Wednesday, 26 March 2014

‘SPR announces Buckmaster Legacy’

I didn’t think I would be returning to the matter of the Buckmaster money left to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), quite so soon.  The SPR circulated its 2012-13 Annual Report and Accounts last week, with information on the Buckmaster legacy, and it has just announced, now that the ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal championed by Dr David Rousseau has been withdrawn, what it plans to do with the money instead.  An email was sent to SPR members on 24 March, and the text repeated on its website.

After a brief run-down of the contents of Mr Buckmaster’s will, and how much his legacy is worth, the message rightly points out that the final total is far beyond what Mr Buckmaster envisaged bequeathing to the SPR.  The sheer amount has created a bit of a problem in finding ways to spend it in keeping with the will’s spirit, which essentially was to provide information on psychical research in various ways, the rest going into a property fund.  Since the will was written there have been significant technical advances, particularly in information delivery and digital reading formats.  Bearing these issues in mind, the email goes on to outline how the SPR’s Council has decided to utilise the funds.

Some £350,000 (yes, that’s not a typo) will be spent on a programme of information dissemination, both hard copy and online.  There will be a major book and ebook containing case studies with a commentary bearing on survival issues; a free online encyclopaedia; a series of short popular books (plus ebook versions) on key aspects of psychical research; and an expanded SPR website with a stream of articles and commentaries.  There are a couple of subsidiary awards.  One is £10,000 for an upgrade to the Lexscien online library run by David and Julie Rousseau.  The online library is generally acknowledged to be somewhat creaky these days, and the content needs to be brought up to date (it currently stops at 2008).  The same amount will be spent on an online repository into which researchers can load their experimental data.  That just leaves a rather curious item which is worth quoting in full:

‘Council considers that the need to convince the scientific establishment of the relevance of psychical research is as important as educating the public. Accordingly, it has made a grant of £78,000 towards the creation and publication of a systematic methodology for anomalies research. It is intended that this methodology can be applied to other scientific disciplines besides psychical research, and help draw our field into the mainstream.’  I’ll come back to this.

The balance, which currently amounts to some £270,000 according to the announcement, is to be invested with a view to the future purchase of a freehold property.  The total amount of the Buckmaster funds is given vaguely as ‘in excess of £700,000’ but the total Buckmaster fund at the end of September 2013, according to Dr Rousseau’s Treasurer’s Report in the Annual Accounts, was £729,000, and six months later will be more, bearing in mind that none of it has been spent yet.  It should be ‘in excess’ of three-quarters of a million pounds by now.  What about research, a word enshrined in the SPR’s name? It’s in there somewhere: the announcement tells us that while the will doesn’t specifically provide for research, ‘it is intended that interest earned from the funds prior to disbursement will be used to increase the amounts available for research grants.’  We are promised further information on the Buckmaster projects in a future issue of the Journal and/or Paranormal Review.

These are promising developments, but there are some reservations (these comments are based entirely on information in the public domain, and not any privileged discussions).  It is impossible at this stage to determine whether the overall project, and its subsidiary components, will represent good value for money.  Will these initiatives be of benefit to the subject or will they fall on stony ground?  The encyclopaedia is most welcome given Wikipedia’s deficiencies, but there are already moves to produce alternatives, notably Citizendium and the World Institute for Scientific Exploration’s online Worldwide Resource Center, both of which seek to fulfil the same function.  It will be hard for the SPR to carve out a distinctive niche, but its name will help in providing an authoritative cachet to its product.

The books should be popular and there are a couple of possible routes here.  The volumes in the SPR’s Centenary series, published in 1982, are still discussed.  Or, if the ‘Very short introduction’ format is chosen, that will go down well in our attention-deficit age.  An expanded website with fresh content has to be useful.  These are all worthy efforts, but it is hard to see how they are going to cost more than the third of a million pounds that has been budgeted.  If the book programme is done right it should be making money, not costing it!

