I don’t do ‘heroes’. But the closest I ever came to one was Tony Benn, who sadly passed away today.
In 1996 I had the privilege of meeting the man. At New Internationalist we were embarking on a magazine about class. I had been badgering my fellow workers to do an issue on the subject for a couple of years. Eventually, David Ransom, one of our editors at the time, was keen to take it on and suggested to me I join him in putting it together. As a ‘non-editorial’ graphic designer this was an unusual step but I was thrilled and didn’t hesitate in accepting the offer.
One idea David had was for me to contact people who might be interested in offering their thoughts on the issue of class. We sat down and formulated a list, and thought it might be most interesting to start with people who had, like myself, started out working class but had moved into the middle class: upwardly mobile, as it were. Some interesting names cropped up: comedian Lenny Henry (who in fact, for a short time, had worked at the same factory as me in Dudley, West Midlands, way back when); Ray Davies of pop group the Kinks; author Barry Hines (who wrote Kes) and others. None of them, apart from Barry Hines, deigned to meet me, but when I wrote to Tony Benn (who interestingly had made himself ‘downwardly’ mobile when he famously relinquished his peerage to enable him to remain an MP) I had a reply the following day inviting me to meet him at his home in London.
Armed with tape recorder, I knocked on the door of his house in Holland Park. His secretary showed me to a room in the basement of the building, I sat down and waited. The room was heaving with books and papers but also mugs and miners’ lamps, banners and pictures.
A few minutes later, in walked Mr Benn – carrying two mugs of piping-hot tea. We shook hands and, placing a tape recorder on the table, he informed me politely that he would also be recording the meeting. I knew, of course, that he was a great chronicler (I had all his diaries and books) and would have expected nothing less. He also informed me that we only had half an hour as he was expecting a German film crew who wanted to do a documentary on him. He lit up his pipe and we began.
He answered all my questions kindly, seriously and patiently, and at no time did I get any sense that he considered himself a ‘celebrity’ of any kind (he was, after all, probably one of the most famous politicians in Britain at the time). He clearly truly cared and was passionate about his beliefs and his socialism, and for one short half-hour he was focused on my interview with him. The task at hand.
When it was all over, we shook hands – the German film crew were hovering at the door – and I thanked him for his help. The interview appeared in the magazine (after several approvals from Mr Benn, who had patiently agreed to my brutal, but necessary, cuts to the text). I was as proud of that as anything else we did in the issue.
A few years later, I put together a website containing images of working people taken by my dear friend Nick Hedges. I wrote to Tony Benn asking if he would kindly give us a quote to use on the homepage. Without hesitation he agreed.
But perhaps the real measure of the man was a kind gesture he made after the interview in 1996. I had recently become a father for the first time – a bonnie, beautiful daughter. I had happened to mention this, in passing, to Mr Benn at the interview. A few days later I received a note from him – on House of Commons letterheaded paper – wishing us all the very best. He signed it simply, Tony.
Tony Benn devoted himself to helping others and sought to change the world for the better. He will be greatly missed. And the world is a poorer place today.