Diana Reich writes:
Denis Healey had an ongoing but intermittent relationship with Charleston, mainly via the Festival:
He took part in the first Festival in 1990, whilst still a serving MP. His topic was ‘The Woolfs and Politics’. He was a great admirer of Leonard Woolf, with whom he shared similar values: a commitment to moderate left wing politics, an international outlook and an intellectual and cultured cast of mind. He also thought that Virginia Woolf’s support of Leonard and his causes (albeit sardonic at times) and her involvement in working women’s education, both locally and nationally, was frequently underestimated.
He was almost a fixture in the front rows of the Festival audience for around 20 years
He was a very vivid presence, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and good humoured. He frequently came to the Green Room, especially when the speakers were from the world of politics, such as Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams.
His presence in the audience caused consternation to Tony Benn, when he took part in the Festival in 2008. They had fought a bitter Deputy Leadership battle in 1981, in which Healey had been successful. Benn (whom Healey blamed for the creation of the SDP) had continued to move further to the Left and they had never been reconciled. When I mentioned to Tony that Healey might be in the audience, he was sure that the intention would be to challenge.
However, Healey was very respectful and they had a reconciliation of sorts in the Green Room. They went on to establish a warm relationship, especially after Edna Healey’s death in 2010. They had each had very strong marriages and their mutual widowhood (Caroline Benn had died in 2000) united them.
Whenever in the Green Room, Denis was a dominating presence. If all else failed, as far as attracting attention was concerned, he would break into a chorus of the Red Flag – in the original Italian: Bandiera Rossa.
On a personal level, he was very warm. He always greeted me with a bear hug which whirled me off my feet – but that was his customary manner. He may not have suffered fools gladly, but he was not a snob.
He liked to play the buffoon – but this was probably a safety valve as he had a very active and creative mind up till the end. On the phone, he often announced himself as ‘Eyebrows’.
He was in many ways an artist manqué – a painter, pianist and poet.
Virginia Nicholson adds:
At Charleston, Denis Healey always felt at home. Here he shed the politician, and relaxed into a creative, warm-hearted and at times unhibited style. It took little to encourage him to let rip with not only La Bandiera Rossa, but equally O Sole Mio or Va Pensiero. ‘Darling’ was (like Lord Attenborough) his default term of address – maybe because he couldn’t remember people’s names? Always larger than life, his infectiously guttural laugh and tactile affection charmed friends and strangers alike. Denis was also a talented photographer, to be seen with his camera, mischievously capturing informal shots of the Festival audience. I was often the recipient, a few days later, of an envelope containing the resulting prints.
To me personally he was – with Edna – unfailingly generous and helpful, with advice, thoughtful insights and the contents of his library.
My favourite memory of Denis at Charleston is the occasion of a ‘Quentin Follies’ fundraiser in 2004. Denis had unhesitatingly agreed to perform, and on the night appeared on stage, suitably attired in shabby raincoat and a flat cap, to perform a brilliant political send-up of Stanley Holloway’s ‘Albert and the Lion’ in a nasal Yorkshire accent. Denis was a natural. He brought the house down.
Denis loved everything Charleston stood for: the witty, cultured, tolerant values of Bloomsbury were also his own.
He will be much missed.
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