Tony Benn - at 82, he's still the scourge of the establishment
AT THE age of 82, anyone could be forgiven for taking a back seat in life. Especially after having a pacemaker fitted following a life full of parliamentary battles, picket lines, protests and scurrilous publishing. But not Tony Benn – maverick socialist,
AT THE age of 82, anyone could be forgiven for taking a back seat in life. Especially after having a pacemaker fitted following a life full of parliamentary battles, picket lines, protests and scurrilous publishing.
But not Tony Benn - maverick socialist, anti-war campaigner and jovial pipe-smoker.
A sign on his front door says Come In, It's Open, and I find him in the back of his ramshackle house, on the phone and scribbling dates in his diary for meetings and appearances.
Books are stacked to the ceiling and newspaper cuttings on the walls date back through the decades. There are old mugs stuffed full of pens balanced on top of piles of paper, and boxes crammed on to makeshift shelves with masking tape labels - "tape recorders", "microphones", "ear pieces". Obsolete computers and broken electronic organisers merge into the array of work surfaces which form the nerve centre of the "Wedgy Benn" communications hub in Notting Hill.
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Outside is a plaque in honour of wife Caroline DeCamp, whom he met as a student at Oxford in 1949 and who died in November 2000. In the garden is the park bench on which he proposed. They bought it from Oxford City Council.
"I've been in the house since 1952 and I haven't changed it much," he says, coming off the phone and noticing me taking a peek around the place.
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Tea is made and his pipe is plugged with sweet-smelling tobacco. A broad smile sweeps over his face as he lights up and takes (obviously delectable) pleasure in the smoking.
The small talk, and touching humour, flows as he puffs away. "My wife died seven years ago," he says. "The oven hasn't been on once since then, but the microwaves's on twice a day, every day!"
I ask when he started smoking and this first piece of controversy is uttered: "When I was 16 I joined the Home Guard. I was trained as a terrorist!
"I was taught how to fire a rifle and how to throw a grenade. If a German had come along, we'd have been expected to kill him. In those days everyone smoked a pipe. And I just never gave up."
I also ask about an incident last month when his pipe was reportedly stolen during a speaking engagement at Bloomsbury Theatre.
Camden Council had granted permission for Mr Benn to smoke during the question-and-answer session after the interval, but his pleasure was halted when he realised the pipe had gone.
"The thing is, it was in my pocket the whole time" he said. "I was so thrilled when Camden Council said I could smoke. In the excitement, I lost my pipe."
You'd never know that this man has a pacemaker inside his heart. He's full of beans, animated, smiling and chuckling. Moving on to more serious topics, he quips: "I've always said I left Parliament to devote more time to politics. People laugh, but that's exactly what I've done."
On Thursday next week Mr Benn is guest of honour at the Speakers In The Park series in Regent's Park. "What I really want to do is say enough to start a discussion," he says. "I think the public is very much underestimated these days. They're treated like they only want to watch Celebrity Big Brother or the football. But I've heard myself speak plenty of times before and I want to listen to other people's views."
No doubt the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be on the agenda because Mr Benn is president of the Stop the War Coalition.
"We cannot win either of these wars. They are illegal and immoral," he raves. "The troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Pulling out would release money for other things. We're going to have to leave. Just like in Vietnam."
I wonder whether a complete withdrawal might destabilise things further, but he insists: "The troops are what cause the trouble. I was no supporter of Saddam Hussain but Iraq was much more peaceful then than it is now.
"I think the whole campaign has failed. The 45-minute threat was made up. Bush was never interested in weapons of mass destruction, he just wanted the oil."
Other sore points for the veteran Labour man include pensions, student debt, care for the elderly, a referendum on Europe and general mistrust in government in this climate of secrecy and spin.
I ask if he supports Gordon Brown but he is reluctant to be drawn. "I don't want to get personal. Politics is ruined by that.
"But Gordon Brown is part of New Labour and I've always been against that. I'm a member of the Labour Party and when Tony Blair came to power he stated that New Labour was nothing to do with the party before it."
There are no signs of this campaigner slowing up as he moves through his 80s. He still takes to the streets for protests, writes his diaries, conducts interviews and scrutinises those in power.
"If I retired I'd probably die of a combination of hypochondria and boredom," he jokes. "I'd be at the doctor's every day saying, 'Aw, look at my leg!' I've never enjoyed life so much as I do now. I'm still learning something new every day."
I ask what has been his proudest moment, and he says simply: "I would like to feel I encouraged people. I would be happy with just three words on my gravestone: 'He encouraged us'."
One of Benn's biggest achievements was ushering in the Peerage Act of 1963, which allowed renunciation of hereditary titles. His motives were down to the deaths of his father, Viscount Stansgate, and his elder brother, Michael. The two tragedies meant Tony Benn MP inherited "blue blood" and could be an MP no longer.
"After I had been in Parliament 10 years they threw me out," he recalls. "It was such a row but it wasn't just about me. The people of Bristol had elected me but they [Parliament] said because my blood had changed colour they couldn't have me."
Legend has it that moments prior to renouncing his peerage, Benn took a sample of his blood to prove he was once eligible for the House of Lords. "Ah yes, the blood sample," he says. "I still have it somewhere in the house. But it's probably clotted now."