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A reason to like Ted Heath

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

2 February 2013

9:00 AM

My reference to Taylor’s ’55 elicited a number of communications about the glories of old port — and one on a less glorious veteran: old Edward Heath. When the Tory Conference was in Bournemouth, Le Grand Epicier would always bid a group of admirers to dine in the Close at Salisbury. In those days, Ted had an unofficial PPS, whose job was to humour him into being slightly less curmudgeonly. In the late Eighties, that thankless post was held by my old friend Rob Hughes. To enliven the dinner and mitigate the sycophancy, he invited me. I am sure that Ted was as surprised by my arrival as I was by the summons.

I had often been rude about him in print, and once in person. It was at a drinks party when I was not dieting. He was delighting a group of mincing youths by telling them what a philistine Margaret Thatcher was. I could stand it no longer. ‘How dare you call her a philistine? Why is the Velázquez Juan de Pareja in New York and not in Trafalgar Square? That was the greatest artistic loss to these islands since the war — simply because your government would not come up with a measly 2.3 million quid.’ By then, Ted was stalking towards the horizon, the mincers following behind, flinging venomous glances over their shoulders.

Before dinner in Salisbury, we were given a tour. On one wall, there was a delicious little Gwen John. I expressed admiration, and Ted saw an chance for revenge. ‘Ye-e-es. Those who know about these things say that it is one of the finer examples of its kind.’ There was also plenty to praise about the meal. I remember lamb with serious claret, but the port was the highlight. So what was it? An outstanding year, with ’55 the favourite. But could it be a forward ’63? Or what about a well-preserved ’45? Surely the old monster would not have been so generous, unless it was provided by rich friends and dispensed by the butler. One could imagine the Grocer being incurious about his domestic arrangements (that would never have been true of the Grocer’s Daughter — and Denis would have kept a beady eye on his best port). To avoid making a fool of myself, I simply said: ‘This is such a treat. What is it?’ Ted looked blank-eyed and replied: ‘Glass of port.’

Mind you, Ted did tell one funny story: almost Halley’s Comet territory. In the mid-Fifties, while chief whip, he had been tasked to take Field-Marshal Montgomery to the races. Churchill’s horse, Pol Roger, was running and expected to win. Chaps were going off to place bets. Monty, condescending into the spirit of things, announced his wish to put sixpence on Winston’s horse. Even in those pre-inflationary times, that was an insufficient wager. So the old warrior was persuaded to part with half a crown. Disaster. Pol Roger ran as if it was corked. ‘In defeat, indomitable,’ Churchill had said of Montgomery. Not that day. From the way he carried on, one might have assumed that he had been reduced to beggary. If he had not been a field-marshal, someone would have found a half-crown and thrust it at him, saying: ‘Take that and shut up.’

Another story came to mind, about Ted and a field-marshal, but I could hardly tell it in his presence. Nigel Bagnall, one of the greatest post-war commanders, a man of massive intellect, awesome presence and generosity of spirit, was better at rewriting military doctrine than at the early, awkward stages of a conversation. He and Ted once found themselves next to one another at some event. The ice did not melt. Nigel tried to begin a thaw. ‘You and I have one thing in common.’ ‘Really?’ came Ted’s incurious reply. ‘Yes. We’re both honorary fellows of Balliol.’ Pause. ‘Why did they make you an honorary fellow of Balliol?’

Ted’s attempt to turn his house into a museum is foundering, as is his great European project. But he deserves to be remembered, for his sullenness and his port.

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