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29 October 2011

The Renaissance Man

Tag(s): People, Politics & Economics

As a new Oxford undergraduate I had breakfast opposite Gyles Brandreth one morning in the august dining hall at New College Oxford, reputedly the oldest dining hall to have been in continuous use in the western world. Gyles was going through his mail which was extensive, an unusual occupation for an undergraduate, but then Gyles was an unusual undergraduate. I believe he had already undertaken a lecture tour in the USA, was active in the Oxford Union and about to become its President, a starting point for many successful political careers. In fact he was to go onto a much broader and arguably richer career as an actor and producer, as a publisher and entrepreneur, as a journalist and writer, as a games inventor and champion, as a broadcaster and entertainer, One Show reporter and Just a Minute regular as well as an MP and Government whip.

I recently attended a lunch where he was the speaker. He entertained us for over an hour and gave the audience an afternoon of sheer pleasure. Like all great raconteurs his almost constant light heartedness meant that the occasional serious point had far greater effect.

For example, he spoke of his five years as an MP for Chester until  “the people of Chester spoke in 1997” to get rid of him with very mixed feelings. He particularly found irritating the armies of people of all colours who were certain they were right. He thought life and politics were not like that and were more complicated. In a healthy democracy we find the right answer through debate and challenge.  As Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

Of the yah boo politics of Prime Minister’s Question Time he observed that this was a ritual that was in some way necessary for the backbenchers. If their leader performed well they felt that they had had a good day, and vice versa. The problem was the broadcasting of this to the nation which had contributed to the general malaise that people felt about their politicians.

The politicians he most admired, again from all sides, were those who worked with both heart and head, they had intellectual rigour but also highly developed compassion. But they were few and far between.

An incorrigible name-dropper, he has rubbed shoulders with Robert Maxwell and knees with Princess Anne, squeezed Marlene Dietrich’s left thigh, had his head ruffled by TS Eliot and vomited over Ted Heath. He’s shaken hands with hands that had shaken the hands of Oscar Wilde, Johannes Brahms and Lenin. As a boy he was friends with Simon Cadell and met John Gielgud who authorised him to write his biography. He has also written books on Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Camilla.

He quotes Prince Philip who said, “If you see a man open a car door for his wife these days, it’s either a new car or a new wife!”

He told a story of John Major that had one both laughing and wondering. MPs are cursed with the eternal raffle. Every weekend they must attend several events in their constituency. Each of these has a raffle to which the MP is expected to contribute a prize at his own expense. He is then expected to buy his share of tickets and if in the unlikely event that he wins a prize, probably that self-same one which he contributed in the first place; he is expected to demonstrate that he is a gentleman by putting his ticket back and asking for a redraw.

One day he was in the House of Commons tea room when John Major, then Prime Minister, came by. He saw Gyles with a glum look on his face and asked him what was wrong. “It’s the raffles!” cried Gyles. “It can’t be the Raffles”, said Major. Gyles wondered if the PM thought he was raving about a hotel in Singapore and so explained why the raffles in his constituency events were getting him down. Major said “Calm yourself, Gyles. I will tell you the solution. When I go to such events I carefully tuck a handful of raffle tickets of different colours in my top jacket packet. Then people assume that that nice Mr Major has already bought his raffle tickets. When the draw is made I studiously look through them like a hand of playing cards but regrettably never win anything. I last bought a raffle ticket in 1982.”

As a government whip Gyles held the traditional title of Lord Commissioner of the Treasury. In this role he was obliged to sign the Government’s cheques. On one occasion he signed a cheque for £136 billion! This represented the welfare budget that quarter! Actually as in all good practice the cheque required a co-signatory and that was Her Majesty the Queen. While signing the cheque Gyles leaned over to Her Majesty and commented that two signatories were required on such cheques. “Which of us,” mused Gyles, “do you think The Treasury does not trust?”

In calling this blog The Renaissance Man I am not really suggesting that Gyles compares with say, Leonardo da Vinci. The original Renaissance man was, among other things, a scientist, inventor, philosopher, engineer, architect, musician, botanist, anatomist, sculptor, and cartographer and, of course, painter extraordinaire. But Gyles is certainly multi-talented.  He has kept a daily diary from the age of eleven when he went away to boarding school. This has been published in a highly edited form as Something Sensational To Read On the Train- The Diary of a Lifetime. The book has 700 pages but the full works would run to fifty such volumes.

In a very full life he has packed in an awful lot. But he does have one blind spot. He is no lover of sport. His diary entry for Sunday 31st July 1966 reads:

“Yesterday afternoon, I joined the rest of the nation (if not the world) in front of the TV to watch the Football World Cup: England v. Germany. We won! 4-2.  It was the first football match I have ever watched from start to finish and I admit, it was quite exciting! The stars of the day: Alf Ramsey, the wonderfully dry team manager, Bobby Moore, the captain, Martin Peters, who put England ahead with his goal, and Geoff Hurst, who scored the other three. I like to think it was the fact that I was watching that helped us to win.”

In an editor’s footnote the editor notes “GB has not watched a football match since: nor has England won the World Cup since. He rests his case.”

But then I missed that match as I was on a Swiss mountain on a school trekking holiday. And I have watched every World Cup Final since. Perhaps it was down to me.

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

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