A cat among the ministers

Apparently, Larry the cat at Number Ten Downing Street is the only permanent resident. It was a story that prompted speculation by the presenter of the radio programme as to how long cats lived. Sadly, for those with an affection for felines, the lifespan is probably all too short.

If Larry had been around for a human life expectancy, I might have met him on a visit to his neighbourhood five decades ago.

Being taken to London on a school visit in 1975 brought an unexpected  direct encounter with members of the government.

Having visited the House of Commons, where our host had been the genial Ray Mawby, then Tory MP for Totnes, we arrived in Downing Street as a meeting was ending at Number Ten.

The opportunity for autograph hunting was too good to miss.

Taking a postcard of the House of Commons from a bag of souvenirs and borrowing a biro from our teacher, the first target was Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary. ‘Mr Jenkins, can I have your autograph?’

‘Oh, all right, but quickly before a crowd gathers’.

‘Who was that man?’ asked an onlooker as I turned back.

‘The Home Secretary’.

‘Oh’.

Jenkins was followed by Education Secretary, Fred Mulley, and then an even better target.

From the Saint James’s Park end of the street came James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary, with a foreign visitor. ‘Mr Callaghan, can I have your autograph?’

‘You would do much better to ask this man. He is the deputy prime minister of Egypt’.

Not wishing to be discourteous, I handed the visitor my postcard and pen. We walked down the street together, Callaghan asking about our school and our visit to London.

‘We’d better go in here’, he said, ‘the Prime Minister is waiting for us’.

On the steps of Number 10, Harold Wilson stood, smiling.

1975 was at the height of IRA terrorism, yet teenage boys were allowed to wander unchallenged around Downing Street; government ministers were people content to move around without a phalanx of security men.

Even four years later, visiting London as an eighteen year old, standing on the pavement opposite the door of Number 10 and shouting, ‘Power to the people,’ as Foreign Secretary Dr David Owen stepped from a limousine, brought no more than a contemptuous glance from a policeman.

Only a cat now would have the opportunity for such free movement among the holders of the great offices of state.

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