That leaves the £78,000, the reference to which feels a bit coy.   We are not told in the announcement who has trousered this extremely large sum, nor how the figure was arrived at.  In terms of the normal amounts of grants given by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC) this is far beyond what a researcher might expect to receive.  To put the figure in context, in the 2012-13 Annual Report the chair of the RGC reports that the SPR awarded five grants in the reporting year, ranging from £1,700 to £3,275, totalling £13,270.  If this is thought to be atypical, bear in mind that during 2011-12 the RGC also awarded five research grants, totalling £12,670.  These are miniscule figures compared to the £78,000.  You could make a lot of small grants with that money and stimulate the field in the process, so expectations must be extremely high that £78,000 will deliver an output commensurate with the investment.  So what will the recipient do with this sum?

It’s all dressed up to make it sound impressive and justify the amount.  It isn’t for hoi polloi, it is for the scientific establishment that will be immune to the other strands of the Buckmaster project which are merely for the purpose of ‘educating the public’.  Special measures, tailored to said scientists, are required in these exceptional circumstances.  This will take the form of ‘the creation and publication of a systematic methodology for anomalies research’.  Isn’t that what parapsychologists do anyway, one is tempted to ask.  What is the secret ingredient that can do what others have failed so signally to do in the past?  The description sounds a bit like Dr Rousseau’s ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal, minus the data collection, and isn’t a million miles away from Dr Rousseau’s SPR Journal paper ‘Challenging the Paradigm Systematically: A New and Generic Approach to Classifying Anomalous Phenomena.’  Admittedly this is on a far smaller scale than CaseBase, but perhaps that was required to make it seem uncontroversial.  From this bland description it comes across sounding a bit like Mini-Me to CaseBase’s Dr Evil.

Perhaps the huge amount being spent on it will be worthwhile, if it works.  For the money we will get a ‘methodology [that] can be applied to other scientific disciplines besides psychical research, and help draw our field into the mainstream.’  In other words, it is, in the words of Dr Rousseau’s JSPR paper, a ‘generic approach to classifying anomalous phenomena.’  In theory that sounds good, and would be £78,000 well spent.  But what if it fails to convince that hard-to-satisfy scientific establishment, and psychical research finds itself still outside the mainstream?  It will be exactly where it is now, just £78,000 poorer.

Given the risk, one has to ask, ‘Nice in theory, but couldn’t it be done cheaper?’  Are this and the publications strand so expensive simply because of the amount of cash washing round?  It would be great to hear precisely what will be delivered, and by whom, for that generous £78,000, and how sufficient confidence has been generated to justify investing so much for what appears to be an extremely speculative outcome.  At the very least an assurance that this ‘grant’ application was peer-reviewed should be provided, in order to prevent charges of cronyism – whoever the recipient is – being bandied about.

In addition to the general outline of how the money will be spent, the SPR announcement also included an advertisement for the post of commissioning editor for the publishing strand.  Claiming to be ‘modestly remunerated’, it pays about £15,000 a year for three to four years.  There are also freelance opportunities to work on publications and the website.  I’m sure these will prove very popular.

It has taken a while to get to this point, and there is a long way still to go before we have a firm idea whether the Buckmaster money will be spent wisely on these schemes.  One hopes it is, for three reasons.  Firstly, such largesse comes along very rarely, so it is necessary to make sure that when it does it is not wasted.  Secondly, large bequests will probably get even rarer thanks to changing economic circumstances.  Money that might have been given to the SPR could in future be eaten up by care home fees and other requirements of a population that is living longer than in the past.

Thirdly, should money be available, and a potential donor is wondering whether the SPR is a worthy recipient, if Buckmaster proves to be poor value they might think, ‘hang on, I’d love to see my money spent exploring psi and attempting to engineer a paradigm shift, but didn’t they get £750,000 from that Buckmaster chap, and mostly squander it?  I’ll give my money to help eradicate malaria, or fund research on Alzheimer’s instead.’  I know where my money would go.  There are greater dangers here than merely wasting the Buckmaster cash on unfulfilled potential, or on what might turn out to be vanity projects.

