The sealed documents, and the ‘spy’ on our books page

illtyd and wilson

I THOUGHT again of Illtyd Harrington, the New Journal‘s former literary editor and columnist, last week, a year having hurtled by since he sadly passed away, almost a year since we sat and stood in a chapel in Brighton listening to some golden tributes and then Josef Locke’s rousing Blaze Away, a final laugh selected by the man himself before he was cremated.

He has left a hole at our newspaper that it is hopeless to try and fill. I wonder what his ‘As I Please’ columns would have made of the revolutions in the Labour Party, and the contempt he’d no doubt have had for the big name players who wait on the sidelines for a more personally opportune moment to run for leader. He’d have sketched the confused nature of Owen Smith’s challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, and while others rush for cliches, my bet would be he’d have had a fresh take, burnished somehow with a loose-lipped anecdote from another time. He’d also no doubt have something inappropriate to say about Theresa May, as the new prime minister, too.

I miss his unimpressed, pithy judgements, and his cheek, but also his warmth. He was the kindest old bitch you’d could ever meet, generous with his time, advice and turn at the bar.

His passing leaves me regretful of putting off a task until too many tomorrows. Maybe it was six months before he died, not that long whenever it was, but he phoned me and said he would like to see the files that the government or any other authority held on him and, having never really adapted to email and the internet, inventions of his old age, he wanted help in at least having a go at getting access to them. There were, you see, unfinished stories in his life which he wanted to read the final chapter of.

I said I would try to assist, but it was always an email that was left until Friday afternoon in the rushed weekly news cycle at the CNJ, and then to another week. The personal subject access request was never filed on his behalf, and sadly it now seems that it very much needed to be sent in under his name to get the documents he was most interested in seeing. A subject access request, which we can all do as punters, is different from asking for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It generally has more scope to get what you want, but only, of course, if the subject, the person, is alive to sign the request themselves.

Now, Illtyd, pictured above with Harold Wilson, is dead, the documents seem out of reach and perhaps if they are ever to see the light of day, it will be many years from now when, who knows, they might be released under the batches of documents that the National Archives release each year when a 30 or 50 year milestone has passed, and it is all been deemed safe to do so. If anybody knows of any other way of seeing his files, please get in touch.

What was all this gearing at in Illtyd’s mind? The old story goes that somewhere along the line Illtyd was suspected of being a spy and a semi-cautious eye was kept on him by the tracker teams at MI5, as if he presented some sort of terrifying left wing threat to London life. He later enjoyed this apparent notoriety that came with this tale to some extent. There is a lost photograph of him somewhere, which I wish could be unearthed, of him hiding behind a copy of the CNJ with two spy holes cut into the paper to peep out of in Pink Panther style. I think it may even have been taken at a careers fair where on the next table the Ministry of Defence was recruiting young hopefuls.

But I think the secrecy behind it all, those unfinished stories, nagged away at him too. This Welsh dangerman, for example, was never given a peerage or honours despite his public service at Westminster Council and then City Hall, and perhaps even more strikingly for the numerous voluntary groups and charities he helped.

His big socialist heart would not have rendered him a refusenik at the Palace, one of the quirks of the man was that as much as he mocked the privileged class, deep down he loved a bit of sparkly pageantry. It became apparent in later years that he had been swapping amusing letters with Prince Phillip, who had been quite taken with the Illtyd rasp at a charity event and decided to stay in touch.

But, mysteriously, Illtyd never got the call for a gong.

Friends who knew him far longer than me hint the reason for that may lie in a dusty docket somewhere, possibly in useless surveillance files yellowing in secret service cellars. It’s a shame, if so, that Illtyd never got to read them. He’d have written a fantastic piece about the spy they thought he was.


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