Lord Longford's lively prison diaries reveal his underlying shrewdness, says Gerard Noel
Long Longford's Prison Diary, edited by Peter Stanford, Lion £15
VERYONE KNOWS the story of Frank Longford complaining to a bookshop for not stocking his book on Humility. It is supposed to illustrate his lack of that particular quality. It is, obviously, not quite as simple as that.
Years ago at Oxford someone described Frank Longford as a "brilliant child of nature". His critics take this to mean that he has never grown up and. despite his intellectual gifts, remains hopelessly immature in his judgments. I have known him since my own Oxford days and can vouch for a quite different interpretation. Even after his 30 or so books, he still takes an almost boyish pride in everything he writes. Being quite unselfconscious in such matters, he would think nothing of enquiring why some book of his was not being stocked. He would be quite oblivious of any incongruity in so doing in the case of a book about humility.
The stories told about the facets and foibles of this eccentric but formidable campaigner have helped to turn him into one of the most colourful characters of our times — the Don Quixote, perhaps, of the 20th century. Indeed, Peter Stanford claim~ that Frank, in a sense, belongs more to the 19th century than to the 20th or the 21st. He is thus in the line of those patrician reformers of the past, who have helped to shape history by playing their political cards, combining an almost naive clearsightedness with shrewdness so as to achieve very definite results. This book is a good read because you find yourself swept along, naturally and comfortably sharing with the author both the trials and tests of the prison visits and contacts between 1995 and 1999 of a man who has spent 60 years at it. The editor has wisely left "uncorrected" the author's original account, thus making for greater spontaneity.
Lord Longford mentions by name the almost 200 men and women he has got to know in various prisons. Naturally, he reverts frequently to his most famous prison friend, Myra Hindley. His alleged naivete about her reformation must be set against his less favourable view of her accomplice Ian Brady. At the very end of the book, the author strikes an optimistic note about Hindley's future.
Longford makes many judgments that belie a reputation for ingenuousness. I was myself stuck, during my short stint as a prison visitor, by the plausibility of the explanations given by prisoners. Frank is too old a hand to take all such explanations at face value.
A1' ONE POINT he cites the fact that a plea made by a particular prisoner with apparent "conviction and lucidity" was not accepted by the Parole Board. He comments: "I am old enough to be aware that there is always some expla
nation, even if not a good one, for what appears to be unfair treatment". The case in question concerned a certain Eric Yates. Frank appears to be taking further action which promises to be fruitful. We are naturally made anxious to know the end of the story. Unfortunately this prisoner is not mentioned again.
Frank's candour about himself, his life and his own weaknesses is refreshing and endearing. He touchingly records his debt to his wonderful wife Elizabeth, and invariably speaks with warmth about all the members of his family.
He tells how Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was once partnered at a ball by his eldest son. The latter is wrongly listed in the index as "Thomas Longford". Strictly speaking, the latter is Lord Silchester, but prefers not to use the family's courtesy title and to be known as Thomas Pakenham.
While the editing of the book is admirable, the above is an example of some possibly dubious copy-editing. I cannot for example, imagine Frank putting quotation marks around the name of his house in East Sussex, Bernhurst, or using the word "toilets" for lavatories.