Archive for the ‘biographies’ Category


Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

18 September 2009

Another pair of book reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. In the interests of keeping the article intact as written, I’ve left the two book reviews together.

Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

The “Great Statesmen” series released by Politico’s Publishing has produced new paperback editions of Francis Beckett’s biography of Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe’s biography of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Both biographies examine career politicians who remain little-known and less-understood figures in post-war British political history, and seek to show why these two men, of all their contemporaries, were amongst the few chosen to hold the office of prime minister.

The Beckett biography of Attlee regrettably falls short of the mark. The first sign of the book’s shortcomings is Beckett’s insistence on referring to Attlee as ‘Clem; throughout — in spite of his own admission that Attlee himself likely would not have approved of such familiarity. This early warning is borne out by Beckett’s tendency towards conjecture and speculation about Attlee’s thoughts and intentions. Statements such as ‘It may have been — almost certainly was — a decision [Attlee] subsequently regretted’ (95) tell the reader very little about Attlee’s way of thinking while revealing rather too much about his biographer’s opinions. And Beckett has no shortage of opinions on Attlee’s fellow politicians, particularly those who at one point or another were not on Attlee’s side—Ramsay MacDonald is a ‘cruel fraud’ (75), Herbert Morrison ‘trusted no-one and loved power’ (121), and Hugh Dalton had ‘neither the glory of being considered above plotting, nor the success which attends effective plotters’ (203). The lack of footnotes makes it all but impossible to test the veracity of Beckett’s opinionated claims, and the bibliography consists solely of a few paragraphs mentioning some of the relevant Public Records Office files and a brief list of memoirs and secondary sources.

Beckett also glosses over several unpleasant aspects of Attlee’s leadership and his tenure as prime minister, such as the chaotic effects of the 1945–51 Labour Government’s policies towards India, Palestine, and Northern Ireland and the vicious infighting over his succession that kept Labour in Opposition for nearly 15 years. Beckett does not even wholly succeed in his attempt to disprove the generally accepted ‘myth of insignificance’ (ix) that surrounds Attlee to this day; without tangible, solid evidence that can be backed up by other scholarship, Attlee still seems much the ‘accidental’ prime minister that Hugh Dalton once claimed he was.

Beckett clearly writes with love for his subject, and the sections of Clem Attlee that focus on Attlee’s domestic life and family relationships are treated with warmth and affection. Attlee’s close relationship with his elder brother Tom, a conscientious objector who went to prison rather than fight in World War I, receives particular care and attention. Even so, the overall effect produced by Clem Attlee is a cross between a hagiography of Saint Attlee of Stepney and collection of fond reminiscences about an eccentric old uncle — neither of which is suitable for a serious biographical study of a prime minister. For a more scholarly and objective examination of Clement Attlee’s life, Politico’s might have done better to reprint either Trevor Burridge’s 1985 biography or Kenneth Harris’s 1995 biography. Either would have been a more fitting choice for the Great Statesmen series.

D.R. Thorpe’s Alec Douglas-Home, by contrast, provides a far less worshipful account of its subject’s life and career. Thorpe is particularly careful with his manner of addressing his subject, if only because keeping track of the many names by which Douglas-Home was known in his lifetime is no small task. Lord Dunglass MP became the Earl of Home upon his father’s death in 1951, then became Sir Alec Douglas-Home MP after disclaiming his peerage in 1963, and then Lord Home of the Hirsel after receiving a life peerage in 1975 — and Thorpe allows the changing names to illustrate the many changes in Douglas-Home’s life over the course of his political career.

Thorpe had unparalleled access to the Home family’s private papers, and the depth and scope of the biography reflect the extensive research and interviews he conducted with Douglas-Home’s colleagues and contemporaries. Alec Douglas-Home was once described as the sort of young man of aristocratic lineage who, in an earlier century, would have been prime minister before the age of 30, and Thorpe does not shy from depicting his subject as a consummate politician who had been raised with the belief that a life in politics was the noblesse oblige of his class. Indeed, the account of the circumstances surrounding Douglas-Home’s selection as Harold Macmillan’s successor shows Douglas-Home’s political acumen, though it is unfortunate that Thorpe does not fully emphasise the sheer calculated ruthlessness by which Douglas-Home outmanoeuvred his rivals for the premiership. Alec Douglas-Home is an enlightening and highly readable work nonetheless, written with sympathetic interest that for the most part remains as objective as one could wish for in a biography. The detailed footnotes and lists of reference materials ensure that Thorpes work will endure as a well-regarded source of information on this particular great statesman.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 2 (May 2008): 221–222.
The definitive version is available at


Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers

28 April 2009

A few years ago, I received a copy of the unabridged Life of Samuel Johnson, and never actually managed to read more than a few dozen pages of it. (The unabridged version’s not the easiest size to carry around and read on a train, for one thing.) When I happened to come across this book in the local library, it prompted me to have another go at Boswell’s biographical magnum opus…which will be the subject of a book review itself, once I finish it.

