March 15, 2014

A Gentle Man - Part 1

I spent an age trolling through the images of this wonderful man trying to capture his spirit and through all the campaigning, and angry mob-looking, hand-waving, energetic photos, I stumbled across this one and it made me stop in my tracks. I'm not sure whether I picked this because it makes me feel better - he does look rather smug - or whether this was the real Tony Benn thriving in one of those rare private moments. 

I've have often thought of Tony - feels a little disrespectful to call him by his first name but Sir makes me feel all of about three years of age and I'm pretty confident he'd have hated that title (smile)..labels just weren't his 'thing'.  But thanks to him, I earned one of my very first "titles" - I was a journalist and not just any old journalist, I was a New Zealand International Foreign Correspondent. It didn't take me long to adopt Tony's view on labels - they're just things slapped on you, very hard to live up to, and 99% of the time, they're imposed on you with a very hefty price. As was the case with my forging Journalist career. 

I first met Tony in 1992. I'd like to say it was by accident but I practically stalked the poor boy. My first visual of him was on the television, swamped by protesters - something about C.N.D (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and a reporter that was more interested in his own voice-overs than anything Tony tried to say. I then found myself doing a really weird thing - I tried to look around the TV screen to see whether I could lip-read what was being said....Plan B....I know what I'll do - I'll just give him a call - as you do. 

I wasn't completely mad. I did have a plan and it went something along the lines of.....I shall call the House of Commons, his Secretary will answer, she will realize I am a nobody, fob me off, and I will sit back down on my couch with the TV blasting and tell myself:  "Well, at least you tried." Good plan.

On the eve of the 1992 Gulf War while everyone watched the bombing of Kuwait, I called the House of Commons. I looked at the little candle lit in my lounge window signalling to the rest of the world, I was anti-war, and waited for his grumpy secretary to strip shreds off me for wasting the man's precious time but nothing went according to plan - someone threw a rock through my lounge window and Tony answered the phone. 

And there it was - my first words to this gentle soul was "Jesus! Holy fuck!"

He didn't hang up. I don't know why. Maybe he gets a lot of calls like that. Instead, he just patiently waited on the end of the line until my brain could scramble some English words together. I considered telling him about the candle - go for the sympathy vote so to speak - but thought he'd redirect me to some crisis helpline and that was going to waste time. In the end, I managed to explain my intentions - I was going to interview him about the Gulf War.....get really famous and rich - although I left the last two major incentives out at the time.

" Excellent. Would you come to my office on Friday, say around 10?"

I had three days to find out who this man was let alone what I would ask him regarding the War, and I knew nothing about both. I didn't have Internet back then but if I did, it would have saved an agonizing trip to the local library looking through index cards hinting at where the hell they hide their books. In the end, I endorsed the help of a very enthusiastic Librarian who seemed quite impressed that I was interested in this man. 

"Oh he's just so wonderful," she said, sounding like a groupie. "I'll get you his diaries."

Diaries? I was a little taken aback that he'd have his personal diaries in a public library but if they were anything like mine, they'd be a minefield of information - favorite restaurants, wine intake, and who the hell pissed me off that day. A scoop for sure. 

To be continued.....

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