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Updated: March 9, 2010 09:21 IST

The last of the Labour titans

K. Natwar Singh
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Michael Foot, British Labour MP at a conference titled `Towards new beginnings' in memory of the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi, the capital of India. Photo: N. Srinivasan
Michael Foot, British Labour MP at a conference titled `Towards new beginnings' in memory of the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi, the capital of India. Photo: N. Srinivasan

A good friend remembers Michael Foot.

Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power.

— Michael Foot

November 1995. Michael Foot and I are in Madras as guests of N. Ram. “Come,” said Ram to Michael and me, “Let's drop in to see R.K. Narayan.” So to R.K. we proceeded.

Narayan was in his 90th year. Michael was seven years younger. Michael Foot was enchanted with our “Man from Malgudi.” Narayan, too, warmed to Foot. Being a “slow burn,” R.K. was not instantly ebullient. Soon enough, the formality ebbed away. The two distinguished men “connected.”

Ram and I listened to the two who had enriched the Republic of Letters. Two civilised, untarnished beings, endowed with refined character, intuitive wisdom and natural wit. Ram and I were relieved to escape from the dreary drudgery of the world of mediocrity, which normally had no sign which read, “Exit.” I have a good but not freakish memory, but can recall substantial portions of the dialogue between Narayan and Foot. Here I will relate one of the finest parts of it.

After an hour, as we were leaving, told R.K. that Michael Foot had recently written an unusual biography of H.G. Wells. R.K. paused for a moment, and recalled the last part of H.G. Wells' novel, “Tono-Bungay,” published in 1909:

“We are things that make and pass, out into the sea,

upon an unknown mission.”

R.K. had read the novel 60 years earlier. Michael was astonished, moved and touched.

I first met Michael Foot in London in 1975. He was then a Cabinet Minister (for the first time) in Harold Wilson's government. Our friendship was not instantaneous. It evolved over months. From the corridors of formality we finally entered the never-withering garden of friendship.

Before getting to know Michael, I had crossed swords with his elder brother Hugh Foot in the U.N. Committee on Decolonisation, where he led the British delegation. I represented India. The elder Foot was an accomplished debater, a man of vast experience in the British Colonial Service. He had been Governor of Jamaica and Cyprus.

On Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday, November 14, 1975, Swraj Paul arranged a dinner, attended by nearly 250 people including Michael Foot and myself. When I learnt that Michael was to speak before me, my heart missed a beat. Michael Foot was a spell-binding orator — in the same class as Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan. It happens to all of us when one is not in good form. Michael was, mercifully, not in form that evening. I got up to speak, extempore. Recalling my association with his brother, I said: “It was hard enough dealing with the right Foot but there is no keeping up with the left Foot.” Michael roared with laughter. Thereafter I had the audience with me.

Michael Foot had been a very devoted admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru when it was not fashionable to do so. He met Nehru for the first time in 1938. V.K. Krishna Menon arranged the meeting. Michael Foot joined the India League and was a stout-hearted and consistent supporter of India's Freedom Movement. As editor of the left-wing paper Tribune he was unsparing of the British Raj.

When I got to know him well, I wrote to Indira Gandhi that we should invite Michael Foot to India. She approved. In 1976 he made the first of many trips to India. He and I sat down to work out his Indian itinerary. He was then a senior Minister. I took the bait in my mouth and asked: “Michael, would you like to go to Kashmir?” I was certain he would decline this reckless invitation. No Minister of either of the British parties had ever agreed to visit Kashmir. The U.K's Kashmir record is as deplorable as it could be.

Imagine my surprise when I heard his response: “Why not? I'll go to Kashmir.” And go he did. His party was far from happy but could not possibly sack or censure him.

Michael was, like his father, Isaac Foot, an inspired bibliophile. (So am I.) His charming house — 66 Pilgrim's Lane, Hampstead — was overflowing with books. Every available space was home to books. He was a book reviewer of genius. He gave me several books, each one with affectionate inscriptions. I naturally hesitated to give him mine. We were not in the same literary league. He insisted. He wrote with uninhibited enthusiasm about “Profiles and Letters”: “Best thing you have ever written.”

When I became Foreign Minister, he wrote to me the following letter, on June 3, 2005:

Dear Natwar,

I have naturally been following most closely all developments in India since the great election last month. I am thrilled to see you back in office and wish you every success there.

I do recall an occasion, as you may do also, when I propheisied that you might become Foreign Minister of India even before Robin Cook was appointed to that post here in Britain. But of course, I have many other happy memories of times together and I wish you the very best of success.

Love,

Michael

The last time I met him was in September 2008, at his Hampstead home. He was very frail, but the mind was incandescently clear. He reminisced about India. “Natwar, you must get me to India.” “Michael, you are most welcome at all times.” I did not sound very convincing because he was in no state to travel. I knew I would never see him again. So did he. Uncharacteristically, he embraced me and gave me his only copy of “Uncollected Michael Foot.”

The great Greek, Pericles, once proclaimed, “The whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.”

Michael is one of them.

Readers' Editor clarifies:

The thirteenth paragraph of this article was “When I became Foreign Minister, he wrote to me the following letter, on June 3, 2005: Dear Natwar, I have naturally been following most closely all developments in India since the great election last month ….” The year should have been 2004 as the general elections were held in April/May 2004.

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