Members will soon get a chance to enquire into these matters.  The SPR’s Annual General Meeting is coming up on Saturday 26 April, and there will be an opportunity to ask about the disbursement of the Buckmaster legacy.  One hopes that more specific information will be forthcoming then, as well as later in the SPR’s publications.  I’ll be coming back to this issue as the Buckmaster programmes roll out and we can better judge progress, and value, against expenditure.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A Goodly Company: Ethel le Rossignol at The Horse Hospital

‘Ye say ful sooth,’ quod she, ‘that is no nay;
I see coming a goodly company.’

From 22 February to 22 March 2014, The Horse Hospital in London, situated a hoof beat from Russell Square tube, showed a number of paintings by the medium Ethel le Rossignol.  Possessing mediumistic abilities, she created forty-four paintings between 1920 and 1933 which depicted her interpretation of the world of Spirit.  Twenty-one of these painting belong to the College of Psychic Studies (CPS) and were loaned for the exhibition, which was mounted in association with Mark Pilkington’s Strange Attractor.

The exhibition was called A Goodly Company: Ethel le Rossignol, and the accompanying leaflet was subtitled ‘A series of psychic drawings given through her hand as an assurance of survival after death.’  The words were taken from her book the full, very full, title of which is A Goodly Company: A Series of Psychic Drawings Given through the Hand of Ethel le Rossignol as an Assurance of Survival After Death this Sequence of Designs is Shown to Open the Eyes of All Men to the Glorious World of Spiritual Power Which Lies About ThemA Goodly Company was published in 1933 by The Chiswick Press, and a copy was on display at the exhibition. (1)

Le Rossignol does not seem to have had much of a profile while she was alive; details of her life are sketchy, and those here are lifted from the exhibition leaflet.  She was born in Argentina in 1873, her father hailing from the Channel Islands (Rossignol is French for ‘nightingale’) but her family had moved to Kensington by 1891.  She studied art and married Arthur Beresford Riley in 1930, somewhat late in life.  A number of of her artworks and copies of her book were donated to the CPS in 1968, with the request that the paintings be displayed in the College’s premises.  She died in London in 1970, aged 96.

Her pictures were designed to represent a ‘story’ of spiritual evolution, as indicated in the book’s conclusion:
To those who have followed the story of these pictures to this final page it can only be repeated that they were given as a joyful reassurance of the spiritual spheres, showing the archangels, the angels and the different creations – lower and higher – as man has slowly evolved through animal to man, from man to spirit, from spirit to angel and from angel to participator in the unveiled purpose of God.
The pictures certainly are joyful, and while access to their meaning might be restricted to adepts of some kind, even those among us who are unenlightened can obtain a great deal of pleasure from these remarkable images.  They are gaudy in the extreme, hypnotically so, vibrant, exuberant, intense, eye-popping, a kind of pop art before pop art, a celestial circus.  Rainbow-coloured shapes are prominent in them.  Psychedelic in their boldness, they are a harbinger of the New Age movement that she predated by a third of a century.  The pictures represent a mystical admixture of spiritual traditions, with a significant Eastern component.  They are filled with acrobatic nudes flying against a blue background, and some figures are caught making synchronised movements, like a Busby Berkeley film still.  Many wear weird headdresses, have distorted and multiple body parts.  While some of the paintings are square or rectangular, a good proportion are circular, which adds to the strangeness as they seem to have no beginning and no end, no anchoring point for the eye.

Perhaps that is part of the point le Rossignol is making.  The difficulty with the ineffable is that by definition even the attempt to depict it is bound to fall short as the artist tries to evoke that which cannot be translated into terms we can comprehend.  That is why, while strangely timeless in one sense, in another they are very much of the period of their creation, the faces having a lipsticked 1920s look about them.  According to le Rossignol a spirit referred to as ‘JPF’ was the actual artist while ‘JPF’ claimed in turn to be acting as intermediary for another discarnate group which wished to convey spiritual truths.  Le Rossignol as medium forms a continuum with the mediumistic communications of the spirits and the medium of the painting.  No wonder meanings struggle to emerge, with multiple layers of transmission.

