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21 June 2020

Fred Jarvis, a personal appreciation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ian McKenzie @ 7:01 pm

I met Fred Jarvis in the week beginning 12 October 1992, a meeting that was to change my life for the better. My new boss, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Ann Taylor, brought him down to the basement office under Speaker’s Court to introduce us and tell me that Fred was here to help me. Help? That was an understatement. There are countless people who will testify to having received Fred’s help personally and professionally, and he was 95 so there are an awful lot of us.  Each of us has many, many stories.

I’d worked in Higher Education, but my knowledge of schools’ policy was zero. Fred set about helping me as he helped countless people: selflessly and effectively. He would say “you need to talk to this or that person. Tell them I asked you to call.” He once told me to ring the Chair of Education in Ealing: “he’ll explain the good work they’ve been doing on this” and gave me his number. So, I rang. That was my first conversation with Hilary Benn; he did indeed help me exactly as Fred had predicted. 

Fred was a weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, visitor to the basement to impart wisdom. I had a fast track introduction to schools’ policy from a master. He’d arrive with bundles of very helpful scribbled notes about a Bill amendment or some thoughts on how to debunk the latest nonsense article by the Tory Secretary of State, the odious John Patten. Fred’s extended public correspondence with John Major’s Political Secretary, then merely Jonathan Hill, now Lord Hill, was as amusing to us as it must have been a torment to Mr Hill.

Shadow Cabinet Researchers were paid an awful lot less than they are today, so my summer holidays consisted in my wife and I driving her beaten up old Peugeot 205 to my Dad’s little house near Macon in Southern Burgundy where he had retired, and sponging off him. “Anne and I have a place only a couple of hours drive South from your father’s, in Sainte Cécile-les-Vignes”, said Fred, “come and visit.” 

In 1996, we did. I rang him on the eve of our visit. Anne Jarvis, whom I’d never met, answered. “Fred’s in hospital” she said, “it’s his prostate.” I asked her to convey my best wishes for his speedy recovery and that I’d see him in London. She’d have none of it. “But you can stay here, and we can all visit Fred. I know he’d love to see you.” So, we did, first in Avignon and then in the local, smaller, hospital in Orange.

We stayed with Anne for a few days. She bought us dinner in a small local restaurant now owned by good friends of mine. The following year we stayed for longer, did a few days sightseeing and wine tasting and fell in love with Provence. I first tasted Anne’s fabulous rabbit stew and her homemade Vin d’Orange; I received my first stern warning, the first of many, about the dangers of drinking water too soon after eating cherries. I loved Anne Jarvis. She became like a second mother to me. A few years later we bought a house in Sainte Cécile. Fred and Anne introduced me to so many good people including Guy Penne, the French Senator Fred had known in his student days and who was the reason they’d bought a house in his village. 

Fred rang me in April, just to ask me how I was. I am ashamed to say I never did that for him, and I’m saddened that now I never can. He always rang if he was about to visit Sainte Cécile, or he’d just arrived, to check when I would be there. Sometimes he’d call to exchange views on some outrage in the political world. In recent years, that always meant a solidarity session about the latest ridiculous excesses of the Corbynista cult. That last conversation in April was almost all taken up with the evils of the entryist ultra left. Fred had no time for Trots and was gloriously withering about them. He’d seen a lot up close over nearly 80 years of dealing with them.

He loved a good party, did Fred. I ran the bar at his 70th, held in the Barnet Teachers’ Centre. His 80th was in a packed village hall in Sainte Cecile, a huge affair. His 90th was at the Institute of Education. He joked that he’d not live to see his 100th so he’d better have them yearly. And he did. And they were always fabulous affairs with speeches, always speeches from a cast list of Labour’s great and good. And – full disclosure – a couple were not quite so good. I have only heckled a member of Labour’s soft left at a Fred Jarvis birthday party once, honest. The last time I saw him was at his 95th last year. I fully expected there to be at least another five. 

He could make a speech, could Fred. A few years ago, he spoke at a Friends of Labour Students dinner. As this man, a former NUS President more than 60 years earlier, in his late 80s, shuffled towards the podium, the bemusement of some youngsters in the room was palpable. Ten minutes later they weren’t bemused they were bewitched, spellbound by his seemingly effortless oratory and on their feet in standing ovation. The man was a class act. He made people think. And he was funny, with great timing. 

My real father is 90 this year and was recently diagnosed with dementia. Fred and he met several times over the last 20 years around my dinner table in Sainte Cécile on balmy summer nights. They both had a fierce liking for leg of lamb and Sainte Cécile’s great red wines. Thinking about the two of them today has focussed my mind on upping my game. I’m shamed by their example into making more of what time I do have left. I need to do a bit more raging and a bit less pondering at the dying of my own light. It’s not too late. If I could summon a tenth of Fred’s energy in my last 10, 20 or 30 years, I could be proud. I could light the way for someone behind me in the way that Fred did for me.

Fred Jarvis has left us, which leaves anyone who knew him feeling bereft. I am distraught so I can only guess at the loss felt by Robin and Jacky, his children. His three-quarters of a century of activism in the trade union movement, and in the education world, leaves a legacy that is unrivalled. We will not witness his like again. 

Fred Jarvis was a legend in the public realm. But it was his wider humanity in private with people, his kindness and his manifest decency, his integrity, that I will remember most, and miss most. It may be a cliché, but I can’t accept that he has gone. 

Last night, I raised a glass of Sainte Cécile red, since 2016 elevated and now labelled as a named Côte du Rhone Village. I raised my glass to Fred Jarvis: titan of the Labour movement, trade unionist, Labour loyalist, husband, father, loyal friend, and legend. I raised the glass and downed it. Then I drank the rest of the bottle. 

Thank you, Fred, mon père supplémentaire.

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