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24 July 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 2:36pm

Marigold Johnson’s Diary: Tom Stoppard to the rescue, Boris’s mum and new and old Statesmen remembered

Some of the unique reminders of those days in the 1970s are voices. When the voice on the end of the line says “It’s Tom”, I know that means Tom Stoppard.    

By Marigold Johnson

The pretext for this diary is names. Mine is Hunt-Johnson, reflecting the final duet of the Tory leadership contest. I haven’t met Jeremy Hunt, which slightly simplified our joint choice. The name Marigold belongs to the early 1930s, and my husband, Paul, former editor of this magazine, has a second name, Bede, which is never heard now. Nor are the names Isaiah or Germaine, both of whom were friends of ours. Isaiah is, of course, Berlin, who was a very wise public philosopher. Labour would probably not have a guru with that name now. Germaine (Greer) spoke for me in 1974 when I stood as Labour candidate for South Bucks (now held by Dominic Grieve as the MP for Beaconsfield), and Paul gave his whole New Statesman diary for three weeks to my campaign. He also helped at the home births of our four children, Daniel, Cosmo, Luke and Sophie. They, ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild, came first for some years.

Though my parliamentary venture was unsuccessful, my staunch supporters included Frank Field MP, who I see has just turned 77 and is still a great political hero. Germaine spoke at the Working Men’s Club in Slough, supporting me just because I was a woman. Here she was not legally obliged to vote, as happens in Australia. We were of course the only two women present.

New Statesman Sunday lunches at Iver

One role as editor’s wife was to provide occasional office lunches for New Statesman staff when confidential political guests were present. At home nearby in Iver, Buckinghamshire, we loved the crowd who came for Sunday lunches, including Dick Crossman MP and Tony Howard, both of whom succeeded Paul as editors of the NS.

Next to names, some of the unique reminders of those days in the 1970s are voices. When the voice on the end of the line says “It’s Tom”, I know that means Tom Stoppard. It happened once when he did a valiant neighbourly rescue of Paul from an empty bath. We will always love that voice – although Paul has little hearing now, and has suffered from dementia for a while. As he will be 91 this year, it is marvellous that he can still recognise the names, faces and paintings which cram all the walls in our house. We have lived here for almost 40 years, since we moved back to London from Iver. Anthony Powell, when told we had moved to be near friends, replied: “And enemies?”

Long-distance vision

Paul and I are proud to be British, especially because of the NHS. Yesterday I had an annual check at the Western Eye Hospital, where I counted eight different nationalities in Outpatients. It was a long but valuable wait to be told all clear, so I decided to hand over 30 pairs of out-of-date spectacle frames for Vision Aid Overseas.

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With my red walking stick, I walked past the London Business School and took the 27 bus home, because it travels past so many lifetime memories. For example, Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where my father, Tommy Hunt, was head of gastroenterology. I talk on the bus to a cheerful red-dressed woman who has been wheelchair-bound for 35 years, always self-propelled.

A hundred bare light bulbs

The bus drops me outside a wonderful Mexican restaurant, Taqueria, which has 125 bare bulbs hanging from its ceiling. It is a short walk from there to Portobello Road. Blanche Girouard teaches at St Paul’s School for Girls and cares for her father, Mark, the great architectural historian. She has written about all the stallholders at the market and will shortly be interviewing me to record some of my memories of old friends such as Antonia Fraser-Pinter and Miriam Gross.

Painting with a mother’s eye

Among my close friends is Charlotte Johnson Wahl, mother of our new prime minister (to whom the best of luck for at least a short premiership). Her detailed portraits – especially of great families like hers, which is identical in shape to mine (three sons and a daughter) – reflect her artistic genius. Look especially at the eyes. Her exhibition catalogue, Minding Too Much, featuring her famous children and her dramatic life, can still be bought following her 2015 show at the Mall Galleries. As well as paintings of her parents and family, it includes scenes of city life in New York, London and Paris, and familiar figures such as the SDP’s Gang of Four, Simon Jenkins, Victoria Brittain and many Longfords/Pakenhams.

Milking cows in the Forties

The Hawthornden Prize for 2019 has been awarded at the London Library to Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite! The annual literary prize, which is celebrating its centenary, was supported for many years by our late, unforgettably great friend Drue Heinz. Sue Prideaux inscribed my copy: “In memory of the Farmhouse School, with love.” She remembered our shared 1940s experience of milking cows and watching the birth of piglets at school. Somehow I won a scholarship to Benenden and thence to Oxford, whereas Sue, more admirably, left to educate herself and write books, and has since won several national literary prizes.

Browsing my bookshelves

The other day I came across on our shelves a short book, The Suez War, that Paul wrote as assistant editor at the New Statesman in 1957 – the year we were married. The NS cartoonist Victor “Vicky” Weisz drew a wonderful caricature of Anthony Eden, “working for peace”, as the frontispiece. Nye Bevan’s introduction refers to a crisis in the West, where the “old aptitudes and attitudes, ancient modes of thought and conventional values, are all in the melting-pot”. He credits Paul with “an intimate experience of French politics, a wide knowledge of international affairs, an acute mind and a brilliant pen”. 

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