The book is rather more restrained visually, with black and white reproductions of the paintings.  Le Rossignol was an automatist and the book is partly written in the form of a diary, the first entry dated 20 February 1920, only just over a year after the end of the Great War.  She is clearly impatient at the beginning because a spirit reproves her by saying: ‘you are still far from being a perfect secretary.  You are like a restive horse – always trying to start off without knowing where you are going’, which makes the Horse Hospital as a venue even more appropriate.  She got the hang of it though, and the messages, from a friend who had passed over, came through with a high degree of fluency.

These initially offer a standard view of a Christian-oriented Summerland, a place of beauty, one where ‘we see our friends in their new bodies – everyone much younger and happier.’  Living in a place intertwined with the ‘earth sphere’, but under a ‘higher rule’, there are opportunities to study and develop as an individual.  Objects are created by thought, including clothing, though judging by the paintings most choose not to bother.  The communications are clear that there is a limit to what can be conveyed to those still in the earth sphere, and that the higher spheres represent a qualitative change of existence.  As the scripts move into the 1930s, Eastern influences appear, they become more opaque and symbolic, and include an emphasis on breathing exercises in order to increase mediumistic receptivity, talk of masters, initiation and spiritual enlightenment as humanity follows a path of gradual evolution towards ‘the unveiled purpose of God.’

Le Rossignol's work does not fit neatly into any artistic currents, though echoes of Art Nouveau's sinuous lines and lively use of colour can be detected.  The artist she most puts one in mind of is the later Marc Chagall, who also painted colourful flying figures.  While Chagall is clearly not a direct influence, there are similarities stemming from their spiritual preoccupations.  The publisher Leon Amiel produced a book on Chagall in 1975, with text by Marie-Thérèse Souverbie.  She concludes her brief examination of Chagall's career by stating that he existed outside the main currents of modern art, an artist 'for whom time and space are not important'.  Most tellingly, the jacket blurb cuts even closer to their similarity:
... he followed his own path and, in the last analysis, he was faithful only to himself and his own vision.  The figures in his paintings seem to be telling us that truth lies elsewhere, beyond the world of appearances, of convictions and ordinary certitudes.  That is why they are not held down by gravity; their weightlessness lifts them above the sphere of our values.
Exactly the same could be said of le Rossignol.  This is not to say that she is an artist on the same level as Chagall, merely that she deserves to be taken seriously.

The exhibition at The Horse Hospital was the first occasion these paintings had been displayed outside the College.  Let’s hope it is not the last.  The Horse Hospital’s strapline is ‘providing space for underground and avantgarde media since 1993.’  How le Rossignol’s work fits into that mission statement is still to be decided, and it is to be hoped that the exhibition will stimulate interest in her life and work, and discussions of her place in the history of Spiritualist and esoteric thought.  If you missed the paintings this time round, try to seek them out at the CPS.  They possess a strange luminous beauty, even if the technique and subject matter seem limited to the uninitiated.  Whatever one’s opinion of their contents, there is purity in the intention behind them; if le Rossignol was a nightingale, she sang high, and sweet, and strong.

(1) According to the British Library catalogue, Eyre & Spottiswoode republished A Goodly Company  in 1958, but I have not examined their copy.

Update 17 April 2015:

Ethel le Rossignol’s paintings do not come onto the market often so it was interesting to see one for sale on eBay this month, with a starting price of $8,500 plus $240 shipping.  The seller is in Sterling, Colorado, USA, and one wonders how the painting came to be there.  It dates from September 1951 (the date can be seen in a diamond shape near the bottom right-hand corner) and according to the seller’s description is number five of a series of eleven made during the period 1947-1953.  The medium is watercolour and gouache on Bristol paper board, and it measures approximately 7 1/2" x 11 5/8", including a lower margin of about 3/8".

