Pastimes: Lord West's military paraphernalia
In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Lord West shows off his collection of military paraphernalia
Lord West is showing me one of his most prized possessions: his peaked cap, which was rescued from a sinking frigate. The retired admiral and Labour peer, who is a maritime history obsessive, was the commander of the HMS Ardent when it was sunk in 1982 during the Falklands War.
This hat, his personal artefact from the conflict, was almost lost beneath the waves. “It was stuck on the bridge, and one of my sailors grabbed it, telling me afterwards: ‘I got this for you, Sir,’” he recalls.
It is very, very silly to judge things that happened hundreds of years ago by our standards today
West, 74, who advised Gordon Brown on national security, joined the House of Lords in 2007, but his greatest passion remains the sea. His study is packed with maritime paraphernalia, including models of a Type 45 destroyer and of the warship HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“It’s a bit sad,” he says, sheepishly. “Boys with toys.” His collection is so precious, he can’t decide what he would save in a fire: “I’d be too torn; I’d probably burn to death trying to pick.” West loves maritime novels too, including Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, of which Master and Commander is the best known, and CS Forester’s Hornblower stories.
This passion keeps him busy. He is president of the project to renovate the Medway Queen, a Thames paddle steamer that helped in the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, rescuing 7,000 troops.
The ship, which had also been used to sweep mines in World War Two, was discovered off the Isle of Wight. “She was lying there – having been used briefly as a nightclub – and was rotting at the mooring,” he says. Her hull has now been riveted and redone, but more work is needed: “We want to get her paddle wheels working effectively, the engines going again, and we’d love to get her steaming around.”
West sees the ship’s neglect as symptomatic of a wider lack of pride in Britain’s past seafaring prowess. “We’re still one of the richest nations and the reason for that is our powerful Navy and a strong maritime tradition,” he argues.
“British ships were everywhere in the world; we established the norms of trade patterns, and we did all the hydrography and the cartography of the oceans, and yet we seem willing to forget about our Medway Queens.”
Perhaps some of the modern-day failure to celebrate the Royal Navy stems from its links to empire, I suggest. Does he think we should reappraise our history in light of changing values? “I’d never say that you mustn’t examine things critically, but I think it is very, very silly to judge things that happened hundreds of years ago by our standards today,” West replies.
West has a string of other maritime commitments – he is president of the Great River Race and the Thames Barge Driving Race, and patron of the HMS Belfast Association – but it is encouraging the next generation to follow his path that makes him happiest. He is president of a sea cadet unit based near Macclesfield, which he visits regularly to “inspect” the youngsters.
“They range from 6ft 4in to anklebiters,” he says. “You have to speak to each one because their mums are all there with camcorders and you tend to run out of things to ask. One time, I got almost to the last one, and I said: ‘do you know anyone in the Navy?’ and he said: ‘Yes, Sir, he’s a stoker [the seaman who tends the furness] and he made my sister pregnant’.” West chuckles: “I fell back on my senior officer training and just said: ‘Jolly good!’ and moved on.”
Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with The Sunday Times
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