Conversations with my grandfather

On 5th July, my grandfather, Sir Philip Goodhart (Big Daddy to his family) died. He was a few months short of his 90th birthday.

During the last year or so of his life, I was lucky enough to spend a few lazy Sunday afternoons in conversation with Big Daddy at his home near Holland Park. I would typically arrive shortly after lunchtime to find him in his usual spot at the head of the dining room table, huddled over a newspaper. We would sit and drink “Brampagne” as he called it (sparkling wine from Kent) and after hearing one or two of his more eccentric theories about the day’s headline stories, I would steer the conversation towards some aspect of his past.

In particular, these conversations started after a business trip I took to Israel and Palestine in May 2014. I knew vaguely that Big Daddy had served in the British Army there after World War Two. I also knew that he came from a leading Anglo-American Jewish family and that therefore, by definition, Zionist politics must have played some part in his early adult life. So, having had my own interest in Israel stirred, I was curious to find out more about his experiences.

Sir-Philip-Goodhart--009

These conversations were not conceived as interviews. I had a vague inkling that I might one day write up some of the stories he told me, but had I been serious at the time about this endeavour, I would perhaps have gone a little slower on the Brampagne.

It also wasn’t my intention to wait until after Big Daddy had died to publish these reminiscences. Although, after my experience of writing a piece about the 1975 EEC referendum earlier this year and taking it to him because I was sure he’d be pleased, only to have it handed back covered in red pen and all the phrases I was most proud of crossed out, I was certainly somewhat hesitant about giving him a chance to edit my ramblings.

I suppose though, his death has provided the impetus to finally put pen to paper (or finger to key more accurately), because for as long as he was alive our conversations were, to my mind at least, unfinished. I have no regrets about that: I’m simply grateful for the Sunday afternoons we did have. But now our conversations are finished, so here are his stories.

School days

His school days formed (or perhaps deformed is more appropriate) him in a couple of significant ways. Despite being quite clearly a natural leftie, he was forced from an early age by schoolmasters to write with his right hand. As a result, his handwriting was – even before the shakes worsened the situation – completely illegible to all but the most highly-trained interpreter (for which, read devoted secretary). The second thing we have his schooling to blame for is the fact that Big Daddy was not only the worst singer I’ve ever come across, but joyfully revelled in his own complete absence of musicality. In one frequently re-told story from school days, the young Philip is taking part in whole school singing when the music master comes up to him and says: ‘Goodhart – keep opening and closing your mouth, but stop making a noise.’ Big Daddy’s characteristic way of overcoming this potentially crushing moment was to make a comedic feature of his tone-deafness. Right to the end, he would phone each of his seven children and 21 grandchildren on their birthdays and bellow completely atonally down the phone: ‘Happy Birthday TOOO YOOOUU! Happy Birthday TOOOOOOOOO YOOOOOOOOUUUUUUU…’

Another story from his school days that I only heard for the first time shortly before his death was about how he discovered his own semi-Jewishness. Philip’s father, Arthur Lehman Goodhart was a non-observant, non-religious Jew. His mother, Cecily, on the other hand was a devout Protestant Christian. Synagogue, Torah and Sabbath therefore did not feature at all in the young Philip’s life, whereas church, Sunday school and Bible were omnipresent. In this context, it’s perhaps not that surprising that Philip in his early adolescence was largely unaware of his Jewish heritage.

At school (the Dragon in Oxford at this point), the boys often fought in the playground. Drawing on contemporary events (this being c.1936-7), they would pretend to be opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War. By pure chance, Big Daddy somehow ended up more often fighting for Franco than for his Republican opponents. One day, having been boxing away for General Franco in the playground, he came home and launched into a particularly vitriolic anti-Semitic rant in front of his governess. She calmly and firmly responded: “I wouldn’t repeat that in front of your father.”

