My father was a big believer in Christmas. That is to say, he liked the idea of it. My sister and I were the products of his second marriage and he would usually invite the children of his first marriage to our house for lunch. It could be quite tense, with undercurrents of rivalry and resentment, but all the children made an effort to keep the atmosphere festive. It was if we were characters in a play by Harold Pinter pretending to be characters in a Morecombe and Wise Christmas special. We did this to protect our father’s feelings, I think. He was the opposite of a paterfamilias. His strategy for holding the family together was to cast himself as the most emotionally vulnerable member. He knew that we’d pretend to get along in order to avoid upsetting him.
My father, who died in 2002, was a left-wing intellectual who helped set up a number of institutions that are still with us today: the Open University, Which magazine, the Consumers’ Association, the University of the Third Age and the School for Social Entrepreneurs, among others. He was also a genuine eccentric. On the eve of a trip to Australia once he told me about a brilliant wheeze he’d come up with to minimise the amount of luggage he took with him. It involved wearing two of everything in transit. Sure enough, he’d prepared for the 18-hour flight by putting on two pairs of socks, two shirts, two suits, etc.
My father would nearly always invite, in addition to all his children, a variety of waifs and strays to Christmas lunch. For instance, there was Vincent Brome, an elderly literary gentleman whose main topic of conversation was sex. His interest in the subject was far from just theoretical in spite of him being in his nineties. During lunch Vincent could be relied upon to tell his ‘Lion of Bloomsbury’ story.
He was escorting his mistress back to her husband one night, after an evening of energetic lovemaking, when a large black man grabbed her handbag and tried to yank it off her shoulder. At this point, Vincent’s second world war commando training kicked in. ‘I struck him as hard as I could in the Adam’s apple with the side of my hand,’ he said. ‘He fell to the ground clutching his throat and making these ghastly gurgling noises. Since then, I’ve been known in the Savile Club as the Lion of Bloomsbury.’
Quite often, the people seated round the table were complete strangers to us — and, indeed, to my father as well. He would disappear to his office on Christmas morning and if he spotted a tramp on his way back home at lunchtime he would bundle him into the car. It wasn’t beyond him to turn up with two or three homeless people, all reeking of urine. My father would give some thought as to where to place each of them at the table, making sure they were seated next to the person he thought they’d get on with best. The perfect host.
On one occasion he didn’t turn up at all. We sat there waiting for him as the turkey grew cold on the stove. He finally materialised at 4.30 p.m. and explained that he’d taken a detour via a cemetery in the East End. He’d heard about a tradition among local working-class families of ‘including’ dead relatives in the Christmas festivities by visiting their graves and he wanted to see it for himself. ‘It was absolutely fascinating,’ he said. ‘One family gathered round the grave and started pouring tea into the earth because their dead grandfather had been fond of a nice cup of tea.’ He’d been so mesmerised by this spectacle he’d lost all track of time.
Even when he turned up on time there was no guarantee we’d eat anything. I was about to tuck into my roast one Christmas when there was a loud knocking at the door. It was one of the local tramps who had long since identified my father as a soft touch. He claimed to have been mugged and wondered if he could ‘borrow’ £5. It was obvious to everyone that this was a ruse — everyone, that is, except my father. Like Lord Longford, his ability to see the best in people was allied to his essential innocence. However, instead of simply giving the homeless man a fiver, he rounded up a posse and insisted we go out and search for the thief. I spent the next hour patrolling the streets of Islington with my father, my half-brother and the Lion of Bloomsbury. The tramp trailed behind us at a distance, dumbfounded that his words had been taken at face value.
All this do-goodery makes my father sound a bit like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House who places the interests of the poor and needy above those of her own family. There was certainly an element of that — nearly all high-minded socialists have a touch of Mrs Jellyby about them — but his compassion was also rooted in experience. As a boy, he’d been neglected by his own parents, an Irish bohemian painter and a rackety Australian musician. It wasn’t uncommon for his birthday to go completely unnoticed by them. Consequently, his heart always went out to those who seemed lonely and unloved.
Today, with a family of my own, Christmas Day is very different. My home is not a soup kitchen and none of the local tramps would think to knock on my door for a bit of charity. Instead, it’s just the usual round of eating, drinking and present-opening. My four children enjoy it and I do, too, but I often think of my father and his unconventional attempts to spread a little Christmas cheer. I miss him, obviously, and I also miss my half-siblings and the Lion of Bloomsbury. More surprisingly, I miss the homeless men. Under my father’s roof, Christmas was always a little strange and surprising. Perhaps this year I’ll take time out to visit his grave in Highgate Cemetery and share a cup of tea with him.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.