Archive for March, 2014

Tony Benn’s Funeral

 

It was a real honour for me to have been invited to Tony Benn’s funeral at Westminster Abbey on Thursday. He made some enemies over the years but a lot more friends so the more intimate St Margaret’s Church in the Abbey was full to the rafters. It looked more like a demonstration outside as we went into the church with miners strike banners from the 80’s and Stop the War Coalition banners from the noughties , a huge crowd that he had encouraged and inspired over the decades. I found myself sitting next to , or in close proximity to Alastair Campbell, Peter Tatchell and George Galloway, quite a formidable trio.

As Tony Benn became almost a “National Treasure” in later life, after he had retired, it’s easy to forget just how radical his politics was with mourners like Arthur Scargill, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the congregation. In fact I remember the afternoon after one of our morning sittings Gerry Adams was due to have a meeting with Tony Benn in his basement office.  This would have been back in 1997 , still the very early stages of the peace process and I seem to remember shortly after this Benn was the first politician to invite Adams into the House of Commons for which he got a lot of stick from the press at the time.

I also thought it was interesting to see Shirley Williams and David Steel there too after Williams , one of the Gang of Four who broke away from the Labour party in the early 80’s to form the SDP , largely due to the direction Tony Benn and Michael Foot were taking the Labour Party which caused a huge rift.  Tony Blair didn’t make the funeral , he sent Cherrie but something tells me Tony Benn wouldn’t have missed him.

His 3 son’s and daughter made extremely emotional and articulate speeches towards the end of the service , the Benn spirit of oratory was in them all.

Although I was only really an acquaintance of the family Hillary Benn made me feel like the closest family friend  when he greeted me which is quite a skill. It certainly felt like the end of an era in many ways but he definitely lives on through his family. Photo’s courtesy of  The Guardian.

March 31st, 2014

TONY BENN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was very sad to hear the news about Tony Benn’s passing.   I knew that he was unwell and was kind of expecting an announcement but it still comes as a shock. It’s been a huge news story, as he got older he became a national treasure which is in stark contrast to his political hay day when he was hated by many. But ultimately  he was  a man of huge principal , conviction, passion  and belief which the nation respected him for. Certainly I felt that he had a very purifying presence when you are in his company and you felt that there was a lot of good within him. The last time that I saw him was just before Christmas when we made a film about the portrait that I painted with him for the Palace of Westminster archive and website. I could tell then that he was getting older but bless him he still tried to light up his pipe in Portcullis House on 3 occasions during the filming to the dismay of the fire security man who very respectfully asked him not to.( There’s a link to the film below).

I first met Tony back in 1998 when I went for a series of sittings at his home in Notting Hill which he had moved into way way before the area became gentrified. The office was very busy with lots of papers on his desk, lots of technical gadgets on a table , mainly for recording purposes because he always recorded interviews. There was a sense that he lived and breathed socialism and there were lots of socialist/ Labour objects that people had given to him over the years and he had kept them all,  the plavce felt a little like a museum. I remember one room was completely taken over by a huge miners banner given to him by Arthur Scargill. We sat in his white plastic lawn chairs in his office and talked about how we might like to compose the portrait and what we could put in it that reflected him as a sitter. many of the things were already in place and others we brought down, like chair which he is sitting in which was once owned by Kier Hardy and he loved the idea of getting a small statue of Karl Marx into Westminster which is on the shelf.  His wife , Caroline would often pop into the sittings for a chat and his brother would come for soup at lunchtime sometimes. He gave me a little socialist pin badge which I have treasured after the last sitting. My Dad was a big fan of his and he came into the sittings the one time and was made extremely welcome. I had a number of sittings and unveilings with him and we became  friends. When my Dad died and he found out he telephoned my mother straight away to offer his condolences and he wrote to me and when he say my work in the broadsheets he would often write to me and when Anne and me got married he wrote a little  piece for the day. A measure of the man I think, somebody who was always interested in people and something he always said , which I haven’t heard many people mention in the tributes  was ” Always encourage people”

It was a privilege to meet Tony and become one of his many many friends and his contribution will never be forgotten.

 

March 15th, 2014


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