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Commentary: New Labour, Bad Writing

21 July 2008

John Lanchester’s London Review of Books assessment of the recently published memoirs of Cherie Blair, John Prescott, and Tim Levy ties in rather neatly to a post I made a few months ago about the unsettling similarities between John Prescott and George Brown.

I’ve been looking into the history of political memoirs, focusing at the moment on the National Archives files regarding the legal squabblings that surrounded the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries in the mid-1970s. Crossman claimed, before he died, that the purpose of publishing his memoirs was to expose the secretive inner workings of government and give the reading public a more realistic view of the everyday life of a Cabinet Minister. (This he certainly did, in what Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt shudderingly called a ‘blow-by-blow account’ of everything from dissention during Cabinet meetings to rows within Crossman’s private office.) Crossman almost assuredly sought to one-up Harold Wilson, whose The Labour Government, 1964-1970: A Personal Record was rushed to press in 1971 in hopes of earning its author a bit more money to support the lifestyle (i.e., the political staff) to which he had become accustomed as Prime Minister. But when Crossman was diagnosed with cancer, the publication of his diaries became a good deal more pressing a concern to him — and after his death, his executors (including Michael Foot) took up the call to ‘respect his final wishes’ and see the diaries into print.

I’m still pondering various opinions about whether the publication of the Crossman diaries has done more good than harm, but there’s one thing that certainly sets Crossman apart from most of his literary successors. With the possible exception of Alan Clark (who published one volume of diaries during his life and provided enough material for two more volumes after his death), most of the flood of political diaries and memoirs that have come on the market since the 1970s are by authors who are still alive; some are even still in office, or not very long out of it. The incentives to rush out a self-justifying memoir are even greater now that so many of them are on the market, if only to get the jump on any other colleagues (or enemies) who might have a book of their own ready to go. But I’d imagine that there’s something oddly unsatisfying about attempting to respond to posthumous diary or memoir, like Crossman’s. It’s too final, somehow — like getting into an argument over the telephone and then having the person at the other end suddenly hang up on you when you’re in mid-sentence. To paraphrase a comment supposedly made by a disgruntled Harold Wilson during a Cabinet meeting in the middle of the Crossman affair, ‘If any of you are looking to publish a diary, too, for God’s sake don’t die first. We need a chance to reply.’

Lanchester suggests that the memoirs in his review are as much as exercise in self-definition as they are in self-justification:

Since [the electorate] so manifestly aren’t grateful, or understanding, they feel a strong need to tell their version of their own story, to restore the complexity and inwardness to the public version of selves which, very often, exist purely as caricature.

Considering the content and tone of many of the memoirs that have been published since Crossman opened the doors, I’m inclined to agree with him.

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