Lord Lonford celebrates his 90th birthday next week. In order tomark the occasion, the Catholic Herald asked his biograpler Peter Stanford to interview the legendary penal reformer and Catholic peer on his life and work.
"EVERYOIV. SUDDENLY wants to interview me". Lord Longford had arrived late, apologetic and ;tightly bemused for our inter*iew at a hotel in Sloane Square, near his Chelsea home in central London. "I'm sure its all to do with being ninety, though," he added with a wry smile, "I have been doing other things recently".
Next Tuesday, this former Labour Cabinet Ministeravill celebrate a noteworthy birthday, surrounded by his three surviving sisters, seven very successful children, twenty eight grand-children and several great grand-children. But he has a point in doubting whether it is simply great age that has made him so popular of late. There is of course the fact obvious to all who know him that unlike many others who reach 90, Frank Longford remains restless, active and challenging.
And that last quality has made him once again a controversial figure in recent days.
First there was his article in the Spectator reflecting on Tony Blair's performance at the TTJC and Labour party conferences. Longford is a veteran of such events. He was there, for example, on the platform in the late 19508 and early 1960s when his Oxford room-mate Hugh Gaitskell vowed to fight, fight and fight again to save Labour from adopting what he judged to be electorally disastrous policies. Though a great admirer of Blair, Longford noted that he never used the words socialism or working class in either speech.
And then last week he was to be heard on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze among others suggesting forgiveness was a desirable reaction to courtroom revelations of the brutal, sadistic and murderous activities of Rosemary West. Again it wasn't new ground for Longford. For over two decades now he has been urging Christian forgiveness of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, while he has
has been visiting prisoners some famous but the vast majority unknown to the public since the 1930s. Again, back in the late 1940s, as minister in charge of the British zone in occupied Germany, he brought a message of forgiveness to a vanquished people.
Politics and prisoners the two abiding interests in Frank Longford's life. Even at almost 90, they keep him busy and he maintains a punishing schedule. The vagaries of British Rail the train had brought him and his wife Elizabeth up to London from their country home in Sussex had been 90 minutes late . meant that our interview had to be postponed while he visited the optician failing eyesight is one of the few obvious crosses of old age that Longford has to bear and then hurried to the House of Lords, where he is a daily attender, for the weekly meeting of an ecumenical prayer group.
We reassembled that evening in the Lord's bar. Of the two of us, I was the one showing signs of wear and tear. Frank Longford's rude good health is remarkable, the result of a careful diet, no smoking and a passion for exercise that still sees him jogging round the lanes of Sussex.
"I got some letters following my appearance on The Moral Maze," he says. "The writers said they were glad to hear someone speaking out as a Christian. I think that Christianity is still strong in this country, but it has become like a secret policy. People don't like to talk about it. They don't bring it into their speeches here". He gestures at the Houses of Parliament
After 50 years of almost daily attendance these ornate corridors have become a second home to Frank Longford. His face is as instantly recognisable for first term MPs as it is for those, like him, who have been there in various guises since the end of the Second World War. Photographs don't do him justice.
Elizabeth Longford described his face, on their first meeting at an Oxford Ball back in the late 1920s, as being "of monumental beauty".
In 1978 the late Arthur Marshall was rather cruel. "The snaps can be unfortunate," he wrote. "The wild chevelure that frames the bald dome, the unusual eyes and the glinting gig-lamps make him seem like a mad professor in juvenile fiction, often something jovial such as Dr Oddsbodski".
"I've always called myself a Christian," Longford went on. "I was brought up an Irish Protestant".
His family were part of the Anglo-lrish Ascendancy. Their castle, Tully Nally, in Co West Meath is now home to Longford's son and heir, Thomas Pakenham. "I had a Christian inspiration when was at Eton through the headmaster, Dr Allington, but as an adult I was never drawn to the Church of England.
"When I was a don at Christ Church in Oxford (in the mid 1930s), my rooms were right next to the cathedral but 1 never went to church. Well, never would be an exaggeration. Though always said my prayers, I think that is the test for a Christian, don't you agree?"
Frank Longford has this wonderful and disarming way of turning the question on his questioner.
Unlike many ex-cabinet ministers, he is never so puffed up with vanity that he only wants to speak of hisown past achievements and his own contribution to history. He prefers listening to others and it is this capacity to absorb the new that keeps him young.
I mumble a few embarrassed words about my own somewhat irregular prayer life and bounce the question back. "I think my Irish background had a lot to do with my becoming a Catholic," Longford continues. "In retrospect, I think it played a much bigger part than 1 realised at the time. By the thirties I had become an Irish nationalist, had grown to admire Eamon de Valera and had written Peace by Ordeal considered by many his finest book, a 1935 study of the tortured negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish State in 1921.
"But these factors were perhaps not working on my conscious mind. There it was the infleunce of Father Martin D'Arcy, the Jesuit of Campion Hall which was just over the way from my rooms at Christ Church. He was my guru for religious purposes, though ultimately it was the Franciscans (in 1940) who received me into the Catholic Church".
Though he has never once regretted his decision, Longford acknowledges now, looking back from his elevated vantage point of nearly 90, that there were times when he felt out-of-step with Catholicism.
"The hierarchy, the leadership of the Church in those days was very conservative and I was a Labour minister though of course the people themselves tended to be working class, of Irish extraction and so naturally Labour voters.
"The biggest change that I have seen over the years is that the Church has become more liberal, less conservative, on the intellectual side".
This was one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, but what of the other changes it brought like Mass in the vernacular? "Oh that never worried me. I'd been an Anglican you see, and though I'd studied Latin I wasn't in
any way attached to it. I've never had much feeling for ritual. Unlike Evelyn Waugh" Longford's old friend and another of Fr D"Arcy's converts "the change nearly killed him".
Frank Longford is not a man for whom looking back comes easily. Yes, he likes to share amusing episodes from his younger days, but his conversation is nearly always punctuated by contemporary references to Tony Blair's Christianity, for example, or
speculation about a Catholic Prime Minister. "I assumed for many years it would be impossible, but now I see no obstacle." Or the emergence of dissent on the Catholic Church."Fifty years ago I would never have dreamt of admitting I was in favour of women priests, but now I have attended a vigil by women outside Westminster Cathedral."
Our time is running out, Frank Longford has more appointments to keep and though I'm little more than a third of his age I'm off home for a rest_ But he pauses for a moment and looks worried, lest he hasn't made the point strongly enough. "It has made all the difference in the world to me being Catholic all the difference".
Peter Stanford's biography of Lord Longford is available in Mandarin paperback. Lord Longford's autobiography, Avowed Intent, is published by Little Brown.