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‘I’m blessed. I’m still here’: ex-MP Patrick Duffy, 103, publishes memoirs | Politics past

‘I’m blessed. I’m still here’: ex-MP Patrick Duffy, 103, publishes memoirs | Politics past
‘I’m blessed. I’m still here’: ex-MP Patrick Duffy, 103, publishes memoirs | Politics past

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The period after the general strike of 1926 was a desperate time for Britain’s mining communities. Faced with increased hours but slashed wages, the miners had walked out, and many stayed on strike for six months until, without pay and often in terrible need, they were forced to back down.

To a five-year-old Patrick Duffy, however, whose father, James, had moved from the west of Ireland to work in coalmines in Wigan and then Doncaster, those were thrilling days – and 98 years on, he can still clearly recall snippets of them.

“I still remember the early crowded meetings in the miners’ welfare hall, when the Conservative candidate never got a hearing,” Duffy says. “He took a seat on the platform, but once he began to speak, he was drowned out. And we thought that was triumphant. Silly, of course, but very exciting.

“I was already then very political. Yes, I was a political animal from when I was five.”

Over a long and immensely eventful life, Duffy would go on to become a naval officer when barely out of his teens, survive near fatal injuries in the second world war, become an academic and economist, a Labour MP in the 1960s, navy minister under Jim Callaghan, and later chair Nato’s parliamentary assembly.

Now, at the age of almost 104, he has published the second volume of his memoirs, which could make him the world’s oldest ever male published author. He is certainly the oldest surviving former MP, and one of a vanishingly small number of people with first-hand memories of some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

After a lifetime in which he served during wartime around the world, studied in New York and the Sorbonne and travelled extensively as an international official, Duffy lives once again in Doncaster, a few miles from the Rossington colliery where his father toiled six shifts a week without sick pay or safety equipment a century ago.

Now Sir Patrick after being knighted in 1991, Duffy never married and lives alone with his three beloved dogs, although his sister Patricia, who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, lives next door and family members and friends are frequent visitors.

Duffy’s father, a formidably hard worker, was a huge influence he says, but not as much as his mother, Margaret, who came from the same Irish village. “I realised very early on the person who ran the household was mam,” he says. “It was I suppose she, more than anyone else, who was powerfully instrumental in my becoming a feminist, which I’ve stayed lifelong. But then I could talk at length about her.”

It was the women who saw their communities through the general strike, he says. “Not the men, the men were silly. They just marched and sang and taught us the Red Flag.

“If I have any advice, and I’m often being asked for advice on how I have survived for so long, I would say: ‘Stay close to your mothers, and read.’”

The former MP remains in relatively good health – he still suffers the effects of a wartime plane crash on a Scottish hillside that caused abdominal and facial injuries so severe that he was given the last rites. Though he is inevitably frail, his intellect remains sharp, and his lounge is stacked with copies of the Economist, Sheffield newspaper the Star (where Duffy was MP) and a naval newsletter.

On the mantelpiece is a yellow pennant from the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage Duffy repeated annually in his retirement until well into his 80s.

Duffy lied about his age to sign up at the outbreak of the second world war. He was swiftly identified as officer material, but feared that his father’s job down the pit would disqualify him. Narrowly escaping death more than once, he was registered 100% disabled due to his injuries at the end of the war, and was treated by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gillies, considered the father of plastic surgery.

Duffy is reluctant to offer advice to Keir Starmer but says he is still a Labour supporter – ‘more than ever!’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

After a promising academic career as an economist, Duffy became Labour MP in Colne Valley in the early 60s and later represented Sheffield Attercliffe from 1970-1992. Though he has spoken of his regret that out of his 25 years in parliament, more than 19 were spent in opposition, it is clear that he relished his time as navy minister, and perhaps even more, the period he describes as “my peak”, chairing the North Atlantic assembly in the late 1980s.

Duffy was regarded as a moderate within the Labour party, but was sometimes difficult to pigeonhole. Passionately committed to his Irishness as well as his Britishness, he decried Margaret Thatcher in the Commons for “moral bankruptcy and criminal incompetence” after the death of the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981, but the two became friends. “I think she saw that I was strong on defence,” he says.

Despite the uniquely long view of more than a century, Duffy is reluctant to offer his views on Labour’s current path. “Well, I hate to respond to that inquiry, because it will be published you see, and I don’t want to offend anyone. That doesn’t mean I don’t have views.” Any advice for Keir Starmer, in that case? “Still tricky.”

Nonetheless, he is still a Labour supporter. “Oh yes! More than ever!”

In the miners’ welfare hall in Rossington, the village where he grew up, are two plaques that are “almost sacred”, says Duffy. “One is of 20 names of lads who I went to school with, and who subsequently went down the pit and were killed by the pit tubs.

“The other plaque bears the name of perhaps 20 lads who I went to school with. Nearly all died flying with Bomber Command. I go there periodically just to say a prayer.

“And that’s when I tell myself, as I do on other occasions, that I’m blessed. I’m still here and I’m still surviving. And I feel all right.”

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