The Mitterrand palimpsest

FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.

I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.

Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.

Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.

Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.

I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.

Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.

Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.

The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.

For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).

I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.

But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.

In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.

In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.

Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0

Denis Healey: the last of the “us” generation

Grief at the death of a public figure is a funny thing. It can be self-indulgent or maudlin, a version of nostalgia. But we all feel it from time to time, and never more than when part of our own life seems to vanish along with someone we never knew.

Even though he was 98, the death of Denis Healey choked me up. Healey was a special figure to me because he always seemed to be just like my Dad. I even remember having a vague notion when I was very young that they were almost the same person, that Denis was a kind of “public” version of Dad, or perhaps some sort of important uncle. They were about the same age, with similar hairstyles and the same riotous eyebrows, and shared a taste for jumpers and casual shirts. The cover picture of Healey’s My Secret Planet still causes me to do a double-take whenever I catch sight of it. Subliminally, I suppose I’ve always thought of “Denis” as a sort of distant member of our family.

Dad, who died in 2009, shared with Denis a special kind of wisdom which comes from not from formal education (Denis had a very good one, while Dad had almost none), but from sustained contact with ordinary people through extraordinary times. It gave them a sort of super-charged humanity, an appreciation of people as they really are, warts and all, and a stubborn determination to pursue solutions to problems to the bitter end (summed up in Churchill’s favourite call to action: “keep buggering on”). In 25 years, Healey’s memoirs have never strayed more than a few feet from my writing desk. They are thick with annotations, from a time when I tended to underline things in books that I agreed with. When I read them, it’s usually Dad’s voice that I hear in my head.

Healey was one of the leading lights in a “golden generation” of Labour politicians who, thanks to the omnishambles politics of the 1970s, are generally seen to have underachieved — a view ignorant of both the odds they had to overcome and the very real achievements of the pre-Thatcher years. The 1974-79 Labour government had no majority for most of its term of office. Millions of days were being lost to strikes every year. There were wars all over the place. The oil price quintupled and inflation was out of control in all western economies. And there was a kind of madness in the air. Only a month before Healey became Chancellor, the problems of governing Britain had reduced the Cabinet Secretary to a quivering wreck, rolling naked on the Cabinet Office floor, chain-smoking and raving about the end of the world.

Most famously of course, Healey went “cap in hand” to the IMF in 1976. Quite rightly, he never apologised for it. The IMF was an essential mechanism in a global economic system which produced imbalances, and Healey used the tools available to him. We borrowed the money, we averted the crisis, and the loan was paid back in full within a year (Healey called it “sod-off day”). Why was it a “humiliation” to borrow from the IMF and not to borrow from gnomes of Zürich or the butchers of Beijing, as we do now, to finance much bigger debts? But the biggest irony of all was that the loans and associated cuts were based on Treasury forecasts. Had the Treasury got its sums right, Healey wouldn’t have needed the IMF at all1.

Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with.

Despite this wicked combination of crises, the government of which Healey was the key member still delivered rising living standards for working people, and slightly higher overall growth than the Thatcher government which followed it. It oversaw a significant reduction in inflation, passed Britain’s first race and sex equality laws, and made meaningful inroads into pensioner and child poverty. It presided over the most economically equal society we’ve ever known. It’s probably no coincidence that studies often show Britain was also at its happiest during the second half of the 1970s.

It’s hard to imagine today’s politicians delivering those results even in good times and with a thumping majority. Healey’s generation had to try much harder. They knew that, if western democracy was going to survive, it had to deliver for ordinary people. And one way or another, it had to survive. They had seen the alternatives — communism and fascism — and they knew we didn’t want to go there.

Dad and Denis were both born in south London, although Denis moved to Yorkshire when he was very young. Both were communists in their youth, Denis in the debating rooms of Oxford, my Dad on the streets of London, fighting the Blackshirts. They were both in the Royal Engineers during the war; Healey serving with distinction in North Africa and Italy, while Dad was part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, and later took part in the D-Day landings. (Incidentally, both were initially posted to different railway operating companies, and Dad thought he might have run into Denis during a stopover at Swindon in 1940 — Healey’s memoirs do mention a rather pointless posting in the Wiltshire railway town around that time, so it is possible). In their post-war careers, both had cause to visit the Soviet Union several times and were very unimpressed (but quite often amused) by what they saw there.

