Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Quote for the Week 12

'SNP leader, Alex Salmond, a stubborn single-issue politician with a chip on his shoulder about the English. (That's except for Scottish readers, for whom he is a pertinent and witty statesman with an interesting slant on the devolution issue.)'
- Have I Got 1997 For You (BBC Books, London, 1996)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

John Barnes plays Subbuteo

I made my annual pilgrimage to Toy Fair today, and found myself watching John Barnes playing Subbuteo, a game that was ubiquitous in my childhood, and which is just being relaunched:

Top Ten: Political Diarists (part one)

1. Tony Benn
The daddy of all diarists, Benn is currently on eight printed volumes, covering 1940-2007 and containing millions of words. They’re obviously an invaluable commentary on Labour and left politics in that period, but they’re also the most fabulous self-portrait in the whole of English literature. Politically, the best is the 1980s volume The End of an Era (Hutchinson, 1992); personally, the most touching is Free at Last (Hutchinson, 2002), which includes the death of his wife. ‘I started writing them because in a vague way I felt I had a responsibility to give an account for my life,’ he said in 2001, ‘so when the day of judgment comes and God asks what did I do with my life I can hand him fifty million words.’

2. Gyles Brandreth
Don’t be fooled by his book Something Sensational to Read in the Train, which skims too rapidly through his entire life. Go instead for the brilliant Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999), which covers his time as a Conservative MP in the 1990s. It’s a gripping account of John Major’s doomed government, with all the appeal of a political car crash. And Brandreth is the most incorrigible gossip and name-dropper.

3. Woodrow Wyatt
Another appalling gossip, Wyatt was the turncoat Labour MP who became a slavish devotee of the cult of Margaret Thatcher. In his last years he decided to keep a diary so that it’d make some money for his family after his death. Consequently The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt Volumes One and Two (Macmillan, 1998-99) contain as much tittle-tattle as he could find. And since he’d penetrated Thatcher’s inner circle, it’s good stuff. Just make sure to skip the dull bits about the Queen Mother, horse racing and wine.

4. Edwina Currie
Best known for including memories of her affair with an unnamed senior Conservative politician, the most interesting material in Diaries 1987-1992 (Little Brown, 2002) is actually about the particular pressures of being a woman MP. Currie is equally strong on the new breed of Conservatives who arrived in Parliament in the wake of Thatcher.

5. Bernard Donoughue
Donoughue was an adviser to Labour prime ministers in the 1970s. Downing Street Diary: With Harold Wilson in No. 10 (Jonathan Cape, 2005) gives a tremendously detailed insider’s version of Wilson’s second period in office, buried within which are some gems for those fascinated by the position of Marcia Williams. The sequel – Downing Street Diary: With James Callaghan in No. 10 (Jonathan Cape, 2008) – isn’t quite as gripping, since Sunny Jim can’t make up for the absence of Our Harold: only really for hardcore students of the era.

Top Ten: Political Diarists (part two)

6. Alan Clark
Clark wasn't quite as good as some claim, partly - perhaps paradoxically - because he was such a one-off politician. The best political diaries come from MPs who express private opinions shared by others, but since no one agreed with the idiosyncratic extremism of Clark, his books stand or fall on the strength of his personality alone. And although he was quite something by the conformist standards of modern politics, the truth is that he’s not really interesting enough to sustain three volumes. The best is probably the third, The Last Diaries: In and Out of the Wilderness (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002), which is dominated by our – and ultimately his – awareness of his impending death.

7. Chris Mullin
The success of A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin (Profile, 2009) was something of a surprise, though it shouldn’t have been: after all, this is the man who gave us the classic A Very British Coup, so we already knew he could write. These first diaries covered his brief moment in the sun as a junior member of Tony Blair’s government and, though they were followed by further volumes, they’re still the best, since he mixes a bit more freely with the big players. None of whom come out of this account very well.

8. Lord Longford
As far as I know, he only published the one volume, Diary of a Year (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982), but what a year to choose. As an old Labour peer, he makes a fascinating witness to the high water mark of the left’s attempted takeover of the party in 1981. Worth reading alongside Tony Benn’s version.

9. Lance Price
Overshadowed since by Alastair Campbell’s work, The Spin Doctor’s Diary (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) was quite shocking at the time, confirming much of what had been rumoured and suspected about the inner workings of the Blair government. It’s still a powerful indictment of just how wrong things went. And how quickly.

10. Barbara Castle
Castle’s diaries weren’t the first by a Labour Party minister to chronicle the Harold Wilson years – those were by Richard Crossman – nor the best: those are by Benn. But they have a charm of their own, particularly the second volume 1974-76 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980), as she finds herself maginalised in the government and becomes increasingly tetchy.

Monday, 16 January 2012

A Classless Society

A comment by Tyrone Jenkins on a previous blog entry asks whether I intend to write a sequel to my previous books Crisis? What Crisis? and Rejoice! Rejoice!

And the answer is that I am indeed contracted to produce a third volume in the series, provisionally titled A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

This will cover the period from Margaret Thatcher's dethronement in November 1990 through to the re-election of Tony Blair in June 2001. And it'll be the usual chaotic mix of high politics and low culture - though in this instance, the politics were a bit on the low side as well.

Like the previous two volumes, it will be published by Aurum Press, with the same editor - Sam Harrison - that I worked with on my Terry Nation book. It should appear next year, though I'm hoping there'll be an interim piece on the period available for download in March this year.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


In these straitened times, it's good to know that some public libraries still have a proper acquisitions policy. This is a photo of the excellent library on Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park, run by the London Borough of Islington:

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Quote for the Week 11

'When push comes to shove, the pounds, the dollars and deutschmarks can't be equal. They can't all be at the same standard.'
- Geri Halliwell expresses her concerns about the European single currency, 1996