Anyway, I have come to his sprawling East Sussex home to discuss a new book he is writing about the 100 most impressive people he has known, 300 words on each. If that sounds like a lot, then I suspect that Lord Healey will have trouble whittling it all down – as an MP, he was secretary of state for defence, chancellor, shadow foreign secretary and deputy leader of the Labour party, serving under Michael Foot. He is often described as one of the best prime ministers we never had.
But his life hasn’t always been politics. His hinterland is legendary. Born in London, he grew up in Yorkshire and won a scholarship to Balliol, Oxford. After graduating he served with the Royal Engineers during the Second World War, seeing action in North Africa and Italy. He was a member of the Fabian Society executive committee and a councillor of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, all before he went into politics. And this doesn’t even touch on his love of poetry and his passion for photography, nor his well documented skills as a pianist. He is a man of letters as well as eyebrows and lewd chat-up lines.
Lord Healey has met people who are historical figures for most of us. He once encountered Stalin; his impression of him was that “he was a bit of a s---, really”. At university, he mingled with Picasso, “who was a very impressive man,” he says, as if surprised. “He was a great friend of a gentleman I knew called Penrose. Roland Penrose.” Penrose, of course, was an English surrealist and poet who was knighted for his services to the arts in the Sixties. “Then I met Lee Miller, who was Penrose’s mistress. She was very beautiful.” At this he looks a little wistful.
He met Humphrey Bogart, “though, oddly enough, I knew Lauren Bacall much better – Betty Bacall, as she called herself [that was her real name]. Because I had a great friend called Arthur Schlesinger [the noted American historian], and he had a great party once in New York when I happened to be there. One of the guests was Betty. Jackie Onassis was there too.” He pauses, as if replaying the celebration in his mind. “And, oh yes, [conductor and composer Leonard] Bernstein was there.” Of course he was! “He sat down and played the piano. Great fun, that party.”
He is such a name-dropper that at times I think he might be taking the Swiss. The way he tells it, he knew of Nelson Mandela almost before the man’s own mother did. “I met him when he was a very young boy, just after the war, because he was a friend of a friend of mine who was a missionary in South Africa.” Later, he would spend four hours with the jailed ANC leader while he was on Robben Island, “and the interesting thing was that his jailers were very impressed by him. But it was a very queer place because nobody lived on the island outside the prison, and when I walked around it I was surrounded by rabbits and butterflies which didn’t go away because, of course, they had never seen human beings. It was lovely, actually, in a strange way. Anyway, Mandela became a friend for life after that.”
Is his memory still strong? “Oh it’s quite good, yes. But my memory of the past is far better than my memory of recent years.” Is that because the past is slightly rose-tinted for him? “Well, yes it was better in many ways. I mean, politics in Britain was much better in those days because everybody had some experience of life outside Parliament. They usually didn’t become MPs until they were about 40. And now they go straight from university and they really know nothing at all about life.”
Ed Miliband looks about 12, doesn’t he? “Oh, he’s not that bad. But he lacks charisma.” Healey cannot stress enough how important he thinks this “charisma” thing is nowadays. “It’s very important indeed. Cameron is the first Tory leader since John Major to have any charisma, and without question he has more than Ed Miliband. The Prime Minister is good looking and has great charm. Ed’s just not as good looking as his brother, David. But I suppose he is very sensible.” He sighs as he damns with his faint praise.
He quite likes Nick Clegg. “He seems to me to talk sense a lot of the time. But my own view is that within a year or so the rank-and-file Liberals will force them to leave the Coalition. The Liberals work a lot better with Labour.” I get the impression that Lord Healey is a little bored with 21st-century politics. “Well, I wouldn’t go into politics nowadays. When I was young, it was determined by class. People from different classes looked and behaved completely differently. You had the working class in flat caps, the middle classes in bowlers and trilbies and the upper classes in top hats. That world has completely gone. If you ask a person now what class they are from, they will say: 'I’m not in school any more you bloody fool!’” But isn’t there still a perceived class divide, what with the constant sniping about Cameron going to Eton? “Dear girl, it’s nothing like as much as it used to be. Now there is no difference between the parties. It’s all meaningless.”
We talk a bit about his personal life. He is such an old flirt, three times patting the photographer on her, um, hinterland, that I ask him if he ever cheated on his late wife, Edna, during their 64-year marriage. “Oh no, no, no, never!” Edna met Denis at university – she was the first person from her school to go to Oxford – and they married after the war. She was obviously quite a woman (“startlingly brilliant” according to Neil Kinnock), a filmmaker and writer who penned several biographies, including one about the wives of great 19th-century men – Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and David Livingstone. They had one of the strongest marriages in politics, but Edna died almost two years ago. Does he miss her?
“Oh very much, yes. We had a very good marriage. I miss her very much indeed. But there you are.” I wonder if his overly flirtatious nature – nay, perviness – isn’t down to the fact he is overwhelmed by our company, happy to finally have some. He has lived in this sprawling house for more than 30 years (“it is enormous, yes”) and says that, whereas it was once filled with their three children, Tim, Jenny and Cressida, “now I’m here on my own. Jenny comes once a fortnight for the weekend. Tim lives in Oxford, which isn’t as close, and Cressida is in San Francisco, so comes once a year. But I don’t get lonely. I listen to music all the time.”
Slowly, we shuffle up the stairs to his study, where he shows me stacks of pictures he has taken over the years – children in India, Edna with Aneurin Bevan, Jim Callaghan leaving Downing Street as seen from the window of No 11. Then he whips some prints out of a desk drawer. “That’s Edna dead,” he says, pointing at his wife, lying in her coffin. “And that,” he says cheerfully, showing me his wife standing in the garden, “is Edna alive.”
I suppose that if I learn anything during my time with Lord Healey, it is to expect the unexpected. A little while later we are back downstairs, and he is flicking intently through another photo album (he has 42,000 pictures in the house). “Ah ha!” he beams. “I’ve found it. There’s Lavinia, my girlfriend in Italy during the war.” He hands me the album and my eyes alight on a woman emerging from the sea naked as the day she was born. He takes the album back and continues to search for another picture. “Here’s my favourite picture of myself!” My eyes almost pop out of my head – it is him in his early twenties, naked but for a fig leaf.
Lord Healey lets out a great big, bronchial laugh. He is 94-years-young. Does he think he will live until 100? “Oh, I should imagine so,” he smiles. “Now take your knickers off.”