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.