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers

When considering the life of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, it can be very difficult not to automatically associate his name with that of his most famous biographer, James Boswell. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 (seven years after Johnson’s death), was innovative in its use of actual conversations between Boswell and Johnson, its incorporation of anecdotal evidence and commentary from others of Johnson’s acquaintance, and its animated, colloquial style that was a far cryfrom the traditionally reverent and respectful biography of the time. Yet Boswell was a careful editor, and even though his notes reveal that he himself was fascinated by the very intimate details of Johnson’s sexual appetites and deep emotional struggles, he suppressed many titillating details that for one reason or another he considered inappropriate to a public life of a well-known literary figure. Modern biographers of Samuel Johnson have sought to restore these details to present a more complete picture of their subject, and Jeffrey Meyers, one of the more recent Johnson biographers, has chosen to draw on older sources and newer scholarship to draft the life story of a long-suffering man, frequently ill and impoverished, prone both to frighteningly violent outbursts and to acts of surprising generosity, racked by fears for his own salvation and sanity, and successful more in spite of him failings than because of his powers. Indeed, Meyers’ approach to his subject is evident from his choice of a title alone: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle.

Meyers’ account of Johnson’s struggle focuses on both the physical and mental troubles that continually plagued Johnson’s life. Partially blind and deaf from his birth in 1709, a sickly child infected with scrofula (for which he was ‘touched’ by an elderly Queen Anne in the traditional attempt to cure the disease), Johnson also was subject to involuntary physical movements and facial tics that a modern observer likely would recognise as symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. He spent much of his life alternating between bouts of extreme idleness and frenzied bursts of writing or other work, and berated himself for his slothful nature. Even Johnson’s closest friends and acquaintances seldom failed to comment on his slovenly appearance and frightful table manners. Meyers also goes into great detail on what many modern biographers suspect was Johnson’s darkest and most shame-ridden secret: an interest in flagellation as a means of sexual release. In short, Meyers does not spare his subject when it comes to Johnson’s failings — instead, he uses all of these woes to reinforce his belief in the extraordinary mental capacities that drove Johnson’s literary output, particularly in the legacy that he left the modern English language in his massive A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle tries to avoid being merely another recollection of Johnson’s life, and Meyers works hard to balance sympathy for his subject with a more detached perspective. But for all of the information presented in the book, Meyers’ writing style can be wearying over the course of the biography’s 450-odd pages. Redundant or unnecessary descriptive adverbs slow down the pace of the writing, as does Meyers’ rather tiresome habit of inserting snippets of definitions from Johnson’s own dictionary when he wishes to emphasise a point. On multiple occasions, he refuses to let the text speak for itself; after presenting a statement or conversation or literary excerpt, he then rephrases it in his own words, repeating it more for the sake of repeating it than for shedding further light on the text or clarifying an unclear meaning. Meyers is also overly fond of comparing Johnson’s life circumstances to those of other noteworthy authors — in one of the more absurd comparisons, he mentions that both Johnson’s father (a bookseller) and William Shakespeare’s father (a glovemaker) certainly must have used leather in their trades. Yet to draw another comparison, in the end Meyers’ biography is rather like his subject — in that it manages to be successful in spite of itself. His focus is on Samuel Johnson’s struggle, and as a focus it works well enough to draw together all of the gossip and anecdotes, the competing biographies (Boswell’s was by no means the only ‘life of Johnson’ to be published within a few years of Johnson’s death) and contemporary literary criticism of Johnson’s works into a personal history of a deeply troubled but determined man.


Commentary: Politico’s Great Statesmen Series

1 July 2008

I’m sitting on a backlog of not-quite finished reviews at the moment, so in lieu of rushing through the first one in the queue (which is likely to be about Edmund Burke), I’m going to slip in a bit of commentary about Politico’s Great Statesmen book series.

