The Earl of Longford died earlier this month, a fact that in Britain provoked a response from almost every adult citizen. In Canada, he is less – perhaps little – known. Even so, he merited half-page obituaries in some newspapers and several radio and television discussions. I write about him because Lord Longford, or Frank Pakenham, was my godfather.
He was 95 years old and had led a wonderful life. So this is not the time for regrets, but for memories and statements, one being that Frank was one of those rare figures who defied political boundaries and labels.
He was a moral conservative who led crusades against pornography, declining morals and abortion. But he was also a social radical calling for the release from prison of some of the country’s most hated convicts. He opposed the death penalty and insisted on raising his voice in favour of the marignalized and powerless.
He was a child of privilege, from an ancient family of Anglo-Irish aristocrats. Although raised a Tory and a Protestant, he embraced socialism and Roman Catholicism and served in several Labour governments. He once told me that he had known every prime minister since 1930 on first-name terms. He was also a good friend of presidents Kennedy and Nixon.
It was Catholicism, however, that was the essence of his life. Every thought and action was informed by a deep sense of commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the authority of Rome. “I’m a Catholic,” he once said to me, “because otherwise nothing makes any sense.”
He was regarded as an eccentric. Extremely tall and slim, with tufts of hair at the side of his head and a most extraordinary ability to look untidy, he would stand up in the British Parliament and ignore the jeers of political allies and foes alike.
Why the jeers? For one, because Frank championed Myra Hindley. This woman was one of the Moors Murderers, a couple who kidnapped several children and then tortured them to death. They tape-recorded the screams of their victims. Hardened policemen broke down in the courtroom.
Frank decided that Hindley had been cajoled by her lover into these devilish crimes and that after decades in prison, she should be released. The British public, and successive governments, guaranteed that this would never happen. Echoes, of course, of Karla Homolka, but with a different outcome.
For claiming that even the vilest criminal may be capable of change, and may have been part-victim herself, Frank Longford was vilified in the media and even physically attacked. Far from silencing him, however, the vitriol seemed to make him stronger.
Similarly, in his campaign against pornography, he was mocked as “Lord Porn,” and editorials and cartoonists had endless fun with his supposed enjoyment of, or obsession with, the stuff. In fact, he was a married man with eight children and a very healthy sex life. He simply thought it damnable to depict men, and, particularly women, as pieces of meat for the titillation of the needy and the profit of the unscrupulous.
He led a government commission on pornography and as such, had to watch hours and hours of material. I once asked him if it had any effect. “Yes,” he said, smiling ironically. “It always made me rather bored, sorry and tired. But I had to admire the stamina of those young people.”
He also called for a greater civility in society, more balance in the media and a more equal distribution of wealth. He helped establish clubs and centres for very tough inner-city kids. There was something abundantly charming about seeing Frank, in crumpled suit and old school tie, chatting with steel-hard young men about their former lives as soccer hooligans. He never patronized, and always listened.
Frank was at the forefronts of the anti-racist movement and the pro-life community. For him, a belief in the sanctity of life included all humanity, at every stage of development. “I cannot oppose abortion unless I can be there helping that poor, single pregnant woman find a home and a job and support,” he said once, over one of our long lunches. “Otherwise, I’d be a hypocrite. Can’t be that. Just can’t be that.”
He was active and alert until the final days, even though people often thought him so old as to be out of touch. Not true. He was also proud of his friends, and showed me such pride on more than one occasion.