The seller has helpfully included a photograph of the text on the back of the painting:

Sep. 1951
The astral sphere above the city has many presences who have striven for the welfare of the remainder of their fellows.  They are shown, shedding their light upon the world.  They, as spirits emancipated from their earthly bodies, have realised the pursuit of the Way followed by all those who seek.    The man holds the flaming torch of fulfilled aspiration in the embodiment and loving participation of Power, and the woman shows the flower & seed of the golden fruit gathered from the conception and perception of harmony which arrays her, and every individual aspirant who faithfully essays to find the goal of perfect ideal love.

There are no surprises in terms of style and it is immediately identifiable as coming from the hand of le Rossignol, though the seller notes that the colours have faded, which means it does not compare well with the luminous paintings that were on show at The Horse Hospital.  What is certainly noteworthy is the late date compared to the pictures owned by the CPS, and work needs to be done to determine the length of her working life as a painter.

I don’t know how the price was arrived at, but it seems rather a lot for a small watercolour by a fairly obscure artist, however infrequent opportunities to buy her work are.  That this was not my opinion alone is evident by its failure to sell when the auction closed on 15 April.  Le Rossignol is becoming better known, but she clearly has some way to go before she can command even that kind of figure.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Update on CaseBase and the Society for Psychical Research’s Buckmaster Bequest

Information on what is happening to the extremely generous bequest that the late Mr Nigel Buckmaster made to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) has been sketchy in the extreme.  The latest Report and Accounts (covering the period 1 October 2012 to 30 September 2013) has just been released by the SPR.  In it, the SPR’s Hon. Treasurer, Dr David Rousseau, refers to the Buckmaster legacy in his summary of the Society’s financial position:

During the year we also received the final disbursement from the estate of Mr Nigel Buckmaster, bringing the total legacy received up to £658k … Project proposals are still under development at the present stage, and no awards were made from the Fund during the year.  Under investment the Buckmaster Fund grew by £70k, ending the year 11% up at £729k. (p.12)

So it’s now worth nearly three-quarters of a million pounds, a sum that could do a lot for the subject.  Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about Dr Rousseau’s CaseBase project, which was eyeing up the Buckmaster money.  Here is what Dr Rousseau, writing as chair of the SPR’s Research Activities Committee (RAC), said about CaseBase in the SPR’s Annual Report covering the period October 2011 to September 2012, released in March 2013, (a certain blurring of lines of demarcation between his CaseBase project and the SPR’s RAC is clearly evident):
Kuhnexus CaseBase: We [i.e. the RAC] continue to support this project, which is aimed at collating the best cases in every class of anomalous phenomena relevant to psychical research. The project team ... continue to develop the project framework and collect relevant cases, and anticipate that the collection will one day be made available as an on-line resource...

As reported last year, a generous bequest towards this project has been made by the late Mr. Nigel Buckmaster ... The funded project will be a significant undertaking, but given the preparatory work already done is it is likely to gain momentum quickly ... It is anticipated that the research resources established under this project will bring new momentum to psychical research and establish psychical research’s significance to a wide range of important open issues in the orthodox worldview.

Where the neologism ‘Kuhnexus’ comes in is that the CaseBase database has been dubbed The Kuhnexus by Dr Rousseau's team, with potentially paradigm-shifting anomalies referred to as ‘Kuhnia’, in honour of Thomas Kuhn.  A certain complacency might be detected in the assumption that Mr Buckmaster’s bequest was solely concerned with promoting the CaseBase project, which it wasn’t, and that it was a foregone conclusion that the resources bequeathed by him to the SPR would be readily available for use by the CaseBase team.  That, we now discover from the latest Annual Report, was not so either.

