My haven: Tony Benn the former cabinet minister, 87, in the west London flat he retired to after 60 years in the family home nearby
22:29 GMT, 9 November 2012
Tony Benn relaxes in his west London flat
TRUE SOUL MATE
I’ve been in this flat since April last year and I feel very much at home here, having sold the family house where my wife Caroline and I lived. She died in 2000 from cancer aged 74. She was my true soul mate. She was American and came here for a summer course. We met in August 1948 and, as I was shy, I didn’t ask her to marry me for 11 days. I proposed on a bench in Oxford. I bought the bench and it sat in our front garden all her life. It’s now beside her grave.
My father was created Viscount Stansgate in 1941 when Churchill increased the number of Labour peers. When my father died in 1960, I was thrown out of Parliament as I’d inherited a peerage so I couldn’t serve as an MP in the Commons. They said I had Blue Blood now – so I had some taken out and it’s here in this vial! I fought for the Peerage Act, which was passed in 1963 allowing one to renounce a title, and I was the first to do so.
The miners’ strike began the day I was elected to serve Chesterfield in 1984. It lasted a year, and because I raised a lot of money for the men my constituency gave me these miners’ lamps – the flame changes colour if gas gets into the tunnels. I’m very attached to the National Union of Mineworkers, and the Durham miners made me an honorary member. My number is 001, far better than 007 to my mind!
My four children are an absolute inspiration. My eldest, Stephen, works for the Institute of Biology, Hilary’s the Labour MP for Leeds Central, my daughter Melissa has written novels, and my youngest son Joshua works for Crisis, the homeless charity. I see them every week and they’re very sweet to me, as are my nine grandchildren. Hilary’s three sons married this year – I’ll think about hanging up my clogs when he’s a grandfather.
In 1942 I joined the RAF. I was 17 and learned to fly in Africa. My brother Michael was a pilot who was killed in the war at 22. I think of him every day. I remember him writing to me saying he’d shot down a German plane and was thinking of the pilot’s family. These are powerful feelings that shape you and explain my role in the peace movement. But I’m not a pacifist, I believe in self-defence. My dad was a pilot too so I’m glad I got my wings.
PIPE OF PEACE
I’ve always smoked a pipe – I was Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1992 – and I suppose it’s an enduring image of me as it was always in my mouth during all my anti-war campaigning. I do care for smoking though, and still enjoy my pipe. I’m trying to cut down, but not very successfully. Tea and tobacco are my two comforts in life. I’m still campaigning against war and I’m currently president of the Stop The War coalition.