Letters to a Lord and a gentleman

When Huntingdonshire s former MP Lord Renton was in his twilight years, his daughter Caroline Stanley wrote to his friends and former colleagues. The responses – a series of quotes, anecdotes, prayers, and poems – inspired Caroline to publish them for all

When Huntingdonshire's former MP Lord Renton was in his twilight years, his daughter Caroline Stanley wrote to his friends and former colleagues. The responses - a series of quotes, anecdotes, prayers, and poems - inspired Caroline to publish them for all to see. IAN MacKELLAR reviewed the resulting book, Letters to David.

ON first hearing The Marriage of Figaro, the Emperor Joseph II is said to have told Mozart that it contained "too many notes".

That is in the nature of commonplace books, too. Letters to David, Caroline Stanley's tribute to her father, Lord Renton, the former Huntingdonshire MP who died last year, aged 98, should not be read in a single sitting but dipped into and out of, savoured and put down again until the next time.

Reading it as I did was like trying a little of everything on the dinner menu at the Old Bridge - too many flavours.

Huntingdonshire is a rare Parliamentary constituency, not just because of its 17th century history, but because it has had only three post-war MPs. The first of them was David Renton, elected in 1945 and representing the area continuously until 1979, when he retired - not to retreat from politics but to start another Parliamentary career in the House of Lords, where he was active until a year before he died.

David Renton's Parliamentary career spanned more than 60 years. But he was not just a politician. He was also an able barrister - proud to declaim until shortly before his death that he was one of the few living to have served the courts as King's Council - and a devoted husband and father, particularly to his severely disabled youngest daughter, who died six months before him.

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When his health began to decline a couple of years ago, forcing him to abandon active pursuits - was still playing tennis into his 90s - eldest daughter Caroline hit on a wheeze to amuse him in his twilight hours. She wrote to his friends and past colleagues, prompting letters of reminiscence and contributions that would give the ailing elder statesman strength and comfort in his last days at the Moat House in Abbots Ripton.

It is no surprise that the list of contributors includes a roll-call of 20th century British politics. The introduction is by his successor as MP, Sir John Major, who was Prime Minister from 1990 until 1997. Sir John's own successor, Jonathan Djanogly, who enjoyed occasional convivial lunches with Baron Renton of Huntingdon, recalls a conversation about how the wily Renton, newly returned from army service in North Africa, first earned his selection to fight the seat.

Shailesh Vara, MP for North West Cambridgeshire, which includes large parts of the old Huntingdonshire constituency, weighs in with a brief, but pithy quotation from Hindu scripture.

Sir John recalls that David Renton and his wife Paddy (whose real name was Claire and who died in 1986) had three daughters - Caroline, whose book this is, Clare and Davina, whose handicap led her father into tireless work on behalf of people with learning disabilities - and five grandchildren.

"When I first met David 30 years ago, he was a mere stripling of 68, who had already lived a full life" - Oundle, Oxford, the Bar and North Africa before entering Parliament. "His only war injury was a bruised ego when his horse trod on him."

"He served the Commons well for 34 years, but he loved the Lords," Sir John wrote. "He entered in 1979 and thought it by far the superior House. In all, David sat in Parliament for 62 years, a record unique in modern times and one that few, if any, will ever match. If there is a celestial assembly, St Peter had better be familiar with standing orders."

The book contains memories, poems, prayers, scripture, epigrams, aphorisms, apophthegms, homespun philosophy, some familiar, some not. Some is a tad banal, but not necessarily the worse for that. Above all, it exudes love, affection, admiration and deep respect, as Caroline intended. It is at times deeply touching, at others hilarious, sometimes inspiring.

Much of it was written, I suspect, after David Renton's death. One series of passages intended to be of great comfort to a dying man were probably delivered in person by his priest, who was with him and his family when he drew his last breath.

The Rev Brian Atling, Rector of The Riptons and Rural Dean of Huntingdon, coincidentally summed up much of the rest of what is written about Lord Renton in the book- part of a blessing familiar in the Church of England: "Be of good courage, hold fast to that which is good, render to no one evil for evil, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honour everyone, love and serve the Lord..."

Don't try to read Letters to David all at once, lest you be left with the same dilemma as the Emperor Joseph II after his complaint about the complexity of Figaro. "Which notes would your majesty have me remove?"

* Letters to David, £25, published by The Renton Foundation, to which proceeds go. It can be ordered from the General Trading Company website: www.generaltradingcompany.co.uk