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The Heat of the Kitchen by Bernard Donoughue

6 November 2007

Gearing up for another set of book reviews for the month of November. I may be able to post some more recently written ones very soon, once I sort through a few older ones that I haven’t yet had a chance to go back and edit.

The Heat of the Kitchen by Bernard Donoughue

Bernard (now Lord) Donoughue served as a political advisor for Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan from 1974 to 1979, and in that time he was in a perfect position to observe the workings of government and the ways in which individual personalities clashed over different issues. It’s something of a shame that this book doesn’t exactly do justice to either Labour Party history or Labour Party gossip.

Admittedly, it is an autobiography, and as such it is not meant to be a purely academic analysis of the author’s time in politics and public life. But the autobiographical sections veer sharply toward the mawkish, with a tendency to harp on about his own beliefs and political prejudices, and it is more than a little tiresome to be jerked out of what promises to be an interesting narrative by snide little side commentaries that are wholly unnecessary. A good (or bad) example of the narrative problems:

Of the half a dozen books in which I have been involved, Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician is the one of which I am most proud. Morrison had of course been a great political figure during my childhood, one of my earliest heroes….But he was not a wholly attractive personality and his reputation dimmed after his defeat in 1965. Fortunately, interest in him revived somewhat in the early glow of achievement of his grandson Peter Mandelson, and the book achieved a reprint in 2001 with a fascinating foreword by Peter. But its sales were never great. Since it contains little ‘psychobabble’ or speculation about Morrison’s (undoubtedly thin) sex life, it might anyway be unsuited to the modern literary market.

(You need to imagine my raised eyebrow here.)

One of the more detailed chapters in Donoughue’s book relates how thoroughly Harold Wilson was cowed by his personal secretary Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender). Although the tales that Donoughue tells are worthy of note in terms of understanding the power dynamics inside Number 10, the overall effect is to turn Marcia Williams into some sort of malicious, predatory she-demon and Harold Wilson into Richard Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances. Donoughue’s negative perspective is understandable, considering that Marcia Williams absolutely could not stand the fact that he was able to take a political policy line independent of hers and attempted to limit her influence over Wilson. But Donoughue unfortunately doesn’t make enough of an attempt to look back on events with a more detached eye, something that would have improved the quality of the writing and the substance of the text.

The Heat of the Kitchen generally wavers between readable and unreadable, though I was able to plough through it and reach some sort of muddled understanding of Donoughue’s perspective on the high politics and various intrigues that characterised the Labour governments of the 1970s. I haven’t yet had a chance to read his Downing Street Diary, but I do wonder if that book will be even more tainted by the personal prejudices of its author. It’s rather a shame, really — for someone who had quite a few interesting political ideas and helped at least two prime ministers reach a better understanding of key policy issues, Donoughue does not really convey a good sense of his overall intelligence and scope of political awareness in this autobiography.

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