Monday, 5 October 2015

Bye then Illtyd

I don't really know what to say about Illtyd, who died last week at the age of 84, as I know anything I write will fail to do him justice. As with all good teachers, Illtyd would say, with his soft, lilting, lyrical Merthyr tones - which could click seamlessly into hilarious, poetic, fluent and startling invective - you can always aim higher.

He was a man of immense and huge kindness; generous with his mind and money. He was an idiosyncratic  writer, his words threaded with wit and often irascible venom, and he was blessed with an infectious humour which made his wealth of stories - frequently about Labour politicians doing something in their youth that they shouldn't - sparkle.

Several times a week, he would limp his way into the Camden New Journal offices where I used to work, clutching books marked with the yellow paper - paper I have never seen anyone else use - upon which he wrote his columns and book and theatre reviews. Again, as with all good teachers I have known, his handwriting was appalling; knowing this, he would sit down and patiently dictate his words to one of the several young hacks there. It could be tricky, particularly if it was after lunch; his voice could get fainter and fainter and you'd be grasping to catch it, like the song of the lark as it soars higher and higher.

He was a nurturer. He wanted to help us all, to nudge us to success. He was always interested in our lives, concerned about our families. It was lovely that he made the time to come to my wedding more than ten years ago. His words of advice were affectionate and well-considered; though he wasn't shy of telling anyone that he or she was being an idiot if the moment required.

Illtyd, with a newly trimmed beard, at our wedding, with a long haired me
Often, after delivering his lines to whatever young Turk he encountered in the office, Illtyd and I would slink off to a nearby pub where we'd discuss the politics of the day; he had very little time for Tony Blair's New Labour and left the party over the invasion of Iraq. He also had a deep mine of stories from the Labour Party; older figures such as Barbara Castle, Marcia Falkender and Ken Livingstone would mingle with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

I remember once he was opening a Camden New Journal jobs fair and, bizarrely, there was a stall representing the security services. Illtyd opened the fair in typically respectful fashion before turning with unveiled fury on the unfortunate officers at this stall, demanding they show him his MI5 security file. I don't think they returned to the fair in subsequent years.

Illtyd at the Gay Hussar, by Martin Rowson
Illtyd loved the conspiratorial nature of his tales. Similarly, he loved the gossipy atmosphere of the Gay Hussar, where he could take his huge range of friends, from politics, journalism and acting, for lunch. During a meal he could wave and greet old friends as well as scowl, with a menacing glint in his eye, at old foes, while regaling those present at his table with his stories. And, yes, I have never known a better swearer. Maybe there is something about the Welsh timbre which can enable the foulest language to sing like poetry. It was a naughty delight to hear Illtyd suddenly crackle with explicit glee, condemning some dull New Labour apparatchik in the most unrepeatable manner.

These lunches could take a while. I believe my then editor did wonder where I'd gone on those Friday afternoons. I remember one occasion when we were dining on the first floor of the Greek Street restaurant; at 5pm, I was still getting the brandy from behind the bar to top up our glasses. 

The great love of his life was Christopher Downes, the theatre dresser and Camden New Journal theatre reviewer. Together they ran what ran what Peter Mandelson called the 'trattoria'. Talking after his death in 2003, Mr Mandelson told me:

'I remember spending Saturday afternoons in the pub with them and their friends, and we would go back to Lea House (Illtyd and Chris's house), which I used to call 'the trattoria', and Chris would make and assortment of tasty and hearty dishes.' 

Homosexuality was illegal for some of the time they were together. In an interview for BBC Wales in 2008, his nephew, actor Richard Harrington, asked how the relationship had been possible, especially considering Illtyd held public office:

'We did it openly. There were lots of men and women like us. We didn't advertise, putting a sign up - we just got on with our lives.'

With Chris, they mixed with an altogether more glamorous crowd than mere politicians; thus, their encounters with Hollywood stars would be liberally sprinkled in their tales. Illtyd and Chris were together for over 50 years and Illtyd felt his loss deeply.

The day after Illtyd's death came news of the death of Denis Healey, a huge Labour figure. Illtyd was denied a chance to be an MP and a member of the House of Lords by machinist politicians who feared his variety and intellect, and Healey, likewise, could be said to have missed out on the top job for similar reasons. But both were part of a generation of post-war Labour politicians whose wider personal experiences, knowledge of a genuine ideological divide, informed their politics. Compared to the politicians of today, whose career trajectories are frequently dull and confined within the walls of Whitehall, this generation had 'hinterland' and knew personally of the real struggles people have to contend with in their daily lives

During one afternoon at the Gay Hussar with Illtyd, I recorded our conversation, many of his stories and his reflections on New Labour; it really is about time I dug up the recording and transcribed it.


  1. Shared with a mixture of sadness and respect. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Joel. You've brought him back into the building.


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