Righting the wrongs of my rightwing stepfather
When Anthony Perry received an inheritance from a racist parent, he decided to use some of it to make amends
Anthony Perry holding a photo of his stepfather, Michael Young. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian
Michael Young was an extreme right-winger and racist who devoted much of his life to propagating a skewed form of biblical fundamentalism. In the estimation of his stepson, Anthony Perry, he was “a pretty dreadful man”.
When Young died in 2000, shortly after his 100th birthday, Perry was a little embarrassed to receive an inheritance. He gave the bulk of it to his daughter, treated himself to a good suit, and then resolved to have some fun with the remaining £10,000. More than a decade later, he is still doing so.
Perry put the cash into what he called the Michael Young Fund, to be given away in small amounts to people and organisations he judged to have done something worthwhile. The fact that most of them would have been anathema to his benefactor was to prove an added satisfaction.
“He was wholly self-centred and had no interest in anything beyond his Bible studies and the preparation of his meals,” Perry says of Young. “He neither read a newspaper nor stirred out of the house for the last 10 years of his life. It is hard to find any redeeming feature in the man.
“So it seemed a nice idea to pass the money he left to some of the individuals and the small organisations that try to do some good in the world.”
Young had been in the RAF, rising to the rank of wing commander in 50 Squadron of Bomber Command in the early part of the second world war, stationed at Waddington, Lincolnshire. He divorced Perry’s mother, remarried and moved to Scotland.
He was for some years an active, far-right extremist. Perry has seen correspondence between him and John Tyndall, founder of the British National party, and in 1961 Young made headlines when he hurled a bag of offal at Jomo Kenyatta, who was to become the first prime minister and then president of Kenya, when he was in London for independence talks. Young is said to have shouted: “Take that from the League of Empire Loyalists!”
Perry’s approach to giving away Young’s money, he freely admits, is idiosyncratic. He started off giving it to “earnest people who were indisputably doing good” – planting trees, sending disadvantaged children to summer camp, running a drop-in centre – but soon decided this approach was “all too mainstream, worthy and obvious”. Instead, he started acting on impulse: sending £100 to a handyman who, he discovered, was helping older people with household repairs; giving £300 to a teacher who had got an entire sixth-form college participating in some form of music; and writing a cheque for £1,000 to a GP who, he heard, was accepting patients turned away by other doctors.
A “very young girl with a new baby and with the father in the nick” got £200 from Perry for “baby clothes, pram etc and generally to cheer everyone up”; and two women who run activities for young people on estates close to his home in north London have received a total of £400 so far.
Recipients of smaller sums, typically £20, have included a bishop who presented a Thought for the Day that Perry liked on Radio 4’s Today programme; Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell “for causing pain to ungodly politicians”; and art critic Brian Sewell for his acerbic writing in the London Evening Standard. Sewell said he would spend the cash on oysters.
“I get great pleasure in doing these things,” says Perry, “because people are so pleased.” He always sends a leaflet explaining the fund and a letter on why the gift is being given.
Perry has replenished the fund and his wife Evelyn Williams, an acclaimed artist, donates a portion of her sales to it. Other people, taken with the idea, have chipped in small amounts. Only a few of those sent a cheque by Perry have returned it, among them the secretary to “an incompetent cabinet minister”, who did so with a humourless note after Perry offered the minister a small sum for “bravery under fire”.
No charity could get away with such frivolity. And Perry plainly revels in the mischief and spontaneity, as well as the knowledge that the man in whose name it is all being done – if no longer with his money – would have a blue fit. Such is his enjoyment that he urges other people who receive an inheritance or other windfall, or who have some cash to spare, to think about doing the same.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world,” says Perry. “If you can afford to do it, instead of just giving an inheritance to charity, why not have a bit of fun?”