The lunchtime I spent with Michael Foot at Dylan Thomas's house

It’s April 1997, west Wales, and a well-read old man with a shock of white hair wants to talk about a dear old friend

In a TV discussion about Michael Foot the other day, someone asked: “What drove him?” In a flash I remembered the day I drove him.

It was a sunny morning in April, 1997. Fourteen years earlier Margaret Thatcher was re-elected by a landslide after Labour, led by Michael Foot, campaigned on a manifesto later described as “the longest suicide note in history”. Now it looked as though New Labour, led by that nice Tony Blair, would win.

Foot was in west Wales to support the local candidate. But what he really wanted to do was visit the Boathouse, the last home of Dylan Thomas. I was there on behalf of the Western Mail. He was easy to spot among the bric-a-brac stalls of Laugharne market. His shock of unkempt white hair, bottle-bottom glasses, scruffy jacket and walking stick made him unmistakable.

A near-fatal car accident in 1963 had left him with a loopy gait. My car was the only one small enough to get close to the Boathouse, so Foot and his 17-year-old Tibetan terrier, Dizzy, hopped in.

He told me that he knew Dylan Thomas well. “He used to come to my house in London in 1947 or 48 with Arthur Koestler and sometimes we were sober and sometimes we weren’t.”

Over lunch in Dylan Thomas’s old kitchen Foot reminisced about a night playing chess with Koestler while the poet searched his bookshelves and found a copy of Koestler’s anti-Communist classic Darkness at Noon. “We were all a bit high and Dylan Thomas started writing insults to Koestler in this book and Arthur was writing insults back to Dylan in it. Tragically some terrible fellow stole it.”

Asked what he thought a New Labour government would do first, the unreconstructed voice of Old Labour said it would call an international conference to ban nuclear weapons. Really? “Well if they don’t, the Bomb will spread all over the place,” he said.

Foot became animated about corruption in parliament, saying a Labour government could be relied upon to “clean up” democracy. On the way out he signed the Boathouse visitors’ book and wrote underneath: “On the way to victory.”

A well-read man of letters, he was egalitarian, honest, without malice, and great company. You don’t meet many of them in politics these days. As the song says, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Steve Dubé

The GuardianTramp

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