The Foots and the Poets
Review by John Lawson
Very recently, a delightful new book tumbled on to my desk from an otherwise boring mail delivery - a Yard (3 Foots) Anthology, which straight away brightened my day and finished off anything else I had planned to do. For it immediately took me back many years to a different era. After a preliminary look-through, I was so grateful that I telephoned the donor to thank him most profusely and genuinely. It just shows how naive and unworldly I have become in my country corner, as I walked straight into "if you are so pleased with it, perhaps You would review it for the (ABA) Newsletter'. I felt a little like a wasp I once knew slightly who, instead of squashing it, in my benevolence I helped off the window to an open window and freedom, and as I did so it curled its body and stung me on the thumb in thanks for a kindly act.
My father and I, and my father alone before me (I began full-time bookselling only in 1952), sold many books to that omnivorous book-collector Isaac Foot, whose collecting enthusiasms were liberal and wide-ranging, but who had a fondness for Cromwell and Milton. I seem to remember selling him also many Wesley and Methodist items. His vast library of some sixty or seventy thousand volumes now resides in a certain University Library in the U.S.A., where, I understand, they had to farm out sections to different areas of the campus to accommodate them. It is interesting to see his career - President of the Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Privy Counsellor, etc. - reflected in Michael, the youngest of his four sons. who became President of the Oxford Union, Privy Counsellor, Lord President of the Council, Leader of the Labour Party, etc.
Michael inherited his father's love of books or 'the book disease' as it is described in the introduction. He too loved Milton's works - Paradise Lost still being by his bedside in his final years. He discovered Swift, of whom he had a fine collection (now in use by students at a major university), also Byron, Wordsworth, Disraeli, Marx, Heine, Godwin, Hazlitt and many others, who proved big temptations when I was selling him books in the seventies and eighties. As Michael left the Liberals to join Labour, his father persuaded 'if he really wanted to become a radical' to read William Hazlitt. Michael explains in the opening chapter of his study of Byron (The Politics of Paradise) "William Hazlitt was my guide. No would-be reader and writer, no democratic socialist, could wish for a better one". He asserts that Hazlitt "put Swift back on the pedestal from which Dr. Johnson had sought to displace him". He was delighted when, in 2003, the Hazlitt Memorial Committee funded a splendid new memorial stone designed and cut by the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge to replace the almost obliterated one of Hazlitt at St. Anne's, Soho. Who else to dedicate it but Michael Foot, with a typically profound and moving speech of such depth,
power and commitment.
Paul Foot, grandson of Isaac, who died at the comparatively early age of sixty-seven, and who sadly I never knew, was, like his uncle Michael, a journalist. I seldom read Private Eye and knew nothing of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party, so our paths did not cross, but again here was a man with poetry in his soul. We learn that he hero-worshipped Percy Bysshe Shelley and gave compelling readings of poetry at political meetings. Shelley embodied for Paul the power of poetry to respond to repression and inspire revolutionary feeling. Queen Mab, for instance, is full of hatred for exploitation and exploiters, and full of hope and faith in the ability of the exploited to create a new society. Shelley believed in co-operative ownership and involved himself with the working people around him.
All three Foots demonstrate this endless interweaving of the paths of politics and literature. The book gives so many insights into the lives beyond politics. Michael remembers his friend Nye Bevan ("I couldn't even write about Bevan without quoting Hazlitt") asserting that politicians should take note of poets, and condemning war by quoting lines from Book IV of Queen Mab: "War is the statesman's game ... the hired assassin's trade". It is difficult to equate the vigorous and dynamic oratory of the Foots, to a vision of them quietly reading and enjoying poetry of periods from Milton, through the Romantics to the present day. Both Michael and Paul learned well Isaac's trick of using literary quotations to spice their speeches. All three of them learned poetry by heart, and poetical quotations gave an extra delicious piquancy to Michael's spellbinding oratory.
In this book one can taste a little of that poetic background in the well-chosen extracts from so many poets of different eras. It is a difficult volume to put down but, when one has done so, one reaches to pick it up again. Every antiquarian bookseller should have a copy.
There have been so many recollections of Michael Foot in the press since his death. One was a letter to a newspaper I was reading this morning at breakfast, of a jogger on Hampstead Heath whose path crossed with Michael and Dizzy (his dog named after Disraeli). As he passed them he overheard Foot saying to Dizzy "How many times do I have to say not to go to the right?". The jogger could not resist the observation "Sir, it must be like trying to manage the Labour Party" - swift came the reply "But this one I shall win".
As I came to the end of the book, I could see in my mind's eye that famous film shot of Michael Foot walking off down the road with Dizzy on stretched lead, the expressive walking-stick waving erratically and heading, John Wayne fashion, into the metaphoric sunset and towards animated discussion with his father and nephew and all those poets and writers already there to welcome him in the Elysian Fields.
The Foots & the Poets. An Anthology, edited by Derek Summers, published by Jarndyce. Paperback, 120pp. £6.99 ISBN 9-781-900-718752
The article was published in the ABA Newsletter 357. It is presented here by permission of the editor Brian Lake and the ABA. Thank you very much.