It was an innocent request, one that MP’s respond to every day. An invitation to publicise an event to raise funds for a national charity. I drove to the location outside Kingsclere to meet the Macmillan Fundraising Team.
I looked nervously at the props they had brought for the photocall – some carrots and some giant, pink rabbit ears, to make the causal connection with Watership Down, where the sponsored walk was to take place in a fortnight’s time. The photographer from the local paper licked his lips at the prospect of making the local MP look absurd. Fortunately, there were only four ears, and the Macmillan Team gallantly put them on. I then did an interview with local radio and was caught on the hop.
It was the throwaway question at the end, after I had urged listeners to put on their boots and walk 12 miles for charity “ And, Sir George, will you and your wife be going on this walk yourself?”
One of the things I have learned, listening to Prime Ministers Questions for 33 years, is that the best way to handle an awkward question is to answer it directly. “Of course” I said, after a nano second pause, hoping that the diary was clear on the day and the wife wasn’t listening.
The diary was clear, and the wife had heard the good news from a listener before I got back.
It is a well known fact that a politician always keep his promise and so there we were, at 9.45 at Ecchinswell School, rucksack packed with bottled water, mobile phone, and chocolate and a first aid kit; and the name of our next of kin on a piece of paper in case of real disaster.
We were seen off by Richard Adams, author of Watership Down and Whitchurch’s most famous resident, after the passing of Lord Denning. He began by announcing it was a race, which caused some concern amongst the senior citizens who had turned up for a morning stroll. A greyhound pricked up its ears. Richard then corrected himself and announced it was definitely not a race and bid us on our way.
An elderly grandmother set off at a brisk pace and disappeared over a hill, like Mrs Froy in the Lady Vanishes, never to be seen again. We followed, walking respectfully past Andrew Lloyd Webber’s polo ground and chapel.
We did not see a rabbit all day, perhaps because the greyhound was ahead of us. But there was plenty of evidence of rabbits; it was like walking through a minefield in Kosovo, as we avoided the ankle twisting rabbit holes at Nuthanger Down, Cannon Avenue, and Nothing Hill. We were given a map, from which it was clear at the half way point that there was a shorter way back to Ecchinswell than the advertised route. We thought about it, and decided against. Too many witnesses; a call to the Diary Column in the Times and I would be dead meat.
We limped up and down hills, and crawled back to Ecchinswell, hoping for a reception akin to that which greets the Marathon runners on Westminster Bridge. But there were no photographers, no plastic sheets and no resuscitation suites.
We learned that the grandmother had beaten the greyhound to the finish by a short head, two hours earlier.