Goodbye Mr Chips

It came as something of a surprise to hear of Cyril Smith’s death today. Not that he should have succumbed at the age of 82, but the reverse really.

How had he lived to such a good age when we’re told that obesity is the curse that will put us into an early grave?

I suppose that like most northerners, I had a sneaky affection for Cyril. He had that bluff, no-nonsense approach that suited him as mayor of Rochdale, but I’m not sure it translated easily to national politics.

You cannot argue that his defection from Labour didn’t come at a good time for the Liberals though.

“His by-election picked up the Liberal Party from the disastrous 1970 election when we had only six seats, and started our recovery,” said David Steel. And Cyril needed all of those six seats to park his behind, so I suppose it spurred the party on to go out and gather more electoral furniture to save themselves being squashed.

Cyril caused me a headache or two in the 1980s when I first started working for the NHS. He never really removed the Rochdale mayoral chain of office and as Liberal piggy-in-the-middle, he was always suspicious that there was some Tory/Labour pact to do his town’s health service down. The former because they could and the latter to steal his parliamentary seat from under him.

He may have had a point. Solid Labour seats did quite well out of the Thatcher government, but areas Liberal towns somehow saw their civic investments vanish into the vacuum of the two political stools. And I use the word advisedly.

I only met Cyril once. He had come in person to beard our chairman in his den about some suspected assault on Rochdale’s health service. I was to be his escort from the lift on the seventh floor and felt quite intimidated when he appeared because he filled the space, both up and down, as well as side to side.

He may have had advisers with him, but they were lost to sight, like dung beetles in the shadow of the elephant. {Who says I can’t be lyrical?}

Lost on me until then was why our chairman was meeting him in the boardroom and not in his office, his own territory.  I can be slow at times.

The boardroom had double doors, but only one was normally open. Not that day. They stood wide abreast to allow Cyril to enter with dignity, ie not having to turn sideways.

I left him sitting at the meeting in typical pose — leaning forward, arms resting on the table, a belligerent look and a scowl on his face and his bum parked on two seats pushed together to accommodate his size.

I can’t say I took to him much. He was haughty and had a tendency to look down on people, both literally and metaphorically. But then he regarded everyone from outside Rochdale as being against Rochdale.

He was an old-fashioned politician, not unlike John Prescott in many ways, but without the people skills (sic). Cyril was a big man with broad shoulders and upon each sat a broad chip.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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