A longer read for the weekend: Tributes to Lord Eric Avebury

Eric Reginald Lubbock, Fourth Baron Avebury, died last month aged 87. The House of Lords held a memorial meeting for Lord Avebury last Tuesday, 22nd March. Here are some recollections of the meeting, and a personal note, from Keith Porteous Wood, who was Lord Avebury’s honorary researcher the last 15 years. For his role over the abolition of the blasphemy law, Eric was co-awarded Secularist of the Year by the National Secular Society of which he was an Honorary Associate, and of which Keith Porteous Wood is Executive Director.

Relatives, parliamentarians, friends and other admirers of Lord Avebury gathered to pay their respects at a meeting led by Baroness Hussein-Ece. The meeting was convened at the request of Rubab Mehdi Rizvi, chairperson of International Imam Hussain Council of which Eric was a patron and trustee. The family will be arranging a memorial meeting on 30 June.

Eric’s eldest son, Lyulph, now the fifth Baron, made clear that he had not followed the family tradition of being a politician. Six of the eight past family members who had been had been parliamentarians were Liberal or LibDem.

John William, Eric’s youngest son, spoke movingly of his Father and gave a spectacularly long list of Eric’s many campaigns, but even this proved incomplete as speaker after speaker added yet another worthy feat.

My strongest impression of the meeting was the number of people who said that Eric had made them feel “really special”. One who said this amused everyone by saying that she had almost felt jealous on discovering how many other people she had to share this with.

Lyulph described Eric as above all a humanitarian, a traveller and infinitely inquisitive, especially about scientific matters. He had been an engineer by profession.

He was described as a man of action, who was never afraid to go against the tide, and above all highly principled. He lived life to the full in the service of others, working immensely hard on their behalf. Those who helped him felt the depth of his commitment with lengthy telephone calls late at night or on Sunday afternoons. It seemed there was no such thing as time off for him.

He was shy and unassuming, and hated small talk, but at the same time he was fun-loving and mischievous – sometimes just a little naïve. Some of his pranks got him into trouble and embarrassed the family, perhaps by being reported unflatteringly in the press.

John William assured us, with a smile, that Eric was not a saint. His dogged patience didn’t always extend to his private life, where he clearly got irritated and frustrated when anything went wrong or he couldn’t find something. Several talked of the ever-open door at home to those he was helping. It does seem that Eric needed and appreciated the support he got at home to sustain his astounding output.

His first marriage was in 1953 to Kina Maria (she was Irish – Austrian and the daughter of a count). He married Lindsay in 1985. He loved his huge family and a high point of the year were the annual picnics for around 100 at the former family seat of High Elms.

He was a great stoic, dismissing his last illness, which he bore with immense courage, with a characteristic “it can’t be helped”.

Clementine Churchill was a cousin and was active in resistance against Hitler. He admired her and their motto was to thwart evil and avert war, but recognised that the latter may sometimes be inevitable.

He was certainly well connected; another throwaway remark of his, not a boast in any way, was “my aunt drew the borders of Iraq”. (And another such remark to me, which I wish I had repeated, was his matter of fact assertion that: “a dozen or so of my forebears have been executed”. I can’t remember the exact number.

His giving up drinking and smoking overnight in the 1970s was also cited as evidence of his immense self-discipline. It followed a visit to Sri Lanka when he became a Buddhist. Buddhism attracted him for its principles rather than the beliefs.

His political life
Numerous tributes were paid to the Eric’s consummate skill both as a politician and parliamentarian. His stunning victory at the Orpington by-election, where he handsomely overturned a 14,760 Conservative majority, forms part of British electoral history. He was also credited by Lord Thomas of Gresford for being a principal architect in the revival of the Liberals/Libdems (“saving the Libdems from extinction”).

Lord Roberts of Llandudno described him as “an icon”, then revealed a hitherto unknown talent: Eric spoke some Welsh and had even greeted election crowds in Welsh.

Eric’s work on human rights was described as “inspirational”, and his campaigning against injustice as “electrifying”.

Peers almost lined up to give testimony to his effectiveness in Parliament.
He had an amazing ability to absorb huge amounts of information quickly and to find the weak points. The breadth and detail of his knowledge was encyclopaedic. And the number of campaigns which he waged concurrently and with such mastery was stunning.

Lord Thomas echoed several contributions: he always “knew more than the Minister”, his razor-sharp questions left Ministers with no wiggle room. Quite often they were stumped and were forced to undertake to write a follow-up letter, usually a “piece of gold”.

Such was his reputation that when he stated facts they were hardly ever challenged.

Baroness Walmsley recalled two invaluable pieces of advice he gave her when she joined the House: “This is the place of experts, you need to know your stuff”. And perhaps even more important “Never give up”. He practised as he preached.

He campaigned for pre-sessional prayers to be moved away from the Chamber so that peers could all enter the chamber at the same time whether they had prayed or not. His determination never to take part in prayers frequently led to there being no suitable seat for him. A peer who admitted going to prayers simply to get a seat movingly said that she used to try hard to reserve a place for Eric to come in afterwards.

Another amusing anecdote was that he shunned the archaic custom, shockingly still followed by most peers, that peers stop speaking and sit down the moment a Bishop gets to their feet. Apparently he used to groan when anyone else did that.

At how many memorial meetings can it be that it became almost commonplace for people to say that the recently deceased had saved their lives? But this became routine at Eric’s.

