Sir Keir Starmer recalls today how, at the age of 13, he had the harrowing task of telling his siblings that their seriously ill mother might die.
The Labour leader reveals the emotional toll that his mother’s lifelong battle with a debilitating form of arthritis took on his formative years in a candid interview for Desert Island Discs on Radio 4.
‘As young children we spent a lot of time in and out of high-dependency units with my mum, thinking we were going to lose her,’ says the father-of-two.
‘I remember one occasion when I was about 13 or 14, my dad phoning me from the hospital and saying, “I don’t think your mum’s going to make it. Will you tell the others?” That was tough. It was really tough. We pulled through that as a family.’
SOUL MAN: A young Keir Starmer. He recalls in a candid interview today on Desert Island Discs how, at the age of 13, he had the harrowing task of telling his siblings that their seriously ill mother might die
Sir Keir describes how his mother, Josephine, was just 11 when she was diagnosed with Still’s disease.
A pioneering steroid treatment, prescribed to her in her teens, allowed her to defy doctors who predicted she would be unable to walk by her early twenties and would never be a mother. She went on to have four children.
‘In the end the combination of Still’s disease and steroids, which have long-term effects, absolutely took their toll and she paid a heavy price,’ he says. ‘She got iller and iller, she couldn’t use her limbs and she was very prone to infection.’
The 58-year-old, who served as Director of Public Prosecutions between 2008 and 2013, pays tribute to his mother’s ‘incredible’ stoicism by choosing her favourite song, Welcome To My World by Jim Reeves, as one of his castaway tracks.
He reveals that Josephine, who died just weeks before he entered Parliament in 2015, became so ill she never got the chance to speak to her grandchildren.
‘I look back with pride, I look back with regret,’ he says. ‘My mum in the end couldn’t talk, couldn’t move. We’ve got two young children, but my mum had never spoken to my children because she was too ill.’
On a lighter note, the Labour leader confesses there were times as a youngster when he wished his parents had not named him after Labour Party founder Keir Hardie. ‘Plenty of nicknames at school,’ he says. ‘You can think of all things for yourself that rhyme with Keir.’
He also details a difficult relationship with his toolmaker father, Rodney. ‘I don’t often talk about my dad. He was a difficult man, a complicated man. He kept himself to himself. He didn’t particularly like to socialise, so wouldn’t really go out very much. I wouldn’t say we were close. I understood who he was and what he was, but we weren’t close and I regret that.’
On a lighter note, Sir Keir confesses there were times as a youngster when he wished his parents had not named him after Labour Party founder Keir Hardie.
‘Plenty of nicknames at school,’ he says. ‘You can think of all things for yourself that rhyme with Keir.’
He also reveals a surprising passion for dance music, choosing the Northern Soul classic Out On The Floor by Dobie Gray.
‘I love Northern Soul and this reminds me, when I’m on my island, of my early days in London with a group of friends, in a really grotty flat above a sauna and massage parlour that kept interesting hours,’ he adds.
Asked by presenter Lauren Laverne if he can do justice to the song on the dancefloor, he replies: ‘Flips, spins and back-drops are what you need for Northern Soul. A few years ago we had… goes at that, but I would not be foolish enough now.’
As for his choice of book, he says: ‘I’m going to take a detailed atlas, hopefully with shipping lanes in it, so I can get off this island… and get back to my wife and children.’
Desert Island Discs is on BBC Radio 4 today at 11am, and will be repeated on Friday at 9am.