, able to indulge his many cultural and general interests. Another less exalted ambition was to ride the Grand National course. Once, at a lunch at Aintree, I mentioned this to my neighbour, who happened to be the course controller. “That can be arranged,” he said, to Robin’s visible consternation.

There has been mention of his enhanced emotional literacy in his second marriage. But the same is said of many prominent men, who fall short the first time round and do it better at the second attempt. The corollary is the assumption that the first wife was at fault for the man’s slow learning curve. That I don’t accept. We had much happiness, and those memories are strongly associated with our two sons, who will always remind me of him.

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