Published: 2 August, 2012
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
The hot summer of 1947 my mother shipped me off from south Wales under the pretence of letting me acquaint myself with the metropolis and, aged 16, I plunged in.
I duly navigated The Strand, tagging on to a large crowd.
It was August 15, 1947, the Feast of the Assumption, and I quickly realised it was also the first Independence Day for India.
Out from a large public building traipsed the Labour cabinet.
I recognised the venerable figure of Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, in whom Prime Minister Clement Attlee showed complete faith in matters Indian. I also spotted Nye Bevan and his mortal enemy Herbert Morrison.
Fifty years later at 3am I was in the VIP lounge at Mumbai airport, surrounded by rotund members of the ruling Congress Party.
The Labour MP and peace campaigner Fenner Brockway and myself were en route to Japan to commemorate Hiroshima Day.
The obsequious greetings were not for me. The garlands hung around Fenner’s head. The old warrior of the left was revered.
After all, Gandhi had him by his side at the 1932 conference called by then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Fenner passed the phone to me, it was Indira Gandhi, the despotic prime minister of India. She said: “Harrington, I expect you to come with Fenner to Independence Day.” She got miffed when I declined. She had just abolished the council in Mumbai, in a manner similar to Thatcher and the GLC. Thus was my journey from pain-in-the-arse gawping teenager to refusing Indian hospitality.
All this came back to me after reading three outstanding essays by Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books. It is an amazingly frank picture of today’s political life in India.
But I have one major disagreement.
What he says about Nehru and Gandhi and their cynical abuse of religious explanations are OK, but he seems to look at the Last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, through a distorted mirror. Mountbatten and I had several encounters.
I arrived in Malta one wet evening in September 1951.
It was established that Aircraftman Second Class Harrington was not on any list. Lord Louis, the avenging angel against the Japanese, came later as Commander in Chief.
On one occasion I started to climb the mountainous steps into the city’s centre.
I saw a blur of immaculate naval white.
The Admiral was coming down the steps.
I saluted him and said impertinently: “Good morning to you Admiral, may I wish you a successful tour of duty.” He cast a wicked eye and replied graciously, encouraging his outraged entourage to reciprocate. I felt like a scullery maid. A week or so later he spotted me outside Admiralty House. “Good day to you Airman, would you like to try your hand a sea diving?” indicating two cylinders of oxygen. I made my excuses and left.
By this time I had forged links with the Red Beast of Malta, Dom Mintoff, the island’s Prime Minister. Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina, was a natural communicator and had little time for prejudice, and the door of Admiralty House was opened.
I went with Mr Mintoff.
I chatted confidently to both him and her. Gossipy gays in the orderly room were malicious.
After all, Mountbatten had had a pretty open relationship with Noel Coward, who had made a brilliant propaganda film about the Admiral’s wartime ship, HMS Kelly, which was sunk.
This was the beginning of the Cold War, and we were to be primed as to the danger of the Russian Bear.
Some demented lecturer from Chatham House came down from England and drew parallels with Peter the Great.
I got up and challenged him.
The Admiral looked quite amazed, and interested. I walked out with a copy of the Daily Worker in my pocket.
Our next meeting was at a Westminster Council reception.
Then garbed in ermine, he was talking to Prince Philip.
The noble lord’s eyes fell upon me. “I have met you before I’m sure.” Shamelessly I said I didn’t remember.
Philip was without a shadow of a doubt dependent upon him as a father figure.
Nye Bevan, a political pragmatist, approved of him. I found out later how much Manny Shinwell and Denis Healey, Labour secretaries of state for defence, valued his independence and decisiveness of mind. In the mid-1970s a beleaguered Harold Wilson was told that Mountbatten had gone to a lunch with the mad Lord Rothermere, and General Sir Walter Walker, still in an SAS frame of mind. Rothermere proposed a coup d’état.
It was a colossal blunder; MI5 were out of hand. Wilson realised that Mountbatten had been conned.
Perry Anderson rightly points out that after 1947 and between 1951 and 1971 in five general elections, the minority in India stole the seats. The poor voted in droves but were cheated in a number of seats. As he points out India was a “caste iron democracy”, a cruel pun.
Finally, in 1984, County Hall had been transformed into the Indian parliament, with large ceiling fans, for a movie about the last days of the Raj. Everything was at a standstill. Two hundred “Indians” with Nehru caps sat mute.
Hiding among them were the actors Ian Richardson and Janet Suzman. The latter, who was playing Edwina Mountbatten, expressed her frustration to me. All the “Indians” were in fact Muslims from Brick Lane, masquerading as Hindus. It was prayer time.
When I calmed the ferocious female producer down and everything restarted, I almost heard Mountbatten say “…you buggered that one up.”