In one of my favourite sketches from the original Spitting Image
, we are invited to visit 'Exchequers', a rural retirement home – which its newest inmate, Harold Wilson, discovers to his chagrin, houses all of Britain's former premiers. Whilst Alec Home fishes from the top of the staircase and Jim Callaghan crafts mashed potato likenesses of the Taj Mahal, Edward Heath is heard but not seen, playing what Callaghan calls 'his bloody organ' offscreen.
Whilst the current incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street reportedly spends his free time crafting model buses (not to mention his penchant for what The Times's
Carol Midgley memorably described as 'horizontal refreshment'), Edward Heath had a rich and varied life outside of politics, despite his lifelong bachelorhood. An accomplished yachtsman who won the Sydney to Hobart Race in 1969 and captained the British team to victory in the Admiral's Cup in 1971, Heath was also a fine musician. For Edward Greenfield, a lobby correspondent with The Guardian
who ended up as the paper's chief music critic, Heath made 'music, and enjoyment of music, into nothing less than a crusade'.
Whilst music had been a passion since childhood (he later titled his book on the subject A Joy for Life
), Heath's musical ability gained public awareness after he won the Charlemagne Prize in 1963 and used his winnings to buy a Steinway grand piano, which later moved into Downing Street with him. In November 1971, as Prime Minister, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a 'revelatory performance' of Elgar's Cockaigne Overture
, which Greenfield suggested ably demonstrated Heath's musicianship and his understanding of Elgar, but crucially 'revealed a warmth... that took many by surprise'.
For Heath, an introverted and socially awkward man, whose private secretary once confided in Michael Cockerell that 'if he's rude to you it means he likes you', performing and conducting came more naturally. As he explained in the Los Angeles Times
in 1989, 'if you've been used to speaking to thousands of people in political meetings, what an orchestra can do is really small in comparison'. When asked by two Chinese journalists how he reconciled the 'reality' of politics and the 'fantasy' of music, he instructed his interrogators that 'it's music which is the reality and politics which is the fantasy', and stressed that they should 'never get mixed up about that'.
For Yehudi Menuhin, who concluded his foreword to the 1997 edition of Heath's Music: A Joy for Life
with a salute of 'real affection and admiration' to the former Prime Minister, Heath's musical aptitude perfectly complemented his 'other English loves of nature, the wind, the sea and the land'. Much as he did when purchasing his beloved home 'Arundells' in the Close of Salisbury Cathedral, which had a direct view of what he thought to be the finest cathedral in England, Heath sought perfection in his musical life. For Heath, the most important lesson remained that 'the ultimate result... depends on a mastery of technique', concluding that, whilst he could not challenge 'the supremacy of the professionals', he relished 'creating something for myself'.
As we approach Christmas, two recent purchases (signed musical programmes from two of Heath's concerts – at Central Hall, Westminster in 1977 and the slightly less glamorous Crook Log Sports Centre in his Bexley constituency) have led me to explore one of the more homely aspects of his musical career. For 40 years, starting in the mid-1930s, Heath conducted an annual carol service in his hometown on the Kent coast (which he once, charmingly, claimed possessed 'the best air in the world') to raise money for local charities. On stage in front of a full crowd in Broadstairs's now-demolished 'Grand Ballroom', Heath radiated a warmth and charisma rarely seen in his pedestrian political speeches – Monty Python memorably released a Home Language Course
LP from 'The Institute of Contemporary Heath' to 'Teach Yourself Heath'.
Typically, a programme of 22 carols, culminating in O Come All Ye Faithful
– another favourite was Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,
which he chose as one of his eight Desert Island Discs in 1988 – were performed by a 60-strong choir. Guest 'celebrities', including Viscount Tonypandy, the former Speaker of the Commons, Bob Holness, Sir Robin Day and Sebastian Coe, then took to the stage to deliver the charity appeal. In December 1966, weeks after unemployment hit 500,000, when Ian Trethowan – a close friend who became the Beeb's director-general – made the appeal that year, the newly-elected Leader of the Opposition noted that 'it seems the squeeze has had its effect in the hall today'.
In December 1972, whilst the Prime Minister was conducting, crowds of protestors campaigning for the end of the Vietnam War gathered outside, calling on Heath in the spirit of 'Peace on Earth and Goodwill' to insist that President Nixon end the intensified bombing campaign, 'Operation Linebacker II'. Through the next two decades to the end of his parliamentary career, the former Prime Minister transposed the event to Bexley, where the local Coca-Cola and Schweppes factory sponsored his Christmas appeal.
For a while, the man who in 1973 told Britain to expect a 'harder Christmas than we have known since the War', cornered the festive market. In its first year, Heath's Music: A Joy for Life
sold over 100,000 copies, with Carols: The Joy of Christmas
, which presented 40 of his favourites arranged to be sung in unison with the piano, selling a further 10,000 in both hardback and paperback. An accompanying record was released as an LP and a cassette. Whilst the New Statesman
suggested that Carols
was nothing more than 'a naked piece of book-production' with a 'tritely egocentric preface', Heath's biographer John Campbell argued that, in contrast to his more mundane account of his life's travels, Carols
filled a 'real need… and is still one of the best collections of its kind'.
In December 1977 – three years after an IRA bomb had been tossed from a moving car into his Belgravia home whilst he was conducting the Carol Concert in Broadstairs – Heath embarked on a 'presidential-style whistle-stop tour of Britain', travelling 1,000 miles in six days and making 37 radio and 11 television broadcasts to promote his musical offerings. After attending 33 signing sessions in 22 days, the man who famously refused to admit any misstep, disappointment or lapse in judgement, boasted that even 'with a name as long as mine', he could still sign 8.2 books a minute.
For some, Heath was simply 'cashing in' on his over-exposed offerings, with his 'super train' carrying 15,000 books and 5,000 LPs, which were expected to last for half of his five-day tour. As he later conceded, his fruitfulness as a publicist meant that the most valuable copies of his books were now the unsigned ones. One unpublished author who wrote to the former premier and proposed that Heath's literary success was purely the result of his political standing received a reply advising him that, in order to get his own work published, 'he first of all become Prime Minister'.
In 1981, notice of Heath's charity appeal in the Belfast Telegraph
sat next to the announcement of the opening of British Telecom's long-defunct 'Phone-a-Carol' service, which seems ripe for a revival given the proliferation of virtual carol concerts this year – including the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve, which will be performed without a congregation for the first time in its 100-year history.
Whilst carol concerts remain a distinctly English phenomenon – the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was held in Truro in 1880 by Edward White Benson, the founder of the Cambridge Ghost Society who later became Archbishop of Canterbury – they remain one of a dwindling number of meaningful traditions shared by all four home nations. For Reverend Mike Goss – the Minister of Barry Parish Church and Carnoustie Church in Angus, who recently called on his parishioners to gather for 'Doorstep Carols' on 20 December – carol singing 'in small numbers in a socially-distanced way' provides 'a sense of joy, peace and comfort' in gloomy and exceptional times.
Having once said that Christmas is a 'time to be at home', I suspect old Ted would have approved.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly