On March 3rd, 2010, Michael Foot left us to join thousands of fellow Pilgrims who went before. Umbrella Vi and Noddy to name but two, and we all have family and friends in mind, all with a common bond: their love of Argyle and that indefinable something that it is to be a Pilgrim. Great characters and none more so than the most famous of them all.
Michael was born on 23rd July 1913 in Lipson Avenue, Plymouth. His father, Isaac, a Liberal MP, was a founder of Foot & Bowden, now Foot Anstey Sargent, one of the South West’s leading law firms. His older brother, the late Sir Dingle Foot became a Liberal MP before joining the Labour Party in the 1950s. His second brother, the late Hugh Foot (who became Lord Caradon), was a British Diplomat and father of campaigning journalist, the late Paul Foot. Another brother, John, later Baron Foot, was also a politician.
Michael joined the Labour Party soon after graduating from Wadham College, Oxford, and stood for Parliament at the age of 22. He became a journalist and, 10 years later, won a seat in the House of Commons: Member of Parliament for Plymouth Devonport, which he held for 10 years. He returned to Parliament in 1960, winning a by-election at Ebbw Vale, and 20 years later was elected Leader of the Labour Party, a post he held for three turbulent years. He took a back seat in Labour politics in the years that followed and retired from the House of Commons in 1992.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, Michael loved his Plymouth Argyle. He enjoyed that first experience of Home Park as a young boy in the 1920s and his enthusiasm remained as strong as ever in the 9 decades that followed. His Pilgrimage stretched from the earliest days in the Football League to his place on the Board of Directors in 2001, when he was at the heart of one of the most successful periods in the club’s history until he retired in February 2005. Over 80 seasons – there’s an astonishing thought – and in all that time he stayed loyal and optimistic, always believing that one day he would see his beloved Argyle reach the top flight. When that day comes, he’ll be the first in our thoughts, alongside Vi, Noddy and all.
When you meet people in the public domain, you’re often disappointed by the experience.
Not so with Michael.
My first contact with him was at a PASALB do about ten years ago and I was greatly impressed by his stirring oratory and obvious personal charm. I happen to be firmly on his side of the political spectrum and found it gratifying to share so much common ground and allegiance with him.
Later, I was delighted to be asked to drive him home to Hampstead after another PASALB event during the first Championship season and again to ferry him to Barnet for a game. On each occasion, he insisted that I should come into his house for a cup of tea and a chat, charitable with his time as always.
He gave memorable speeches at a number of PASALB do’s – often they seemed to be meandering into a cul-de-sac, but he would then thunderously declare “AND I REMEMBER WHEN” and you would be carried away on a tide of his memories and experiences of watching the Greens over the decades.
There are so many stories that come to mind that I could very easily fill up a few sides of A4. But what I was always struck by was his incredible generosity and warmth of spirit.
Each time I visited him, he would insist on signing a copy of one of his books as a gift – and he would remember which ones he had already given me.
He gave me a foreword for one of my books on Argyle and he later agreed to a recorded interview for a radio course I was doing at the time. It was a glorious afternoon for me – three hours spent in his book-lined study, framed with political cartoons that often lampooned himself, wallowing in memories and anecdotes about Argyle, Labour politics and his love of the Welsh national rugby team. He got his wish that year – the Grand Slam did indeed go to Cardiff a few weeks later.
He spent his entire working life campaigning for the improvement of the lot of the working classes and he knew about values – the important ones. As well as the familiar facts of his incredibly packed professional life in journalism and politics, little nuggets of less well known information often emerged, to add yet more colour to his personal history.
As an example, he was one of the “Scallywags” – a proposed final line of civil resistance to the Nazis, should they be successful in conquering Britain. Michael was afflicted by asthma, which prevented him from active service, but he was ready to carry out acts of insurrection that would almost certainly have been suicidal. He was quoted as saying that he was prepared to kill Lord Halifax, the British politician most ready to work in partnership with the Nazis, in a kind of Vichy Britain.
It is hard to count on the fingers of one hand how many current politicos would be ready to volunteer for such service. On the day his death was announced, Prime Minister’s Questions had been particularly juvenile and distasteful, serving only to emphasise the vast gulf between the quality of the politicians of today and those of Michael’s vintage.
The fulsome tributes that flowed following the news of his passing have been universal in acknowledging that his political life was defined by a desire to help his common man, conducted without rancour or personal animosity. It demonstrates that it was once possible to be a principled politician and an active campaigner for important issues, without losing personal integrity. His consistent refusal to accept honours and peerages confirmed his independence of mind. The one thing that I ever found him ready to be peeved about was the tiresome and inaccurate reference to that donkey jacket – actually purchased in Harrods and complimented by the Queen Mother at the time.
I remember helping him along the road after a PASALB do in Kings Cross back to my car – we were stopped three times in 200 yards by people who wanted to clasp his hand and declare that they had voted for him.
I wonder if they had – but it doesn’t matter. They knew the quality of the man.
I’m grateful that I had an opportunity to appreciate that as well.
4 March 2010
I feel enormously privileged to have known Michael Foot.
He was a man of great intellect, who achieved an extraordinary amount over the course of his long life. Editor of the Evening Standard during the dark days of the World War 2; one of the great parliamentarians; a respected authority on a broad range of writers, notably his beloved Hazlitt; the leader of the Labour Party who held it all together at the time of the potentially fatal SDP start-up.
But what struck everyone who met Michael was his accessibility, his warmth, his charm, and his humanity. He always seemed to have time for people. Time and time again during our time watching Argyle together, fans, often of the opposing team, would hesitantly approach him, just wanting to shake his hand and say a few words. He’d have them at their ease in an instant.
Michael was also an utterly loyal man. To Byron, Swift and countless others whose books populated the shelves of his marvellous study in Hampstead; to the Labour Party; to the causes he supported; to his family; to his friends. If you had Michael on your side, you had very special support indeed.
It’s important also to recognise Jill Craigie in this narrative. Jill played a massively important role in his life for all the 55 or so years that they were together. Although she died ten years ago, Michael still talked about Jill as though she were still here with us, right to the end.
Michael and Jill had met as a result of the film that Jill was making about the reconstruction of Plymouth at the end of the war, “The Way We Live”. Michael’s love of the city remained undimmed for the whole of his life. He was of course MP for Devonport for the key post-war years, and like his father Isaac, he was a fanatical supporter of Argyle.
I saw Michael at his home just a couple of weeks ago. He wanted to talk about the upcoming election, of course; but he was more interested in my views on whether “we” (Argyle) had any chance of beating Barnsley in that coming weekend’s match. He was sure they would, and they did. He was also convinced that Argyle would recover, and beat the drop. Paul Mariner and colleagues: over to you. Do it for Michael.
4 March 2010
This cartoon was commissioned by the Michael Foot memorial fund from political cartoonist Martin Rowson in his memory. The print was auctioned by Argyle website PASOTI, and raised a handsome sum for good causes. A number of copies were also sold, with one also donated to the Argyle Archive collection. It is currently on display in the Green Taverners’ Suite.