Of course, in many ways they were very different lives: Dad never went to Oxford and never became Chancellor (although he would’ve made a good foreign secretary in the Ernie Bevin mould, I think). Dad was a modest and private man, whereas Healey loved public attention and was famously arrogant, even if he had quite a lot to be arrogant about. But the fact they had much in common is important. When I was a kid, Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with. It’s hard to imagine someone from my Dad’s background today feeling they had much in common with George Osborne or Alistair Darling.

There was something special in the outlook of that generation, a set of attitudes that came naturally to them but which prove elusive to politicians (and people in general) today: a seamless blending of principle and pragmatism; that pig-headed “can-do” attitude to tackling problems; an unimpeachable patriotism, rooted in love of the British people rather than a flag or a monarch; a profound suspicion of ideology; and, most importantly, a really powerful sense of common purpose.

And let’s be honest — they did enjoy a good crisis. They loved the buzz of high-pitched activity, the feeling that you were playing for high stakes, and that everyone had a part to play in getting out of a hole. If they said “we’re all in this together”, they meant it — and “this” was usually the brown stuff. They had quite a taste for the good life too; if you had a chance of a share of the pie, however fleeting, you grabbed it with both hands — and then asked for more. All this was accompanied by plenty of gallows humour and a love for childish pranks, dirty jokes and silly songs. And, of course, everything was done in a haze of (shared) alcohol and cigarette smoke.

Dad’s sort of socialism, like Denis’s, was moderate but robust, and came directly out of his experiences before, during and immediately after the war. For them, socialism was not an ideology, a theory of history or class war. It didn’t demand that you believed weird things or have a particular lifestyle. It was based on simple, sound principles about equality, solidarity and responsibility that everyone could understand, even if politicians had to get to grips with complex ideas to make it work. There was no final victory, just a lot of hard work and “seat-of-your pants” crisis management. But you didn’t give in, you didn’t take the easy option of going along with what suited the rich and powerful. Socialism meant a sense of common purpose between working people — and “working people” included politicians. Neither Blairites nor Bennites really seem to get that.

Like George Orwell, Denis ended up being defined more by what he opposed than by what he supported. His bellicose opposition to revolutionary Marxism and Bennite socialism leads many commentators to claim him as a figure of the right. Healey became an anti-communist, but that didn’t make him anti-socialist, still less a monetarist, a neoliberal or a stooge of international finance. It was Healey who promised his chancellorship would provoke “howls of anger from the rich” (it did) and who called Thatcher “la Pasionaria of middle class privilege”. He strongly opposed the Iraq War. In recent years, he even reversed his passionate support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent — simply because, as he saw it, the situation had changed. In Healey’s politics, like Dad’s, anti-fascism came first, and then it was all about making socialism practical, appealing, and meaningful to working people. And like Denis, Dad had no truck with the SDP breakaway in 1981; the idea of splitting the movement horrified him.

When I asked Dad about the things he was proud of in his long life, he once mentioned the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, but more often he said something about me and my sister and the lives we were able to have. What should we most remember Denis Healey for? Organising the assault on Anzio as beach master in 1944? Helping to rebuild Europe’s shattered socialist parties after the war? As defence secretary, for helping to keep us out of Vietnam? For beating Tony Benn “by an eyebrow” for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981? There are so many possibilities. But, for me, being Chancellor of the Exchequer when we were at our most equal and most happy might be the best thing of all.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989), p433 ↩︎

A lifetime of self-deception

My review of Tim Milne’s memoir of notorious MI6 double-agent Kim Philby is published in the Spring issue of Public Service Magazine.

Even at school in the 1920s, Kim Philby stood apart. According to this memoir by his schoolfriend and MI6 colleague Tim Milne, the future spy was a “fearless” loner, so secretive that he was never seen going to the lavatory. At cricket, Philby liked to field at deep cover, a remote position ideal for observing the game he loved…

Click here to read the cutting.