Sir James Goldsmith

Eulogy for Sir James Goldsmith

When my family was about to leave the country of my birth, I called on my grandfather, to whom I was very attached, in the little village where he lived, to say good-bye. He was suffering from cancer, and I knew I would never see him again. My grandfather took the finality out of the encounter by telling me that we were not really parting, because he would pay me a final visit at my parents’ home a few weeks hence. Though I did not really believe it, the prospect proved remarkably consoling.

In the forlorn final month of Jimmy’s life, when I knew but did not want to accept that the end was near, my conversations with Jimmy had a similar character. We talked on the telephone almost every day. From the public description of his illness, the prognosis was all too inevitable.

Yet Jimmy did not address me as if his fate were foreordained; the decline in the force of his voice, described by John Aspinall in his moving article, was hidden by what I know now was a staggering effort of will. Jimmy spoke to me with seemingly undiminished power of his plans for recovery. He was gaining strength, he would say, he was looking forward to the day when he could receive me “appropriately” – as if the obstacle to our meeting were some technical impediment. He set a tentative date of July 7, a few weeks hence. Though we would be talking on the phone, on July 5 he sent me a note whose formality suggested another quite temporary obstacle until he could give me a proper welcome; another date would be proposed soon. Only the shaky signature showed Jimmy’s travail.

Throughout, Jimmy put the prospects of recovery in a gambler’s framework. He rated his chances without any treatment as 1 in 150; the treatment he was undergoing surely raised the odds. But, of course, for those who knew Jimmy, odds of 1 in 150 seemed quite surmountable. On July 13, Jimmy uttered his first and only admission of his suffering. “It is getting tough,” he told me, and I now knew it would soon be over.

Basically, Jimmy did not want to discuss his physical condition. What he talked about, even at the end, were his political preoccupations. He had come up with some ideas on how to preserve the historical core of the European nations if the plan for a single currency moved towards a conclusion – as it seemed to be doing. Since he knew that I would be meeting several European leaders, he suggested that I try these out on them. And he grilled me afterwards about their reactions.

I had become close to Jimmy only in the last six years of his life. Before then, he had exploded in and out of my life at irregular intervals, sometimes with some financial advice which I rarely took, to my invariable disadvantage, or more frequently with some passionate commentary on the contemporary scene.

Luckily for me, Nancy persuaded me to spend some days in Cuixmala, where almost magically Jimmy and I became friends. True friendship is a rare blessing at any stage of one’s life and a near miracle when it happens at the age both of us had reached by then. I realize that there were many aspects of Jimmy’s life shared by others in this room which I did not. But in whatever incarnation, Jimmy was out of scale, passionate, brilliant, brave, charming and always lots of fun. After my then 95-year-old mother met him, she described him as the most intelligent and charming person she had ever met. “The most intelligent?”, I asked, grasping for reassurance. “The most,” she insisted.

The Jimmy Goldsmith I came to know as a friend was quite different from the public persona: gentle, infinitely thoughtful, always available, never intrusive.

Since Jimmy was of the view that high finance was not my best subject, we talked mostly about the political world, which I believe to have been his central concern anyway. To him, business was a game which he played marvelously well. But his passionate commitment was evoked by his near despair – underneath all the ebullience and combativeness – about the drift of our civilization. Near despair for Jimmy, of course, implied neither passive contemplation nor self-indulgent resignation. It was a summons to battle to which he devoted what he knew but no one else did – the last years of his life.

To Jimmy, Western civilization mattered; he reveled in its celebration of the dignity of the individual; its elaboration of a concept of justice based on values not defined by the state; and its continuity. In Jimmy’s view, all this was being threatened by fashionable sociological doctrines undermining societies whose delicate fabric had evolved over the centuries; and by passionless bureaucrats applying without love and without hatred self-righteous concepts of world improvement. He had contempt for those who risked the achievements of centuries on the altar of a theory of economics – which, as a businessman, experience had taught him to be fallacious in any event. Jimmy’s sense of justice involved him in struggles in distant corners of the globe. And he cared deeply about the preservation of the environment, which is our common legacy.

Jimmy posed the issues that must be addressed, and he was pointing us in the direction of our historic and moral necessities.

Jimmy was not some self-indulgent professor or self-flagellating world improver. I shall always think of Jimmy, above all, as a knight-errant from a medieval Romance, alighting from his castle to do battle with dragons and monsters from which the fainthearted have fled and protecting even those who do not know they need protection. The epic hero does not define himself by conventional wisdom, but by the perils he braves, the exertions he evokes and the perceptions he personifies. Jimmy was Don Quixote with a bit of Sancho Panza: at once inspiring and practical; visionary and analytical.

None of us who loved Jimmy can quite accept that this huge, life-enhancing force is no longer with us. The void he has left is our badge of honor. We would not trade places with those who did not have the good fortune to have their lives ennobled by contact with our fallen friend.