The Great Statesmen series is a line of reissued political memoirs and biographies of various British politicians. I’ve acquired four Great Statesmen titles in the past year, two biography (Francis Beckett on Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe on Alec Douglas-Home) and two autobiography (Geoffrey Howe’s Conflict of Loyalty and Denis Healey’s Time of My Life), and I’ve been very satisfied with the series’ production quality and appearance. I do quibble somewhat with the inclusion of Francis Beckett’s biography, which may be one of the more recent Attlee biographies but is by no means the most well-written. (My arguments on this front are set out in a review I wrote for the May 2008 issue of Political Studies Review.) Yet on the whole, it is very good to see a publisher taking the time and effort to put together a quality series of this nature, almost made for collecting by those who are fond of modern political history.

At the time of this writing, the main Politico’s Publishing Web site is not working very well for me. It’s a pity that the Politico’s Web site maintainers haven’t set up a separate section to show off this line, because it’s well worth the Web space. I’ve been able to compile a partial list of the titles currently available in the Great Statesmen line — I may have left out one or two, but these are the ones I have seen offered for sale online and in some bookshops.

Clem Attlee – Francis Beckett
Anthony Crosland – Kevin Jefferys
Alec Douglas-Home – D.R. Thorpe
Hugh Gaitskell – Brian Brivati

Time and Chance – James Callaghan
Time of My Life – Denis Healey
The Course of My Life – Edward Heath
Conflict of Loyalty – Geoffrey Howe
A Life at the Centre – Roy Jenkins (which I have reviewed here)

Reviews of both the Thorpe and Beckett biographies are in the abovementioned review article, and I’ll be writing a review of Geoffrey Howe’s biography for Political Studies Review in the near future. I’ve yet to start Healey’s memoirs, but when I finish that, I’ll be sure to post a review of it here.


The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

11 March 2008

Today’s reviewed book ended up as a four-hour series on U.S. public television a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s been rebroadcast since then, though anyone with enough interest in seeing it should be able to purchase it without much difficulty.

The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Harvard professor Armand Nicholi has been teaching a class about Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis for the past decade or two. In his class, he compares the lives and philosophies of the two men, focusing in particular on their very different perspectives on religion, sex, love, friendship, and other overarching questions of life. In The Question of God, Nicholi has turned his class notes into a book, one which uses Lewis and Freud’s writings to look at how these two men approached belief, disbelief, and everything in between.

Nicholi has certainly done his homework for this class. The book looks at both Freud and Lewis’s public and private writings, incorporating published works and letters in an attempt to examine how their personal philosophies shaped their attitudes towards family members, friends, colleagues, and the general public. It’s fascinating and quite insightful to see the two men’s opinions on various aspects of life laid out side by side, and Nicholi finds a number of interesting parallels between them. Both Freud and Lewis had poor relationships with their fathers and with their fathers’ ideas of religion, and suffered deep personal losses early in their childhoods that seriously affected their outlooks on life from a young age. Freud ended up rejecting religious belief entirely, and Lewis himself admits that he was essentially dragged into Christianity kicking and screaming (in a metaphysical sense). Nicholi puts together a good narrative for their stories. Yet by the end of the book, I realised that Nicholi’s thesis could be boiled down to a single sentence — ‘Freud was a depressed and depressing old chain-smoking misanthrope, and he makes Lewis (and, by extension, Lewis’s answer to the question of God) seem the very embodiment of happiness and personal fulfilment by comparison’.

Even if Nicholi tries not to sound biased towards either Lewis or Freud, the very method of his comparison paints Freud and his opinions in an almost unrelentingly dismal light. Nicholi clearly finds Lewis to be the more compelling figure of the two, and he takes pains to compare Lewis’s conversion experience with his own studies into the conversion experiences of young adults. By contrasting Lewis’s deep, long-lasting friendships and late if happy marriage with Freud’s penchant for alienating and disowning his colleagues and the puritanical froideur of his marital life…well, it is little wonder that Lewis and his philosophies on life seem to come out the better for it. Nicholi never openly says that Lewis’s world-view is the better, but from the evidence he has assembled, he doesn’t exactly need to. So even though the book is written well and seems to stem from an interesting and original premise, fans of both Lewis and Freud would be wise to read it with a skeptical eye.


A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

5 February 2008

I’ve been meaning to acquire this book for a while, but it was one of those books that tend to sit on the ‘to buy’ list for ages without any action being taken on it. Thanks to BookMooch, though, I received a nice (and pretty much free!) copy only a little while ago.

