Rachel Brooks

Ian Willmore – how strange the change from major to minor

I’ve known Ian all my adult life.  Although for geographical reasons I hadn’t seen much of him in recent years, we stayed in touch via Facebook and had slightly vague plans to organise a weekend with friends at his family’s house in Littlehaven.  People were keen but it was difficult to find space in everyone’s diaries to do that and it seemed there was plenty of time.

He was one of those people who was very particularly himself and he leaves a gaping Ian-shaped hole.  A very loyal friend, he had a great capacity to inspire love and affection in others, alongside sometimes with frustration and head shaking for his disorganisation and idiosyncrasy.  He was formidably bright, and especially a very creative political thinker.

I met him at Oxford where he was several years ahead of me and part of a group including Owen Tudor, Euclid Tsakalotos and Johnny Davis who seemed to me at the time to be very politically sophisticated and well informed.  We carried on being part of a group of friends that were active in the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) and the National Union of Students and later the Labour Party more widely, especially in Haringey.  We thought of ourselves as soft left.  We were accused of being Stalinists and Ian certainly enjoyed those cultural references and could be ruthless when required.  It went along with his strong political principles.

He came back to Oxford quite often after he had left and I remember an occasion in my third year when I’d got myself into a complicated relationship situation and he found out.  He was sympathetic, but absolutely uncompromising that I needed to sort it out quickly or he would do so for me.  Under his sardonic wit he had a very acute sense of right and wrong and strong personal loyalties.

Through me he met my school friend Kathy Jones with whom he lived for years and who I think was the love of his life.  We all lived in Haringey where Ian became a Labour councillor and later Deputy Leader of Haringey council.  Groups of us used to visit his parents’ house in Little Haven in Pembrokeshire for very enjoyable weekends.  Ian’s usually laid-back approach deserted him when it was time to leave and he chivied us to make sure the house was spotless to meet his beloved mother’s exacting standards.  I remember one weekend where Kathy and I were the only women.  We got fed up at doing all the cooking so all the men, including Ian, said they would cook a roast Sunday lunch.  They were completely clueless and kept coming to us for advice, which we were happy to give them although much of what Kathy and I said was completely at odds with each other so the poor men were more confused than ever.  Over time though he became an excellent cook, mainly because he enjoyed food so much himself.

My parents used to host post-Christmas parties with games and Kathy and Ian came along.  My whole family became very fond of him.  Ian had that effect on people.  When Ian found out that he and my dad shared musical tastes, he spent ages putting together tapes for him, including songs or covers that dad wouldn’t have come across.  Dad really appreciated this, although he did protest to Ian about Simply Red’s cover of ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ which includes the impossible line “I can hear a lark somewhere waiting to sing about it.”

Around this time there was a Labour Conference where I was naively one of a group of Labour women who gave an interview to a tabloid which included references to having had our colours done by Barbara Follett, with an accompanying photo where they made our lipstick look bright red.  It seemed as if we were trying to project a sexy image, which was not a helpful message.  The then Labour Party Women’s officer was not best pleased and it threatened to turn into a problem for me.  Ian was working for the powerful TGWU trade union  at the time and went and told her that the T&G held me in high regard and would be most upset if any action were taken.  This was total nonsense of course but seemed to do the trick.

When I got married it was of course to Ian I turned for music.  He was brilliant at helping us find just the right things and at playing the keyboard on the day, while my sister and our friend Andrea sang, though I suspect he may have driven his fellow musicians slightly mad in the process.

When our son was a baby Ian came to stay and played with him so hyperactively that he completely wore him out.  It was of course normally the baby who exhausted us so we could only marvel gratefully.  On the same visit he was concerned about a mutual friend.  He was already providing support but he badgered me that never mind the new baby, I needed to do more too.

And through all his adult life Ian was a gifted political thinker and tactician.  Others can testify much better than me about Ian’s impact on the political fight against the tobacco companies but I know he made a huge difference.  He was also the first person I know of who started thinking about a second referendum on the terms of a Brexit deal when most of us were still just reeling from the result of the first one.

I last saw Ian at Kerry and Maggie’s birthday party a couple of years ago, but like others, I’ve kept up with him via his pithy, provocative and prescient Facebook posts (he was also quite wrong sometimes).  We’re never going to have that weekend at Littlehaven now, but perhaps it’s a little comfort that he was there in his last weeks.

As Cole Porter almost said in ‘Every Time we say Goodbye’

I wonder why, a little,

Why the gods above us, who must be in the know

Think so little of us, they allow you to go.