Dr Rousseau’s RAC report in the 2012-13 Annual Report is almost entirely devoted to CaseBase and Buckmaster.  It transpires that the future of CaseBase had been ‘the main focus of the RAC’ over the previous year.  No other research activities undertaken by the RAC (a committee with eight members) during that period even rate a mention.  Dr Rousseau refers to the bequest of the Buckmaster funds to the SPR in late 2012, and continues laconically, ‘The CaseBase team submitted a proposal for funding the CaseBase project from this legacy, but it proved controversial and was then withdrawn.’

What exactly it was that suddenly proved to be controversial about a project discussed so extensively in the pages of the SPR’s publications and at its events without generating any feelings beyond mild scepticism is not specified.  Those who have been following the promotion of CaseBase by Dr Rousseau over the years might feel that his throwaway declaration deserves some elaboration.  Instead, he simply goes on the say that the SPR Council appointed a Buckmaster Legacy Committee (BLC) to draw up plans for projects to utilise the money:

At the time of writing this report (end of September 2013) it was expected that the BLC would present their proposals before the end of 2013.  Once projects are approved by the SPR Council the BLC would be superseded by a new Committee, the Buckmaster Oversight Committee, which would oversee the execution of these projects. (p.5)

At the same time Dr Rousseau took the opportunity to announce that he was standing down as the RAC’s chairman in that report, and as the Hon. Treasurer in his statement on the SPR’s financial position, though he does not say in either whether or not this was connected to the withdrawal of the ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal.  The SPR’s President, Dr Richard Broughton, remarks in his 2012-13 ‘Report of the President’ that the CaseBase project ‘in the end proved to be too ambitious for Council at this stage, but the important project may yet find a suitable home.’ (p.4)  Just not with Mr Buckmaster’s money.

There the matter rests, until such times as the Buckmaster Oversight Committee decides to announce how it is spending this large sum.  I’m sure I’ll be returning to the issue if and when information becomes publicly available.  Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another year, until the 2013-14 Annual Report, to learn of these projects, and whether they represent good value for money for the Society.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Memories of Tony Benn

As Postmaster General, with not a mug of tea in sight

The death of Tony Benn at the age of 88 has been announced, and no doubt there will be extensive coverage of his achievements and failures.  As loathed by some as he was admired by others, the polarised opinions were summed up in his name.  Those who disliked him would often refer to him as Wedgewood Benn, as if he had somehow really never stopped being 2nd Viscount Stansgate inside.  It was a way of trying to suggest that his privileged background meant that he wasn’t the man of the people that he tried to pretend, and there was an air of hypocrisy about him.  That the effort made them look foolish, and Benn all the more principled, seemed to escape them.  Yet I feel some ambivalence to him myself, admiring the sincerity of his views while questioning his political nous on occasion.  To mark his passing, I would like to record some anecdotes that help to sum up his complexities.

The first time I saw Tony Benn in person was at an event held at Central Hall, Westminster, in London, on 17 March 1980.  This was a period of deep crisis in the Labour movement, and I was one of the fortunate 2,600 able to get a ticket to listen to a range of speakers debate ‘The Crisis and Future of the Left’, a meeting modestly described in its subtitle as ‘The Debate of the Decade’.  Organised by the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC), Tony Benn MP was present along with Stuart Holland MP and Audrey Wise (who had lost her seat the year before), representing the left wing of the Labour Party; while Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group, Paul Foot from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Hilary Wainwright, billed as a ‘socialist feminist’, all represented the revolutionary left.  Peter Hain chaired and tried to keep order.

It was quite an evening, and fortunately Pluto Press issued a booklet containing edited transcripts of the talks (The Crisis and Future of the Left), and the LCC put out an edited audio tape.  This was a time when people could still call each other ‘comrade’ without self-consciousness, and Benn could argue that the Labour Party was a ‘Socialist party’ with a straight face.  I wasn’t really there to hear Benn or his Labour Party colleagues, and I wasn’t to join the Labour Party for another three years.  I was primarily interested in hearing Tariq Ali, but looking at the transcripts I think Paul Foot, who preceded Benn, probably gave the best value: ‘Comrades I find it very difficult to follow Stuart’s rather interesting account of Gramsci in the thirties, because I find myself preoccupied by the problems which beset us now,’ before laying into Benn’s Arguments for Socialism, which he characterised as The Confessions of Tony Benn.

