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My friend, the ‘most dangerous man in Britain’

inthecabcomingbackfrombrightonI had the honour, the privilege even, of getting to know Tony Benn over the course of the last year of his life. The friendship that developed between us, despite the quite large gap in age, was one I have grown to cherish more than almost any other, and one I shall deeply miss.

I was always an admirer of Tony, and despite having come across him at several public meetings, too shy to approach him. It was only down to the illness of a mutual friend that I had my first real contact with him, making sure he got home alright from a speaking engagement in Brighton, and from there on in a quite lovely friendship blossomed. What followed was a year in which I got to know ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’.

I treasured every moment I spent around his flat, I could talk to him about anything and he was always interested in what I had to say. He took a keen interest in my studies at University, what I was doing in the Party, how my family was, what I’d been up to and so on. I listened closely for words of wisdom, and I heard many, but most of all I received words of kindness and encouragement from a man coming near the end of his life.

He was, to say the least, a lovely lovely man. History tells us that those we most admire actually have quite significant personal faults, but as with everything in his life, Tony bucked the trend. He had a capacity to make people feel like they were worth something, even when everyone else in British public life made them feel otherwise. He certainly made me feel that way.

The last time I saw Tony was in December. I picked him up from his flat with my friend Alex and took him to Holborn for a preview screening of his forthcoming film for the Unite executive. Whilst there I had the pleasure of accompanying him for tea and a chat with Len McCluskey, something that I shall certainly never forget. He was very fond of Len, later telling me that he felt Len had ‘a touch of Jack’ (Jones) about him. A very kind thing to say indeed.

tonysmokingincabdecember2013Later that even as we travelled back to the flat in a cab, Tony whipped out his pipe. “You can’t smoke in here Tony”, I said, “Oh, they never seem to notice” he replied. On my way back to Holborn the driver asked me “Was that Tony Benn?”, “Yes” I said, “I thought so,” he responded “that’s why I let him smoke in my cab!

During the journey we spoke of many things, but what I remember was the kindness he displayed to me regarding the recent passing of my Grandfather. Tony knew we were close, as I spoke often of him, and asked me how I was coping with his death. I told him that I was alright, but that I use to call my Grandad every night for a chat, and now look at my phone every evening at 8 o’clock and realise I have no one to call. “You can always call me if you like” I never did, I’ll regret that for the rest of my life, it was such a nice thing to say.

We arrived back at the flat, I took him upstairs, got his coat off and offered to make him a cup of tea. I’d bought him some tobacco for Christmas, which he was very happy to receive as it meant he wouldn’t run out til past the new year. As I went to leave I put my hand out to shake his, but unusually he didn’t put out his; instead he opened his arms and we had a hug. He asked for me to pop over again in the New Year for a chat, but by the time the festivities were over he had started to get ill.

I never had the pleasure of seeing or speaking to him again. But I shan’t ever forget the kindness he bestowed onto me, and it is something I shall cherish til the end of my days.

A little while ago, our mutual friend Sharon Wentworth (who knew Tony since the Common Market referendum in 1975) rang him up for a chat. She asked him what he made of me, he supposedly said that he felt that I was ‘a remarkable young man’.

I don’t know if I am, but what I do know is that I loved Tony Benn very much. He was my friend, and what a friend he was.

9 Comments

  1. Carol Wilcox says:

    That was quite beautiful, Max. I was thinking today about phoning up the Morning Star to ask them if they would like such an article from you. I’m having a little cry now.

  2. Carlton Boulter says:

    I have had the pleasure of a few meetings over the years With Max Shanley and would tend to agree with Tony Benn’s assessment, He is A remarkable young man indeed, and one that I hope will carry on with Tony’s work and ideals.

  3. Sharon Wentworth says:

    And so you are Max: “A Remarkable Young Man” When I spoke to him on the morning he was last taken into hospital, I asked him what we were all to do when he was gone, He said “Well you are all going to have to start thinking for yourselves arnt you? So, Max Good Luck and Keep Going, Thinking Caps on.

  4. Robert says:

    He was a nice man and I met him a few time always enjoyed listening to him, sadly the Progress group has already started on him.

  5. John Reid says:

    Did anyone see Diane Abott and Shirley Williams on news ight, Abbot falsely accused Williams of saying that Benn was in militant, despite Williams not saying it, the. abbot showed contempt, at Williams leaving labour due to Williams claims that reg Underwoods comments on Militant, weren’t allowed to be discussed at the NEC due to Benn, Abbott again dismissed Williams claims the right of labour weren’t allowed to speak, but Abbot did nothing but during that interview, she kept interrupting a Williams, falsely accusing her of doing stuff,

    It just summed up the Bennites attitude, that nearly destroyed labour

  6. Robert says:

    John this sites does not like people attacking each other but hell Your a Pratt mate, your a New labour Progress drone.

  7. David says:

    I’m just drying my eyes and trying to think of something meaningful to say to you but all I can say is that this story is one of the most deeply affecting I have ever heard. One boy, his Grandad and the man who gave him hope.

  8. Mick Hall says:

    Good good good good, thanks comrade Max

  9. Rick Evans says:

    I have read some lovely tributes about Tony but this has to be one of the loveliest.

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