Friday, August 19, 2005

Mo Mowlam

It's the early 1980s.
I'm in Newcastle's largest gay club.
The place is packed. Boys Town Gang have just flown in from America to perform Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You, one of the greatest club anthems of that time.
As they start singing, the young woman I'm with waves her arms in the air and joins in the American-style whooping.
She's in her early thirties, slim, with long blond hair.
As Boys Town Gang get into their stride she puts her arm round me and we both sing along 'At long last love has arrived, and I thank God I'm alive, Your'e just too good to be true, Can't take my eyes off of you'.

She was Dr Marjorie Mowlam, BA, PhD, already universally and affectionately known as 'Mo'. I little thought that one day she would be the most popular politician in the country, play a crucial role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and spend weekends at the White House.

One certain indication of an extraordianary person is when the grief that you feel at their death is out of all proportion to the part that they played in your life.
I was not a close friend of Mo and knew her for only a brief period. But, although her death today had been expected for some time, I feel devastated by it and find this very difficult to write. I'm struggling to avoid the worst kind of sentimental cliché but I do feel that there's a little less love in the world now that she's gone. And even as I write that I can hear her shouting 'Wanker!', or something worse.

I smiled this morning when the Today programme played a clip from an old interview with Mo where she said "Life in Northern Ireland is returning to normal. The kids are clubbing again."
That wasn't a definition of normality that would have appealed to Ian Paisley or some of the other people she negotiated with so skilfully in Northern Ireland.
I wasn't entirely surprised that she proved so successful in that role. For when I knew her she could blag her way into a nightclub, sweet-talking the burly Geordie bouncers, often without paying or being signed in.
Standing at the bar, I'd feel an arm round my shoulder and think my luck had changed, only to hear Mo say that if I lent her a tenner she'd buy me a drink.

On one such occasion, she'd just returned from a politics conference in Rio and I asked her how it went. "The good news is that the Brazilian men were fucking gorgeous", she said. "The bad news is that most of the bastards were gay."

She was once charged with entertaining two visiting French academics, a husband and wife. Only Mo would have taken two stuffy, bourgeois, French, provincial academics to a gay nightclub. It was like a scene from La Cage Aux Folles. The four of us sat on the edge of the dance floor and I can still see the look on their faces as they tried unsuccessfully to pretend that they commonly spent Friday nights watching shirtless young men dancing together and snogging.
When I managed to recall a French phrase and said "Il y a du monde ici" they fell upon it like two drowning people clutching at the last straw of sanity. I muttered a few more French phrases and these were like a comfort blanket that got them through the evening. Occasionally they gabbled back at me in French above the din of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and I muttered "Bien sur" and "D'accord". Dancing with Mo, she thanked me for talking with them in French and I told her I didn't understand a fucking word. We both fell about laughing on the dance floor and the nerdy French couple smiled at us from the sidelines and surreptitiously looked at their watches.

I suppose I became friendly with Mo because we were roughly the same age and had similar political views. But some younger students, like some politicians in later years, found her unconventional style difficult to handle. I once met a boy coming out of her office, looking rather shaken. "I reckon she's one of those women's libbers", he said to me with a public school accent. I asked him why. He said "she was being really helpful and going to so much trouble over my essay and I said 'I think I must bring out your maternal instinct'. Do you know what she said? She told me to fuck off."

Early in the course she told me I should breeze through it and then gave me this advice: "Don't bother going to lectures. If you want to know what lecturers have been saying, find an anally-retentive student who writes down every fucking word and ask to borrow their notes. And never read any books right through. Just read the beginning and the conclusion and maybe a few bits in the middle if you can be arsed." Maybe she thought this would leave more time for serious matters like drinking and clubbing.

Much has been said over the years about Mo being 'touchy-feely', but that doesn't begin to describe it. When I was contemplating leaving the course I went to see the Senior Tutor and was sat on his sofa while he took a phone call. Mo put her head round the door and asked me why I was there. When I told her, she launched herself at me and began wrestling with me on the sofa. Eventually, she had me pinned down on my back and was lying on top of me shouting "You fucking wanker!" The Senior Tutor stood transfixed by this spectacle, unaware that he was now holding the telephone down by his waist and the person at the other end was shouting "Hello? Hello?"

In her university days, Mo was notorious for never sitting on a chair in a conventional way but instead tucking her legs up under her and rocking back and forth. In at least one seminar, the inevitable happened and she tipped over backwards on to the floor. Thereafter, we found it difficult to focus on the subject in seminars, constantly wondering if Mo would go arse over tit and show her knickers again. I always wondered whether similar backward somersaults enlivened the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.

Mo clearly had the same tactical political skills as any other politician who rises to Cabinet rank. What made her unique was that she remained utterly true to herself. That's why she inspired such deep affection in everyone whose lives she touched.
There's nothing unusual about politicians kissing babies and children, especially at election time. But as someone who knew Mo before she was a politician I can state that hugs and kisses were as natural to Mo as breathing. So were the four letter words, although they were never said with malice. Her love of life and people was such that I don't think even bigots or boring old farts inspired the kind of deep dislike that some of us feel towards those with whom we disagree. People had to accept her as she was but that was a tolerance she displayed towards everyone else.

Today is the first time I've remembered Mo with tears rather than laughter. But laughter and gratitude will be the abiding emotions.
And I'm probably one of the few people for whom memories of Mo will always be associated with gay disco anthems of the early eighties, the era of 'High Energy' music. And that was our beloved Mo: high energy, high ideals, high courage.
I can write this now secure in the knowledge that she can't tell me to fuck off. But Mo has fucked off far too soon. And, believe me Mo, for millions of us that's a fucking tragedy.


At 7:21 PM, Blogger zaphod said...

Beautiful tribute Willie. Well done.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Vicus Scurra said...

Won't bother to read any other tributes after that. Excellent.

At 7:57 PM, Blogger portuguesa nova said...

Gorgeous. You were lucky to have known her.

At 8:26 PM, Blogger Jane said...

a beautiful tribute, and an honour to read. I always thought she was brill now I know she was.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

Thank you Willie for writing it. Thank you Jane for pointing it out.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger cello said...

It was impossible not to love her, even withiout knowing her personally at all. Some people just can't hide what drives them, and love and optimism can't be suppressed by cynicism. The fact that most people reacted so positively to her authenticity and honesty ought to give other politicians the courage to ditch the pagers and the party line. Her removal from office was yet another nail in Blair's coffin for me.

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous martin said...

brilliant, fucking brilliant!

thank you for sharing this.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Merkin said...

Thank you, Willie.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Urban Chick said...

a wonderful tribute and great to hear one from someone who knew her, even if only for a brief period

At 7:48 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thanks to you all for your appreciation of that.
It's a period of her life that hasn't been covered much elsewhere.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger JonnyB said...

Yes to all the above.

Clearly you have an advantage over other tributers, having shared these times together. But clearly, also, this tribute would have been rubbish in a less talented writer's hands.

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Only just got here, from Toasty Futon via Trivial Pursuit, but glad I did. I didn't know Mo, but I do know something about tributes, and this reads like one that the subject herself would have enjoyed. As did I. Thank you.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

jonny, thank you for that.

zinnia, thanks and welcome. Yes, I hope Mo would have liked it.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger mike said...

What a wonderful tribute. Much appreciated - thank you.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Thanks, Mike.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous lovelesshusband said...

A bit late to the party, but wow. I don't think anyone else can have anything to add after that.


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