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The Old Ones Are the Best Ones

When I wrote to former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey to ask if he would speak at a Stand up for Labour event it was a shot in the dark.

When I wrote to former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey to ask if he would speak at a Stand up for Labour event it was a shot in the dark.

I knew that he lived near Eastbourne, where I was planning to put on a comedy night, but I also knew that he is 95 years old, recently widowed and not as bullish as he once was.

It therefore came as a great surprise for me when I answered a call on my mobile from an unknown number and heard the words 'Denis Healey here'.

As I stammered in reply I could hear that he was saying he couldn't make it. Oh well, I thought, who can say they've spoken to an ex-Chancellor in a crowded train carriage between Chelmsford and Liverpool Street.

I thanked him for calling me and then told everyone I'd spoken to Denis Healey (not in the train - but via social media).

Then a thought struck me: what if I change the date? I now have his phone number so I can call him back and ask him if he's available on another date. Somehow this seemed like too much of a challenge. I wasn't sure if he'd think it was impudent of me to cold call him (just because he hadn't pressed '141'). I mean it's okay to write a letter but to call him while he's resting or something - would he be grumpy and slam the phone down? I felt more fearful about phoning him up than I would if asking a girl out who I had a crush on.

I spoke to my dad and he said it would be okay to call him. He suggested that I do so at about 11am (not too early and not during his lunch). So the next day I gave him a call and he answered.

I think the call went something like this:

Me: Hello, is that Lord Healey?

Denis Healey: Speaking.

Me: It's Crispin Flintoff. I wrote to you about speaking at a comedy night in Eastbourne.

Denis Healey: Oh, yes.

(All the while I was thinking he's going to put the phone down.)

Me: Well I've spoken to the people in Eastbourne and they are very keen that you come and wondered if you could do so on a different date...

Denis Healey: A different date? (I imagined that he was going to erupt anytime soon) What date did you have in mind? (I can't tell you how relieved I was feeling when he said this - it was like he was opening the door a little)

Me: How about the 9th of March, it's a Saturday. (I was actually praying as I said this)

Denis Healey: Let me get my diary. (The pause was greater than anything x-factor could conjure up. I think I was on my knees as I heard paper being shuffled around and a few coughs) The 9th of March you say?

Me: Yes (Trying not to sound desperate, trying to sound confident and assertive)

Denis Healey: Yes, I am free that night.

Me: That's fantastic! (The cool had totally slipped) Can I get someone to pick you up?

Denis Healey: Well you don't expect me to swim there do you?

Me: (I didn't know how to handle the joke) No of course not. I'll get someone to give you a lift there and back. And you won't be there for long.

Denis Healey: Okay. Bye. (Phone is put down)

I have to say that was the most nerve-wracking phone call I have had. Afterwards I was actually jumping up in the air like one of those x-factor idiots.

And the result was a beautiful night of comedy that included Denis Healey reading poetry and singing and also being joined on stage by Arthur Smith.

Denis Healey was fun to chat to backstage. He told me about how nervous he had felt when he spoke at the Labour Party conference in 1945 (when he had just come out of the war) and how he thought Tony Benn was like a character from an Ibsen play who was a dangerous idealist. I realised that 95-year-old Denis Healey looks down on 87-year-old Tony Benn as a dreamy youngster.

This weekend I am putting on a comedy night and Tony Benn will be speaking, it will be interesting to hear what he says about Denis Healey.

You might think I'm crazy, but I think old Labour is making a comeback.

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