This Sporting Life

R.W. Johnson

  • Iain Macleod by Robert Shepherd
    Hutchinson, 608 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 09 178567 7

It was one of the most attractive aspects of Iain Macleod that he was not easily taken for a professional politician. After depressing his hard-working doctor father by getting a lower second at Cambridge, he was quickly sacked from his first job at De la Rue’s, mainly because he found it an almost impossible struggle to get to work in the morning after staying up into the wee hours playing bridge and poker at Crockfords. Sometimes he would have to write his father urgent letters asking him to bail him out of his card debts; but more often he won. He was earning £3 a week but sometimes won £100 at a sitting. After he got the sack he became a full-time card-player and, until war broke out, earned up to £2500 a year tax free (at a time when average male earnings were about £200 per annum). An international player, he and his friends sat up late into the night at a club in Acol Road in Hampstead, devising the Acol system – still the most widely used in the bridge world.

Macleod had three passions: bridge, racing and poetry. One of his favourite pastimes was to challenge friends to find him a piece of English poetry that he didn’t know – sportingly, he warned them off Eliot since he knew all his work by heart. The war interrupted but did not stop his playboy-poet life. In 1940 his unit fled before the advancing Germans to Neufchâtel, where they dug a trench to shelter from attack and turned up the skull of a First World War soldier. Macleod immediately imagined the dead addressing him:

ye are here, ye men of war,
digging trenches – digging graves
dying where we died before.

He spent much of the rest of the war in England commuting to various army camps from Crockfords, where he continued to gamble, often right through the night, usually winning even when he wasn’t sober. Once, returning late and drunk, Macleod demanded a short game of stud poker before sleep of his friend and superior officer Alan Dawtry. Dawtry ticked him off for drinking and said he was going to bed. Macleod, incensed, announced, ‘I’m going to shoot you!’ and drawing his service revolver, began blasting away at the lock on Dawtry’s bedroom door. Finally he charged the door down before collapsing in an inebriated heap. The long-suffering Dawtry picked him up and put him to bed. Next morning the two men had an icily correct conversation at breakfast until Macleod said: ‘I think you owe me an apology.’ ‘What for?’ ‘For not playing stud poker with me last night.’ When Dawtry wrote to congratulate Macleod on becoming Minister of Health, he received the following one-liner in reply: ‘Bloody silly, ain’t it? I’m glad I missed you.’

Two things changed Macleod’s life. He went to staff college and realised that he was more intelligent than the rest: suddenly he understood that he could afford to have real ambition and decided on politics. Conservative, of course: his mother was a Tory and in any case, the world of Crockfords knows instinctively that socialism is its enemy. But a liberal Tory, indeed a Tory radical, for his father was a tough-minded and humane Liberal, a tradition too honourable to betray.

The second thing was D-Day. Macleod landed amid much confusion and wandered round the body-strewn beaches, consuming a great deal of Christmas pudding and whisky. Finally, he looked at his watch: ‘It was exactly midnight. I had lived through D-Day. We had expected anything up to 40 per cent casualties in the landing, and somehow I had been convinced that I would be killed. Now, equally unreasonably, I became convinced that ... there would be a life after the war.’

Returning from the war, Macleod went into the Conservative Research Department and, with Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell, became one of Rab Butler’s young men. These attachments were to last throughout Macleod’s life, although he found Powell a somewhat eccentric, angular character. Powell had decided that being a Tory politician meant that you had to learn to hunt, so he would rise at an ungodly hour from his lonely bachelor flat and travel to hounds by tube, dressed in full hunting pink, amid somewhat bemused workmen. Though he shared a love of poetry with Powell, Macleod was appalled at the idea of early rising, let alone hunting – his life was one of late nights, pretty women, and heavy smoking and drinking over the card table. Later on, boring government meetings would be spent writing love poems or charming love letters, penned, with glorious indiscretion, on Ministry of Labour notepaper. Exactly how Macleod’s marriage worked is a question which Robert Shepherd is far too respectful to answer.

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