I found the stone and the key underneath and let myself into the cottage — brr! I immediately made a fire in the wood-burning stove and put the kettle on. Could I imagine myself living here under this deep thatch, within these Babylonian walls, under these adze-scarred beams, in this 17th-century silence? This is what I had come to find out over two days and nights. The silence was a bit unnerving. I switched on the CD player and let it play whichever CD was loaded. It was Bryan Ferry.
Simple, plain, tasteful furnishings emphasised the cottage’s interior spaciousness. Oh, but cold, colder than outside. I made a pot of tea and had another word with the fire I’d made in the wood burner. Then I drew a low comfortable chair up to the cold metal in anticipation of a bit of warmth eventually. Just off the dining room was a small modernised kitchen. But the dining room itself belonged in the 18th century. I cradled my mug of tea with both hands and contemplated the dining table and four antique chairs.
On a Sunday lunchtime in 1974, four people were seated around this table in this dining room, according to biographer Tom Bower. I screwed up my eyes and tried to conjure them. Over there — I imagined him speaking with his mouth full and with his elbows on the table — sat Jeremy Bernard Corbyn. Then aged 25, young Jeremy was a newly elected councillor for the London borough of Haringey in north London. The impression that abides after reading Mr Bower’s biography of him is of a mendacious, misogynistic, incompetent, financially inept, disorganised, unreliable, hypocritical, boring, racist, skip-rummaging lothario of no charisma and little intellect. (‘These foolish things,’ crooned Bryan Ferry, ‘remind me of you.’) But we should at least allow him the attractive, youthful qualities of energy and idealism.
Especially as, at this moment in the 1970s, young Jeremy is sensing triumph. Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship has been overthrown. Ted ‘lobster thermidor’ Heath is out on his ear. And Jeremy Corbyn has pulled a bird at last. Even more amazingly, after a 12-week relationship, during which he has pestered the life out of her, ‘attractive’ Jane Chapman, 23, has agreed to marry him. In my mind’s eye I can see our leftist young buck tucking into his meatless roast dinner with gusto, speaking with his mouth full, elbows on the table.
His bird, sitting next to him, is currently researching the 1920s French textile industry for her doctorate at the LSE. But every moment of her and Jeremy’s spare time is devoted to the cause of socialist revolution. Until this occurs, however, there are one or two bourgeois customs which unfortunately cannot be avoided. And that is why they are here today. Jeremy has brought Jane down from London for Sunday lunch with his parents, David and Naomi, who have recently bought and retired to this pretty cottage in this historic part of Wiltshire to indulge their joint interest in archaeology. I see Jane laughing jovially and helping herself to another glass of wine.
According to Mr Bower, Naomi Corbyn will come to dislike her ‘alpha female’ daughter-in-law. Jane Chapman in her turn will always be wary of Jeremy’s ‘uncommunicative’ mother. Jane Chapman’s mother, a Tory, regrets that her daughter hasn’t done better in her choice of husband. And in four years of marriage, not once does Jane see Jeremy reading a book. Jane however retains fond memories of Jeremy’s ‘generous’ father, David, a retired electrical engineer, who enjoys being in his shed turning wood on a lathe.
Yes, I can see them, these four fleeting evanescences, at the dining table. Can I also sense awkwardness arising between Jane and her mother-in-law? And is Jane perhaps already wondering whether there was anything to be cherished beyond her new husband’s ‘not bad’ looks. Years later, Jeremy would claim that his parents had fought against Mosley’s Blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End. He would claim too that his father had considered going to Spain in 1936 to take up arms against General Franco. David and Naomi Corbyn were lifelong Labour party supporters. But were they in fact the ardent socialists Jane had been hoping to meet? Later she told Tom Bower that neither David nor Naomi had once mentioned being present at the Battle of Cable Street. Mr Bower doesn’t rule out Jeremy’s paltering with the truth.
I rested a hand on the cold metal to see if it were any less cold. ‘Is this a lasting treasure or just a moment’s pleasure?’ sang Bryan Ferry. A light came on in an upstairs bedroom of the Georgian red-brick manor house next door. The wood-burner was taking an age to heat up. I flung open the hatch, threw in the scrapings of the log basket and went outside in search of more wood.