Paul Foot, the ‘campaigning’ journalist who died last year and whose funeral attracted a crowd of 2,000 mourners, was a Cornish nonconformist who retrained as a Marxist revolutionary. Had he lived a century ago he would have made a stalwart Liberal member for West Cornwall, savaging the tinmasters. But Foot was condemned by the ideology of the 1960s to political obscurity, and to the enclosed, distrustful world of Marxist orthodoxy.
When he died, after a lifetime of revolutionary struggle, his political epitaph could have been: Cut his teeth on Harold Wilson, Failed to dent Margaret Thatcher, Died under Tony Blair. But that epitaph would be a little unfair because his real achievement lay in journalism, not in revolutionary politics. As his obituaries rightly claimed, he was the finest polemical writer of his day and for a few years in the 1960s and 70s when he worked for Private Eye he was able to use those gifts to devastating effect.
Richard Ingrams, who was his editor on Private Eye, and who first met him at school, has written a brief and affectionate memoir of his old friend in those pre-Marxist, student days that will surprise readers who only knew of Foot later in life. Ingrams was a friend of the family and spent holidays in the Cornish fastness of the patriarch, Grandfather Isaac Foot, a privy councillor who had once been Lord Mayor of Plymouth and who urged his grandchildren to spend half an hour a day in prayer and meditation. The boy Foot was a Shakespearean ‘anorak’, said to have seen Olivier’s film of Richard III 19 times. Later he developed a lifelong obsession with the meaning of Coriolanus. At his boarding school, he was devoted to the works of George Bernard Shaw and he loved the school so much that, despite being repeatedly flogged by a dodgy housemaster, he wrote to one of his teachers after he had left to say that he would always be ‘an upholder of the Public Schools’. At Oxford University, he was president of both the Union and the Liberal Club, positions you could only achieve if you had mastered the sordid art of backstairs manoeuvring.
And then everything changed. Foot was an idealist looking for a cause, and as a law student he had acquired an infinite capacity for dealing with boring detail. So he was putty in the hands of a graduate philosopher encountered in his final year, who converted him to the theory of surplus value. Perhaps Foot found his new creed an effective way of dealing with the anger he was beginning to feel about his mistreatment at school, although that point is not made in this account. In any event, after university when Ingrams — with William Rushton, Andrew Osmond and others — started to dream about launching a satirical magazine, Foot went to Glasgow to train as a journalist and sign up with IS, or ‘International Socialism’, one of several grouplets descended from Trotsky’s Fourth International. While in Glasgow, Foot was actually invited to become the first editor of Private Eye but he declined, explaining that he was now ‘part of a movement’.
Even then, all hope was not lost. He could have ended up like his old comrade from the Glasgow ‘IS’, Gus Macdonald, now Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, last seen by this reviewer some years ago — and long before his Blairite ministerial days — swinging from the ironwork in the arcade in Albany, pulling faces at an angry porter. Instead, Foot turned his back on parliament. He continued to swing from the political ironwork, travelling round the country preaching to tiny gatherings of the faithful. Ingrams convincingly portrays Foot’s political commitment as ‘quasi-religious’ — with sacred texts and a belief in a better world to come. Fortunately there was also the journalism.
I worked beside Foot at Private Eye, on and off, for 15 years. He was quick-witted, funny, generous-hearted and the most conscientious of reporters. I see him still hunched at his desk, telephone clapped to his left ear, right hand grasping a black biro, scribbling down quotes for hours on end, in longhand. He could use longhand because he said almost nothing; he just grunted. He had a gift for grunting in a particular way that encouraged other people to talk. At the end of the conversation, he would slam down the bakelite handset, throw his arms in the air and let out his cry of triumph, ‘We’ve really got them this time.’
Most of his great stories appeared between 1967 and his first departure from the magazine, when he was in effect fired in 1972. During those years, Foot developed the news pages of Private Eye until they equalled and finally surpassed the satirical pages at the front of the paper. He became a sort of one-man alternative Fleet Street; his fortnightly column, ‘Footnotes’, was read by fans of every political tendency and his Roll of Dishonour eventually included cabinet ministers, police chiefs and bent lawyers, and ranged from Belfast to Pretoria and Singapore. Foot’s political faith gave his life a direction and purpose that drove his reporting, but his guiding journalistic principle was not Marxism but Peter Jay’s maxim, ‘Find out what’s going on, and print it’, the very opposite of what is today called ‘spin’ (or organised lying). Foot was the Anti-lobby correspondent, and spaniel-eyed political ‘editors’ had no place in his professional cosmos.
Quite soon this ‘grubby little magazine’, assembled with cow gum on sheets of cardboard in a back street in Soho and banned by W. H. Smith, had a subscribers’ list that included the Cabinet Office, the Securities Exchange Commission in Washington and General Kim Philby of the KGB, whose copy arrived by airmail in the Kremlin. Foot’s readers knew all about Dr Ian Paisley a year before the first troubles broke out in Northern Ireland; he broke the scandalous truth behind the collapse of jerry-built tower blocks in London’s East End, and he exposed Fleet Street’s refusal to report the atrocities that were being committed by the Israeli army on the West Bank as long ago as 1968. It wasn’t ‘campaigning’; just old-fashioned reporting.
When Auberon Waugh joined the Eye in 1970 to contribute a fictitious ‘Diary’ about his daily life, he and Foot formed an un- expected alliance. Ingrams does not make enough of this brilliant conjunction, but he quotes Waugh’s subsequent tribute to Foot:
Sanctity attached to him … We all sought his approval, as if he had been a beautiful girl. But he bore the burden lightly … Obviously there is a screw loose somewhere but we all have our oddities … I myself own up to a slight weakness for orientals.
Writing about Foot’s funeral at Golders Green crematorium, Ingrams bemoans the lack of religious content in the service and says that he and others failed to recognise the friend they had known when the congregation burst into the Internationale and raised clenched fists. But the political animal, the one Ingrams failed to recognise, was the real Paul Foot; if you couldn’t share his politics, you couldn’t, finally, share his life.
This was confirmed in 1972 when Ingrams began to suspect that Foot was allowing the comrades to influence his choice of news stories. In response, the editor increased the proportion of politically incorrect jokes about trades unions or Polly Toynbee. A proposal to publish a brutal cover about Bernadette Devlin’s unborn baby was the final straw. Foot threatened to resign and Ingrams, although he denies this in the book, pushed his old friend out. Foot gave up everything he had achieved at Private Eye and left what Ingrams terms ‘the gang’, to become editor of Socialist Worker, the house journal of his movement. His reporting there, and later on the Daily Mirror, and finally back on Private Eye, remained outstanding, th
ough it never recovered its original high-spirited inspiration.
The oddest thing about Ingrams’s determination to view Foot through the wrong end of a telescope is that it suggests he has never realised the extent of his own achievement, because the creative tension that existed for a few years between Foot and Waugh was only made possible by Ingrams. In reducing Foot to the ‘old school friend with a heart of gold who enjoyed a joke’, Ingrams is saying, ‘Nothing much happened. It was “only personal”.’ That is all very understated and British, but as a summary of Foot’s achievement, it won’t do. Private Eye between 1967 and 1972 was more than just a spot of good reporting and titters every fortnight. It was more than ‘a weathervane of middle-class opinion’, to use Foot’s own words about the paper in 1981. Public figures like Wilson, Maudling, T. Dan Smith and Lord Goodman were permanently damaged by the Eye’s well-informed hostility. Looking back now, the short-lived triumvirate of Ingrams, Foot and Waugh represents one of the high points of British journalism in the last 40 years, and perhaps — why be modest? — since John Wilkes.