 The evening was a rowdy one, and just before Benn got up to speak, Hain was commenting: ‘I realise that there are some would-be football referees in the audience but I hope you will allow the debate to continue.’  Benn had barely said a sentence when he was interrupted by what the transcript refers to as ‘Lot of heckling here and sound of whistle blowing.’  It would seem that the audience was not prepared to cut much slack for someone so closely associated with a failed government that had let in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives.  Benn decried the splintering of groups on the Left, giving the SWP as an example, but only a year later the Labour Party’s own ‘Gang of Four’ wreckers and splitters went off to form the ill-fated Social Democratic Party.   I remember enjoying the evening, but feeling that it generated much more heat than light, and debate of the decade or not, we were in for a ghastly eighteen years.

I joined British Telecom (BT) at the beginning of 1984, just in time to see it privatised later that year.  Benn had been Postmaster General in 1964-66, when BT was part of the Post Office, and the whole lot was a government department.  BT and the Post Office separated in 1981, and although we were working in telecommunications and the culture was beginning to change, a lot of those I was working with were old Post Office hands, some of whom looked back to past times with some wistfulness.  Benn’s period of office was naturally recalled as he had been a significant presence, and a great story circulated which, though probably not true, summed up the affection he aroused.  This was that tea was brought to him at his desk by a flunky every day on a silver tray.  Being a great tea drinker (the verdict on Benn reported to God, according to the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, was ‘he drinks a lot of tea, Lord, but he’s clean [i.e. honest]’) Benn objected to the miserable little cup that his tea arrived in, and he asked instead for a mug.  A mug was duly substituted for the cup – but it was still borne in on a silver tray.

I actually met Tony Benn briefly in the late 1980s.  I was working in BT’s corporate exhibitions group and was on a train returning from York, where I had been to discuss a forthcoming event.  We stopped at Chesterfield, Benn’s constituency, and he got on.  He passed down the carriage, to my surprise going in to the first class section.  Somehow I assumed he would show disdain for such bourgeois distinctions, though possibly he wanted some peace to record his diary.  I thought it might be nice to collect his autograph, and debated whether to bother him.  Deciding I would, I jumped off the train as soon as we arrived at St Pancras and waited by the barrier.  As he approached I attracted his attention and asked for his autograph.  I thought he might be busily brusque, but he was extremely charming.  ‘What do you do?’ he asked as he signed my piece of paper.  It was rather embarrassing to say, as somehow working for BT at that moment felt like fraternising with the enemy, and I remember exactly how I phrased it: ‘I work for BT, for my sins.’  He leaned towards me confidentially, and said: ‘When we get back into power, we are going to renationalise BT.’  From my perspective that seemed extremely unlikely, and it struck me that, while well-meaning, he was out of touch with political realities.

My final encounter with Tony Benn was as a member of an audience when he visited Cambridge in May 2003, and spoke in the Cambridge Union Chamber.  He had left Parliament in 2001 to ‘devote more time to politics’ (and sell a few books, from what I could see, some of which grace our shelves).   He was promoting his latest, Free Radical, and had the crowd eating from his hand.  His oratory was still potent, but somewhat vague I thought.  My wife asked him a question on political engagement and received a generalised reply that failed to answer her point.  We concluded from this and other answers that he had a large number of stock responses he could pull off the shelf to deal with any contingency, but was less good at engaging with detailed analysis of specific issues.  Still,he stimulated debate, whatever he said, and was a great flag waver for the causes in which he believed.  After the Cambridge Union talk my wife queued up to get our copy of his book signed.  I didn’t bother to join her, and regret it enormously as I shall never have another chance.  I could have taken the opportunity to ask when we were likely to see BT renationalised.