Over the next decade of his life, his Jewishness became an increasingly important feature of Philip’s identity. During the war, he spent time in the States with the much more overtly Jewish side of his father’s family. And he couldn’t avoid the implications of his Jewish connections given what was happening in central and Eastern Europe in the early 1940s.

The Holocaust made Big Daddy not just un-religious but wholly irreverent in his attitude to God. He thought it was very careless of an omnipotent God to let such a thing happen to his chosen people. He also told me not long before he died that if he ever got close enough to God to have a conversation – which he doubted – he intended to give him a few tips on being a father. Number one: try not to get your eldest son crucified. Flippancy was always Big Daddy’s stock currency when faced with potentially serious matters.

Palestine

In 1945, he was serving in the Parachute Regiment when it was despatched to keep the peace in what was then still British Mandate Palestine. At first, he tried to use his Jewishness as a pretext for not going, but the British Army was having none of it, so he ended up spending close to two years fending off Zionist and Arab nationalist terrorists. This was a formative period in many ways, but perhaps most significantly it turned Philip from a “politically diffident” Labour supporter (having spent the previous couple of years in the bosom of his staunchly Democratic New York Jewish family – ‘uncle’ Herbert Lehman was a former Democratic governor of New York, and another member of the extended clan, Henry Morgenthau Jr, was one of FDR’s closest confidants – he considered himself a ‘New Dealer’ more than anything else at this point) into a lifelong Conservative. Given that he went on to spend 35 years as a Conservative MP, this turned out to be quite an important life decision.

This political awakening had two causes according to Big Daddy. One was the respective attitudes of the British Labour and Conservative parties towards Zionism. Although he had no qualms about shooting at members of the Stern gang (a Zionist terrorist group) and the like in Palestine, he returned from the Holy Land convinced that an independent Jewish state was (part of) the solution. This aligned him with the Conservative party of the day and pitted him against Labour. The second, and perhaps more significant reason for his political realignment, was that in Palestine he became an officer. In the whole of the British Army in Palestine, there wasn’t such a thing as a Labour-supporting officer, he chortled to me 70 years later. Socially he would have been an outcast for expressing support for the Attlee government. And so – because he was always more a socialite than a socialist – he became a Tory.

He was flippant too about the dangers he faced during that time in Palestine. He recalled an occasion when the convoy he was part of got caught in the crossfire between two sets of gunmen firing at one another. After twenty minutes of lying in a ditch thinking, presumably, that he could be about to have his throat slit by either Arab nationalists or Zionist extremists, the gunfire stopped and the convoy continued on its way. When they returned to base, he was informed that they had in fact been caught in a friendly fire incident between two British Army outposts. 70 years on, he thought the whole thing was rather comical.

But then, he never lacked physical courage. It wasn’t an accident that he ended up in the Paras. And he apparently showed the same fearless (bordering on unhinged) tendencies in his skiing. His obituary in The Telegraph mentions that he captained the parliamentary ski team three times: ‘twice he required stitches in his head and back, and in 1985 he broke a leg.’ Which sounds to me like three out of three. It should also be said that it took a certain amount of bravery to accept a post as Junior Minister for Northern Ireland in 1979, just months after Airey Neave had been blown up by a car-bomb. Perhaps this combination of fearlessness and self-effacing flippancy was in part also a legacy of his experience during the 1940s: he was part of a generation that never forgot how lucky it was to survive that decade alive. After World War Two and the Holocaust, everything else seemed like small beer.

Journalism

In the early 1950s, he turned his hand to journalism, first at The Daily Telegraph, where he briefly shared an office with Ian Fleming. Then, after a brief and unlikely interlude as Deputy Editor of Time and Tide, a magazine owned by the noted feminist Lady Rhondda, he joined The Sunday Times. Although he was to go on to spend the majority of his career in politics, it’s arguable that journalism was his true vocation. He certainly had a knack for finding himself in interesting places at interesting times.

His future as a journalist might have been sealed in 1956 by his daring decision to re-join his old chums in the Parachute Regiment as they dropped into Port Said at the height of the Suez Crisis. It could have been one of the greatest coups ever pulled off by a war reporter, except that he failed to get anything at all through to his employers at The Sunday Times. It remains a mystery whether his failure to file any copy was the result of army censorship or a simple administrative error. Either way, it was fifty years later before he finally produced a rather dull pamphlet about the Suez Crisis. Consequently, rather than nominating him for a Pulitzer Prize, his employers were understandably rather miffed that he had disappeared for several weeks without authorisation and come back empty-handed.

No doubt, therefore, they were supportive when he announced the following year his intention to quit the paper and stand for Parliament in the South-East London constituency of Beckenham. In the battle for selection as the Conservatives’ candidate he found himself up against a little known Oxford-educated chemist called Margaret Thatcher. In what in retrospect may well have been the most satisfying victory of his political career, he defeated Thatcher, though he had the humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that it had nothing to do with him being a better speaker than her. The (predominantly female) selection committee decided that, as the mother of two-year-old twins, Maggie would be unable to devote herself fully to her parliamentary duties. Showing perhaps a touch of the feminist sensitivities that got him the job at Time and Tide, Big Daddy recalled (albeit with a mischievous, gleeful look on his face): “mercifully, they didn’t seem to mind that I had four children under the age of seven at the time.”

Politics

And so to Westminster. Although he was to stay in Parliament for 35 years, his political instincts proved to be nowhere near as finely tuned as his journalistic ones. He continued to find himself in interesting places at interesting times – such as next to Enoch Powell while the latter was calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Community in the early 1970s – but, more often than not, he ended up on the losing side when it came to intra-party power politics.

He has the rare distinction amongst Conservative politicians who served during the period from 1965-1990 of being equally out of favour with both the Heath and the Thatcher regimes. Having shot himself in the foot in 1965 by backing Reginald Maudling for the party leadership (just as his own ministerial career seemed to be taking flight – he had been appointed a shadow defence spokesman by Alec Douglas-Home the previous year), he made no attempt to mend bridges with Heath. Instead, he became a great admirer of Powell, Heath’s arch-nemesis within the party. And although his own views on Europe were ambiguous at best – he was staunchly in favour of a referendum but, unlike Powell and others who campaigned for a referendum, he was distinctly coy about what he wanted the outcome to be – he did enough to ensure he was loathed by Heath and the rest of the Europhiles at the head of the party.

Initially, he seemed to be in with the Thatcher crowd and it looked like his star might rise with hers. But that too was short-lived. He served as a junior Northern Ireland minister for two years before being moved to Defence where he was promptly sacked for criticising government policy. His independent-mindedness had once again got the better of his political ambitions. As the 1980s wore on, he came more and more into the orbit of Thatcher’s arch-nemesis, Michael Heseltine, scuppering any hopes of a rapprochement with the Iron Lady.

There was undoubtedly an anti-authoritarian streak to Big Daddy (perhaps a legacy of his likely pretty authoritarian upbringing) that goes some way towards explaining the unusual trajectory of his political career. What stayed consistent from his days as a Powellite to his days as an acolyte of Heseltine was an unbending commitment to rebelliousness at all costs. By the early 2000s, this rebellious streak mainly manifested itself as a defiant disregard for all parking regulations (when I lived with my grandparents around about 2003-4, parking tickets were a pretty much weekly occurrence).

***

Perennial rebel, proud eccentric, committed socialite, a man with a journalist’s knack for being in interesting places at interesting times: that was Big Daddy. As a lifelong newspaper addict, he would have been well pleased by the obituaries printed in both The Daily Telegraph and The Times (he also got an obituary in The Guardian but that would have brought him less pleasure).

I hope these reminiscences from a grandson would also have brought him some pleasure. What’s more, I hope they do at least partial justice to a life well lived.

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