Thursday 22 February 2018

Strictly speaking, she dances through life

Mary O'Rourke on Tory politician – and 'Strictly' star – Ann Widdecombe's autobiography

Mary O'Rourke

I have met Ann Widdecombe twice – on one occasion at some committee meeting in Brussels and on another occasion on radio, she in London and I in RTÉ in Dublin. For the life of me, I cannot remember what the subject matter of the meeting was or of the radio telephone conversation but I can distinctly remember Ann Widdecombe's tone of voice – brisk and competent.

Her autobiography Strictly Ann is just like that – brisk, competent, and reading it I was reminded of our conversations.

She had a very happy childhood, brought up in Singapore where her father was a high-placed Admiralty official. The small family – mother, father, son and daughter – lived an existence where the faithful servant was their own 'Amah', who loved them and they, in their own way, loved her back.

When Ann's father was transferred back to England, she was sent as a boarder to La Sancte Union Convent in Bath.

Here in Athlone, where I live, there is a large girls' secondary school which was set up by the same La Sancte Union nuns. Back then they were fine intellectual women and the girls in their care received a terrific classical education, and Ann Widdecombe was lucky to have been at their boarding school in Bath.

No doubt the atmosphere instilled in her a readiness later in life to embrace the Catholic faith. From Bath to Birmingham to Oxford, she travelled on her academic path, everywhere she went getting involved with clubs and societies and always forming firm friendships.

It was at Oxford that Ann Widdecombe met the only serious love of her life – Colin Maltby – and their friendship/love affair lasted three years.

Colin took up with another woman but Ann doesn't betray herself so the reader does not really know if she regretted the end of that romance.

However, she never really took up in that way with another man so reading through the book I feel myself this was her chance of love, which in the end passed her by.

Not for Ann, however, the path of "what might have been" or "if only". She says "if only I had done such and such – it is a pointless occupation and one in which I do not indulge."

The mettle was showing through. Ann's first real job was in Unilever, which she didn't really like – and one gets the impression they didn't really like her – but it was her first foot into the salary paying world.

All along the way, politics beckoned and at one stage she travelled up and down the country to seek a nomination for the Conservative Party through the interview system. In the end, she was given Burnley, where she bustled about visiting the workmen's clubs, the schools, the council estates, all the time seeking to prove herself. It was an unwinnable feat, which she knew from the beginning, but the aim was to get a good vote.

From Burnley she went to Devonport, where she got a good vote and from there to Maidstone, which was to prove a happy hunting ground for Ann, from then until the end of her political career. Constituency politics suited her. She was hardworking, conscientious and built up a great rapport with her constituents, who remained faithful to her throughout her career.

Her book is littered with famous political names as she made her way through the lower rungs of major departments. She seemed to relish the political stabbings and intrigue, in which she always played a major part. None more so than when her immediate boss was Michael Howard. She didn't like him and he rather feared her uncompromising intelligence. Famously, she later went on to say that "he had something of the night about him".

Over her career, she was a minister in three departments. An anti-hunting Tory who campaigned for prison education and once put on a miner's overalls to go down a coal mine, she was never afraid of controversy, and her book reveals a singular personality who lives life to the full.

The book also covers her conversion to Catholicism in 1993 and her deeply held views on abortion and gay marriage. She left the Anglican Church over its decision to ordain women.

It is clear from her book that she had a high admiration for Pope Benedict but long before that she had decided to join the Catholic Church.

"At first I felt like an Anglican who had been driven by storms into harbour at Rome, but it was not long before I found it difficult to remember that I had ever been anything but Catholic."

She could not understand the Anglican decision to allow women priests. Her writing about that episode is very vivid and memorable.

Equally vivid was her stint on Strictly Come Dancing. I came upon her by chance during her time on the show and was enthralled by it. She wore outrageous, flirtatious skirts, shimmering, glittery tops, dyed-blonde hair, and bright earrings, and she was quite plainly a wow. She did outrageous things like being suspended from the ceiling and then flying and all sorts of other daring episodes. Her time on Strictly proved a huge success. The people adored her and relished in her traits as an exhibitionist.

Along the way, she wrote several books, each of them a bestseller as, I have no doubt, her autobiography will be now.

Ann Widdecombe lives now in Dartworth in a reconstructed cottage. She has her weekly newspaper column, takes bracing walks and is content in her mind.

No doubt there will be demands on her to go back to Strictly and to question and answer programmes on TV, at which she has excelled.

In case I omit to say it, she was a very dutiful daughter and minded her mother in her London home to the end of her days. She now has her grand-nephews and nieces to visit and to adore. Her autobiography is readable and engaging, though from time to time it is a bit ponderous when she goes into really detailed explanations.

Nevertheless, it's good, powerful and beautifully produced, with interesting pictures from her life. It no doubt will appeal to so many people in this country who are political by nature.

And I would like to meet her again!

Mary O'Rourke is a Fianna Fail former minister and senator.

Irish Independent

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