Tony Benn’s banana diet, lapsed Christians and ignoring no smoking signs

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

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Even by the standards of politicians, Tony Benn was remarkable for his lack of hinterland. He had, by his own admission, no interest in music, art or theatre. Nor, until his final years, did he have much interest in sport or TV. He enjoyed films as long as they had happy endings; Love Actually was a favourite. But he was so uninterested in food that his diaries frequently record him eating nothing but bananas.

Even his reading was limited. Invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival to talk about his favourite books, he confided to his diary that he was “terribly nervous because . . . I haven’t read many books”. He seems to have known almost nothing about fiction or poetry. Meeting Stephen Spender, he congratulated him on an obscure volume for the Left Book Club in the 1930s. In his late forties, he started learning, for the first time, about the English Revolution and discovered to his astonishment the Levellers and their belief in universal male suffrage.

Benn was educated at Westminster and took a degree in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford. The gaps in his learning, of which he was painfully conscious, show that elite schools and universities didn’t always equip their charges with all-round knowledge and cultural awareness, whatever Michael Gove thinks.

 

Divine inspiration
One thing Benn wasn’t ignorant about was the Bible. He came from a Christian socialist background and until his twenties was a devout churchgoer. He then decided to do without the paraphernalia and doctrine of organised religion but not without the teachings of Jesus.

My political journey was rather similar. Benn’s great-grandfather was a minister in the Congregational Church, characterised by the autonomy of each congregation, which elected its own minister, with obvious applications to Benn’s campaigns for Labour Party democracy. I was confirmed in a Congregational chapel and, until I went to university, took it all very seriously. Since I came from a non-churchgoing Tory family, sermons and Bible readings provided my first instruction in justice, compassion and equal shares. Again like Benn, I jettisoned the virgin birth and suchlike but retained firm opinions on how we should treat others. I often think we lapsed Christians follow Jesus’s teaching more faithfully than many who worship weekly.

 

Smoke signals
For all his courtesy and consideration for others, Benn had some curious blind spots. One was “no smoking” notices, which he often removed with his fingernails so he could continue puffing his pipe on trains, as he did at least until 2005. “You should take no notice whatever of ‘no smoking’ notices unless somebody asks you not to smoke,” he wrote in his diary. A man “who looked rather German and had a German accent and said he was a chemist” told him there was no proof smoking caused lung cancer. That was apparently good enough for Benn, who seems also to have been a global-warming denier. Here his source of authority was Piers Corbyn, who runs a commercial weather forecasting service. No doubt Corbyn’s credentials were boosted by his being a former student activist and the brother of the left-wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Burying the hatchet job
Benn’s sensitivity to media criticism began early. In 1965, when he was postmaster general, Susan Crosland, the wife of his friend and ministerial colleague Anthony Crosland, interviewed him for the pre-Murdoch Sun. Oddly, Crosland allowed him to vet the article. Benn described it as “the bitchiest, most horrible thing I’ve ever read” and asked her not to publish it. She agreed. When it was printed years later, it turned out to be anything but a hatchet job, if possibly less deferential than politicians were then accustomed to. She praised Benn for “getting results” in the Post Office. Perhaps he didn’t like being compared to “a successful young advertising executive on Madison Avenue”.

 

To stress the point
Several cricket commentators including the former England captain Michael Vaughan complain they were misled about why the batsman Jonathan Trott left this winter’s tour to Australia. He was said to have a “stress-related illness”, which was assumed to mean he suffered from clinical depression. Now Trott says it’s just “burnout” and Vaughan feels “a little bit conned”.

That’s the trouble with medical labels for conditions that don’t have clear bodily causes or symptoms. Some sufferers feel part of an exclusive club and they and their supporters resent intruders. My child is dyslexic, yours is thick. I have chronic fatigue syndrome, you’re bone idle. My mate has depression, yours is scared of fast bowling.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge