Book review: Taking it on the chin

Written by Charlotte Leslie on 13 May 2016 in Culture

Tom Pendry’s memoirs capture the Labour peer's decades-long story of sport and socialism

I first met Lord Pendry through our shared love of boxing – which he was taught at school by a Benedictine priest. As a new MP, and new chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Boxing, I could not have had a finer, kinder, more experienced mentor.

It is hard to think of anyone who has done so much over so long to win sport the recognition it deserves in the Westminster. Pendry understands how sport can absolutely transform lives. We soon found we not only shared a love of sport, but also shared old friends in the boxing world – who have their own fascinating stories to tell about this vibrant political figure. Politics, we do not share. He has been a socialist as long as he has been a sports fanatic, imbibing his ideals as a wartime evacuee among the mining communities of County Durham.

But Lord Pendry is one of those valuable individuals whose friendship expands beyond political boundaries, without ever compromising his own beliefs, reaching across tribal divides if it helps the causes he cares about, as he did with his landmark private members’ bill on carers and disabled children. Even his former wife Moira started out as a Young Conservative.

“Taking it on the Chin” tells Pendry’s decades-long story of sport and socialism from the street in Broadstairs where he was born-- the same street as Ted Heath-- to the House of Lords. He started his political career campaigning at the age of 11 in Labour’s 1945 landslide.

He made it into parliament in the Stalybridge and Hyde constituency as one of the successful intake of Labour MPs in 1970, who also included John Smith, Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Jack Cunningham.

He held a number of senior jobs and championed causes ranging from the rights of workers in Hong Kong - where he had done national service in the RAF - to the anti-apartheid campaign, when he helped to harness the power of sport to the cause.

As a constituency MP, the part of the job closest to his heart, Pendry encounters locals famous and infamous. He takes LS Lowry to the polling station, although the artist never lets on which way he is voting. The murderers Ian Brady, Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman were also constituents. Pendry reproduces one of the letters the GP wrote him from prison moaning about the local health authority.

Pendry was the first of his vintage to be promoted and enjoyed many successes, but on more than one occasion he found himself passed over.

One of his specialisms has always been giving other people a leg up. This started long before his political career with, somewhat surreally, Kris Kristofferson, who he boxed with at Oxford. Pendry encouraged the actor into his first breakthrough--victory in a Daily Mirror talent contest.

Meanwhile political beneficiaries of Pendry’s fixing skills have included Roy Hattersley and Jonathan Powell.

Noone owes him quite as much, though, as Tony Blair, whose father-in-law Tony Booth, was a constituent. One day in 1982, Pendry received a phone call from Blair, a “very subservient-sounding person”. Pendry took the ambitious young lawyer on a tour of Parliament. Blair kept pestering, they stayed in touch (and ate at the Gay Hussar restaurant). Pendry eventually put in a call to an ex-girlfriend who was a big wheel in the Beaconsfield constituency Labour party, easing Blair into his first election battle.

But it was Blair who was the source of the greatest surprise and disappointment of Pendry’s political career. As shadow sports minister, he had drawn up widely praised policy documents on sport, angling, tourism and football and was considered a shoo-in to win the portfolio after the 1997 Labour victory. Blair instead chose the cheeky-chappy Tony Banks and Pendry makes no secret of his disappointment. “Imagine the shock that hit me,” writes Pendry. The new Prime Minister flannelled “Time to move on,” adding: “I’ll ring you later with another offer.” “Don’t bother,” said a mortified Pendry.

Rarely has the greasy pole been greasier than in the Blair era and Pendry decided in 2001 that he had gone as far as he could and stepped down. He was soon in the House of Lords, where he has blossomed. 

Pendry, a toweringly magnanimous character, with a fondness for natty suits, fine wine, food and cigars – and an unlikely talent for matching ladies to a stylish handbag. His prize anecdotes include eating with Muhammad Ali - at the Savoy, naturally - and managing to dislocate his shoulder as he demonstrated his left hand to the great man. 

Pendry was once told by his brother Jack that he was “too soft for politics”. A supremely kind man, he does have that side to him, but it is not the whole picture. One of Pendry’s great regrets is what he calls his “lack of judgement” in pushing the cause of the Blairite James Purnell to succeed him in his parliamentary seat. Taken up with his ministerial ambition, Purnell was far too neglectful of his constituents in the view of Pendry, who writes: “I do wish him well in his very lucrative current position within the BBC.”

Yes, the legendary Tom Pendry can certainly take it on the chin, but don’t ever think he’s not capable of delivering some pretty useful jabs too.


Charlotte Leslie is MP for Bristol North West.


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