Laughter, singing and incredulity

Breaking the mould: Illtyd Harrington with TV presenter Robert Robinson (PA)

It would be no exaggeration to say that Illtyd Harrington, who died on October 1, was one of the most colourful contributors to the Catholic Herald since GK Chesterton.

Canon John Udris, the postulator of GKC’s Cause, has described the writer as someone who “breaks the mould of conventional holiness”. So did Illtyd.

He delighted in the tale of how he acquired his distinctively Welsh Christian name. In 1931, babies born into poor Catholic communities were baptised as rapidly as possible to avoid the perils of limbo, so his mum gave him to his dad, a member of the Communist Party, with instructions to take him to the church, where the priest would be waiting.

By the time he got there, Tim Harrington had forgotten the chosen name, so he told the priest that he’d like the baby to be named after the church. Fortunately, it was St Illtyd and not Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

St Illtyd was an educationalist. In the 6th century he founded the first great centre of learning in Britain. St David and St Patrick were among its students. Illtyd Harrington was even more on the front line than his holy namesake. Among the distinguished alumni of what he used to refer to as “the Daneford Academy for the Sons of Gentlefolk” in Bethnal Green, were all three Kray brothers, half the West Ham football team, most of the cast of Oliver! and the welterweight boxing world champion.

Yet it was as a politician that Illtyd was best known. He had a distinguished career in London local government: as chairman of the finance committee of the GLC, he was in charge of a budget bigger than that of Belgium. He was also the last full chairman of the council.

He expressed disappointment that he never gained a seat in the House of Commons, particularly to represent his home constituency of Merthyr, but he was surely wrong about that. He would have been wasted there. Although he may have briefly enjoyed the illusion of being at the heart of things, he would not have cared to have been a creature of the Whips’ Office, or as a politically castrated rebel on the back benches.

The actual practical achievement of most politicians is minute. Illtyd’s was immense. He saved Covent Garden from destruction and restored the Coade Stone Lion on Westminster Bridge.

He initiated the restoration of the Regent’s Canal and, in the process, added millions to local property values. He was responsible for painting London’s dull bridges in bright colours. He discovered a bust by Jacob Epstein in the basement of County Hall and introduced the older person’s Freedom Pass, an institution that is so popular, sensible and helpful that no politician dare interfere with it. He sat on the board that inaugurated our National Theatre and was a highly active trustee of the National Youth Theatre.

Amid all this achievement he retained a due sense of modesty and self-deprecation. When a member of the other side at the GLC described him as a “pseudo-intellectual”. Illtyd rose to his feet: “Pseudo, yes. Intellectual, never!” What other politician’s entry under interests in Who’s Who could possibly have been “Laughing, singing and incredulity”?

Otto Herschan, managing director of the Catholic Herald from 1954 to 1998, delighted in telling how he once invited Illtyd to a working lunch. The chairman of the GLC arrived in his official car. Obviously he was coming from a formal engagement; he was wearing morning dress. Otto, who was in casuals, made an excuse and went and donned a suit. When he returned, Illtyd was sitting in his office wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

He had nipped back to the car and changed because he didn’t want to embarrass his friend.

It was appropriate that the last act of the GLC was Illtyd’s. It was more than serendipity that led a group of saffron-clad Japanese monks to invade the office of probably the only politician in the land who would take seriously their proposal to erect a pagoda in London dedicated to peace: one who would subconsciously recognise the universal principles inherent in all spiritualities.

And if you seek a monument to Illtyd, look no further than the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park.

Nicholas Fogg is the author of Hidden Shakespeare: A Biography (Amberley Publishing)