All the fuss about Jeremy Corbyn’s image has brought to a mind an incident from long ago when smoking was quite acceptable in public and a puff on a pipe could be regarded as avuncular and reassuring. In the run-up to the general election in February 1974 I was given an assignment by the group of newspapers I worked for to follow Harold Wilson and his entourage in the hope of getting an interview. I sat with fellow reporters below a platform somewhere in south London ( Putney I think ) while Wilson complained bitterly about the political bias of the Press, stabbing the air with his pipe stem. He puffed away the whole evening so that by the time the meeting was closed the place was wreathed in smoke. I tried to get my interview backstage but a BBC Panorama crew got him into a car to drive back to his home in Lord North Street, Westminster. I managed to get a lift in the car behind with Mary, his wife. I recall her worrying about whether their son Giles would have a hot water bottle when they all went to Huddersfield, Wilson’s constituency. It was February after all.
When we got to Lord North Street Wilson had gone upstairs. I think it was his sister who came downstairs in a dressing gown. It was around midnight by then. There was excitement because the following days newspapers which had just been delivered headlined the fact that Enoch Powell was urging everyone to vote Labour. After a few minutes Wilson appeared and stood at the bottom of the stairs. He called across the room: “ You can interview me if you don’t mention this”. It was a large Havana cigar, not yet lit, held between two fingers. Meekly, I nodded my consent to self-imposed censorship.
I followed Wilson upstairs where he quizzed me about my politics and I rolled out my Labour credentials: chiefly the fact that, during elections, my grandmother in Northumberland provided the Party committee room in her little terraced house. We chatted briefly and inconsequentially and I have no memory of what I wrote but I am sure if I could find it again it would be banal. Wilson asked if I smoked and when I said I did he got his “bag carrier”, a chap called Alf Richman, to cut a cigar for me.
All his public life Wilson was a pipe smoker: the image of the cigar was too potent for a staunch Labour man. It has been said, too, that the pipe came in handy for interviews as he would relight it whenever he was asked a difficult questions giving himself time to consider his answer. Now, of course, the pipe would be banished. I wonder when was the last time a senior politician has been seen smoking in public.