One of the most moving of these – it just might be apocryphal, no one else knew about it – concerned a prison in Indonesia(?) that was being inundated by floods, and the guards had fled leaving the inmates to perish.

Fortunately one of the inmates had a mobile phone and someone knew Eric’s number. They called him and he was able to get the Red Cross to liberate the prison in time.

He had been asked to try to free some asylum seekers that had been incarcerated in Colnbrook (Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow) so he decided to contact the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. A few minutes into the conversation the special rapporteur said: “don’t you remember me?” The man who had become the UN Special Rapporteur was someone whose life Eric had saved 20 years earlier.

Eric had been particularly involved in helping the oppressed in Bahrain, about which he knew a great deal. After the uprising and revolution he was treated like a national hero. There have already been three events there to commemorate his death, which happened to be on day of the anniversary of the revolution. One of the secrets of his success, and why he succeeded where others failed, is that Eric never succumbed to the bribes routinely offered by rich Gulf states, for example the provision of first class travel and sumptuous hotels.

He had led two visits to Pakistan calling for the Ahmadis no longer to be persecuted.

He was banned from Turkey for having helped the Kurds.

Helping Eric on just a few of these projects has been an immense privilege and pleasure.

His widow Lindsay concluded the meeting by describing Eric as her “rock and hero”. I remember her telling me ruefully once when yet again he had been detained late in the Lords “they will carry him out of there horizontal”.
And that was almost the case. His last words to me, barely conscious from his bed, were instructions on the Chancel Repairs Bill.

My remarks to the meeting were as follows:

As Lord Avebury’s honorary researcher for 15 years, I can say unhesitatingly that he was the most charming and compassionate person I have ever met. Unfailingly courteous, he was as generous about the achievements of others as he was self-deprecating about his own successes, and never missed an opportunity to stand up for the underdog or the outsider.

Fellow peers have told me that they thought him the most effective of their colleagues, and for so long; he was over 50 years in Parliament, and was one of the 90 hereditary peers elected to remain under the House of Lords Act 1999.

He was very proud of his role in the abolition of the blasphemy laws, started in the Commons by fellow liberal Democrat the then MP Dr Evan Harris. The Government had agreed to facilitate their abolition by bringing forward an amendment in the Lords, after the Church been offered a face-saving “consultation”. Eric was so determined nothing should go awry, he tabled his own amendment, just in case the Government did not keep their word, but to their credit they did.

Never a fan of Parliamentary prayers, he wanted them relocated, so that everyone, whether they prayed or not, could enter the Chamber at the same time.

Such was his determination to have anti-caste discrimination on the statute book, he broke parliamentary convention by refusing to accept the Commons’ reversal of his Lords’ amendment requiring the Government to introduce anti-caste discrimination law. And the amendment passed into law, but the Government has still not tabled the requisite regulations, something he felt so strongly about, he wrote to the Prime Minister.

I immensely admired his courageous, even heroic, attitude to his own demise, but because I was so fond of him, I sometimes found it very difficult to take. It was one thing when he was in blooming health bequeathing his body to Battersea Dogs’ Home to vary the inmates’ diet – an offer that was politely declined. But quite another when in his latter stages he posted meticulously on his blog every detail of his blood tests. I must confess that I could never bring myself to read these as the results of were so off the scale, it was a wonder he was alive at all.

The consultants had told him how long they thought that he had left, and he appeared to treat this prognostication as if it was accurate to the nth degree, saying for example I’ve got one year three months and two days to go. On one of these occasions I unguardedly said what I’d been thinking for a long time: “Eric, you are treating this like a flaming appointment”. He just grinned mischievously and put his arm round me. He died a few months short of the estimate, but that spared him months of unbearable pain that he had been warned to expect. It is no surprise to me that Eric was an active supporter of both voluntary euthanasia and old-age rational suicide, not that he took advantage of either.

He had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of so many remote parts of the world of which few others have anything but the most sketchy perspective. The oppressed and dispossessed there will no longer have him to champion their causes, I only hope there are others able and willing to take his place.
Either way, the world will be a poorer place with him gone.

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4 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Mar '16 - 1:18pm

    This is a wonderful choice for this season and day , thank you .He was such an inspiration, the tribute you have taken part in is evident of what everyone who has ever known him or of him , know , that Lord Avebury was the genuine article , nothing fake , a real Liberal Democrat hero !

  • Denis Loretto 26th Mar '16 - 2:08pm

    What a comprehensive and illuminating eulogy by Keith Porteous Wood!

    I am proud of my own much lesser involvement in Eric’s story. When I came from Northern Ireland in 1960 to spend a few years working in London I happened to select Orpington to live in. This resulted in my joining the Liberals and working for Eric in the famous by-election. Many years passed before our paths crossed again when I joined the London Bach Society, of which Eric was President from 1984 to 1998 and Vice President until his demise. Indeed the sublime music of Bach was a great inspiration to him throughout his long illness. I do not use the description “great man” about many people I have met but Eric Avebury (Lubbock) was to me without question a great man.

  • One remembers sharing a cold pavement in an all night vigil outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square when Nelson Mandela was due to be executed.

    Chaucer summed him up in the prologue to Canterbury Tales :

    A KNYGHT ther was and that a worthy man,
    That fro the tyme that he first bigan
    To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
    Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
    Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
    And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
    As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
    And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

    He was a veray parfit gentil knight

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