A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash by Sylvia Nasar

Game theory, the branch of applied mathematics that looks at strategic choices and interactions within social situations, is a key field of study in many different social sciences and other academic fields. One of the creators of the founding principles of game theory was an eccentric but brilliant mathematician who had made a name for himself among the young, up-and-coming scholars at Carnegie Mellon and Princeton in the late 1940s and early 1950s: John Forbes Nash, Jr. Nash’s publications and theories were (and still are) regarded as mathematical breakthroughs, but by the latter half of the 1950s Nash’s eccentricities began to reveal a deeper disturbance in his mind. Wild flights of fancy regarding secret numerical patterns and codes that only he could detect gave way to outright delusions of sinister worldwide conspiracies. In the frightening grip of paranoid schizophrenia, Nash all but vanished from academic life, drifting in and out of mental hospitals and fighting against his family’s attempts to get him to stay in treatment. A new generation of students who read his articles and studied his theories often assumed that he was either dead or locked up in an insane asylum somewhere. But as the years passed, Nash struggled to work through his mental illness and gradually regain his ability to function in society — and by the time his name was given as one of the winners of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics, he had recovered enough to work on mathematics once more.

Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash has won any number of awards and has been adapted for a well-known film, and it’s not difficult to see why; Nash’s story is by turns fascinating, sad, tragic, and powerful. The book has a light, conversational voice, almost chatty in tone, but the writing style by no means detracts from the solidly written prose and the easy flow with which she carries the narrative of Nash’s life — quite the contrary, in fact. Mathematics can be a daunting subject to approach even when the calculations involved are simple ones, and Nash’s work dealt with highly technical proofs and complicated equations that could easily frighten off a casual reader. One of the best aspects of Nasar’s book is how she handles the mathematics to ensure that the ideas remain comprehensible to a lay audience. She mentions the basic principles of the proofs and equations that Nash and his colleagues developed, but she generally avoids trying to delve too deeply into more technical language for her explations and descriptions. The overall effect seems to encourage truly interested readers to look to other sources for the actual mathematics, while at the same time allowing the rest of her audience to feel informed and aware, if not absolutely initiated into the details of Nash’s work. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and Nasar manages it well.

Fans of the movie starring Russell Crowe will note the many changes that the filmmakers made to adapt Nash’s story to the screen. The movie is more of a revisioning than a true adaptation — among the biographical details left out of the movie were Nash’s bisexual proclivities, his troubled relationships with his sons (one born to his wife, the other born to a girlfriend he had had before marriage), and some of the more unsavoury remarks he made during the worst times of his illness. But as far as biographies go, A Beautiful Mind is an intriguing story of a remarkable man, who even today works hard to keep the upper hand on a mental illness that nearly shattered his career and his life beyond hope of recovery.


Below the Parapet: The Autobiography of Denis Thatcher by Carol Thatcher

20 December 2007

This book doesn’t quite fall into the ‘diaries/memoirs’ or ‘dead politicians’ category, so I’ve set up a new ‘biographies’ category that ought to do the trick.

Below the Parapet: The Autobiography of Denis Thatcher by Carol Thatcher

It’s always interesting to see children of the famous writing biographies of their parents, and even more interesting when these biographies are not overly coloured with bitterness for any neglect or lack of attention that the parents might have displayed when their offspring were growing up. And Carol Thatcher’s book about her father overcomes quite a bit of established opinion in its attempt to make Sir Denis Thatcher less of a caricature and more of a real person.

The general image most people have of Denis Thatcher is that of a bumbling, stumbling sot, given to making inappropriate comments about people of colour and always slinking away to the golf links whenever he can wriggle out of the iron grip of She Who Devours A Red Box And A Permanent Secretary At Breakfast Each Morning. Private Eye‘s ‘Dear Bill’ letters have most of the responsibility for that image, but Denis Thatcher tended to play along at times, most notably when he replied to a woman’s question about what he did all day by saying, ‘Well, when I’m not completely pissed I like to play a round of golf’. On the whole, though, much of his time was spent ‘below the parapet’, quietly working as an executive at his fairly successful paint-making business and keeping out of the limelight as much as possible.

Below the Parapet is very much the story of a daughter trying to promote her father as a man in his own right, out of her famous mother’s shadow. And she succeeds, for the most part, though there are times when the careful reader can see the cracks in her attempts to play up the idea of the Thatchers as a family who just happened to be famous. (She certainly doesn’t have much time for her brother Mark — and from the sound of the book, neither did her father — and there’s an undercurrent of uneasiness in the way she talks about her mother.) It’s a fairly subdued sort of autobiography, and goes well with the fairly subdued sort of man Denis Thatcher was.


Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

13 December 2007

I actually picked up this book from my father — he bought it after seeing an TV interview that mentioned it, and suggested that I should read it once he’d finished with his copy. Which meant that I had to wait for a bit, as he took his time reading it…but it was worth the waiting.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

At times, it seems as if everyone and his or her mother has written a book about Abraham Lincoln. Hagiographical biography, revisionist history, stacks of dense tomes trying to prove that he was a genetic freak or clinically depressed or homosexual or secretly racist or made out of jam or any number of other shocking revelations. And that’s not even to start talking about the books about Mary Todd Lincoln and her forays into wacky behaviour. So at the outset, it might seem that Team of Rivals is just another Lincoln book to add to the towering pile. But Doris Kearns Goodwin takes a slightly different tack by looking at Lincoln in the context of the men who formed Lincoln’s cabinet during his five years in office — particularly the three men who had actually competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Not only did Lincoln bring these former rivals into his cabinet, but he also sought to include the strongest political players from all factions of his fractious political party: former Whigs, hardcore anti-slavery Democrats, and others who were less interested in what Lincoln had to say than in what his political clout could get them. But the new President wanted the best men (as he saw them) surrounding him, and he was prepared to assemble a team of his own former rivals and even enemies if it meant that he got the best men for the job. Managing such a complex jumble of egos and rivalries would seem an impossible task, and Goodwin shows that at times it nearly was — and yet Lincoln was able to do so, in the middle of attempting to fight and win a devastating civil war.

Goodwin draws on reams of correspondence and diaries of the period, sketching images of the nonstop life that Lincoln and his contemporaries led from the frontier circuit courts and smoke-filled back rooms to the glittering drawing-rooms of fashionable Washington mansions. Goodwin’s subjects really come to life on the pages as she compares and contrasts their family backgrounds, their lifestyles, their personal and political beliefs, and their ability to move in the political world of antebellum America. What interested me most in reading Team of Rivals was the stark contrast (which Goodwin doesn’t emphasise nearly enough) between Lincoln’s ability to wrangle his cabinet members and the bigwigs in the Republican party, and his seeming inability to find a decent general for the Union armies. It’s a very odd contrast, and one worth pondering on, because Goodwin doesn’t really elaborate on what might seem to be a noteworthy contradiction.

Team of Rivals is a fairly ambitious book, encompassing pretty much the whole of Lincoln’s life and the lives of his contemporaries and family members as well. There are places where it’s rather slow and clogged with detail, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who’s who and what position they hold. But there’s plenty of gossipy details about family life and Washington society, and Goodwin does an excellent job at times in showing just how complicated Lincoln’s task was in keeping the White House running smoothly and still keeping one eye on political currents and undercurrents in state and local politics as well. It’s a good solid history book, and remarkably enough it says something new about a president who has been the subject of many a good book (and many a bad book) in the last century and a half or so.


Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum

29 October 2007

I originally picked up a copy of this book as a gift for a friend, and ended up getting one for myself as well — mostly to prevent myself from reading the gift copy. Is ‘one owner/reader from new’ still acceptable as a gift book? I’m never really sure.

Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum

The English writer Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) is probably best known for Jeeves, the inimitable gentleman’s gentleman, and his rather brainless but well-intentioned master Bertie Wooster. But the team of Jeeves and Wooster was only one facet of Wodehouse’s immense literary canon. He also wrote a series of stories centred around the antics of the denizens of Blandings Castle (many of which focus on the Empress of Blandings, a corpulent prize-winning pig), another group of stories about a dashing young City gentleman named Psmith (the ‘p’ is silent, as in ‘pneumonia’ and ‘ptarmigan’), as well as many other separate novels, short stories, and song lyrics — all of which add up to an immense volume of work for any one writer.

Wodehouse had a gift for devising elaborate farcical plots that often seem so complex as to be insoluble, and his prose is pretty much unforgettable to anyone who has dipped into even one or two of his works. And yet it’s incredible to think that Wodehouse never went to university — indeed, he spent the first few years of his working life writing stories late into the night and going to a dull, uninspiring job at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank by day. In person, he appears to have been singularly uninteresting, shy and asocial, and was almost incapable of taking any situation sufficiently seriously…or at least, he preferred to make light of difficulties and display a stereotypical sort of ‘stiff-upper lip’ personality to the outside world. This last trait eventually caused no end of trouble for him in an episode that is not often remembered today. Wodehouse and his wife were stranded in occupied France during World War II, and while he was a prisoner in an enemy alien internment camp he was invited to make a series of radio broadcasts from Berlin about his life as an internee. Wodehouse’s attitude on the air was genial, almost jocular, and some of his innocent remarks led some members of the press and public to denounce him as a Nazi collaborator and propagandist along the lines of Lord Haw-Haw. After the war’s end, Wodehouse discovered that he was in deep disgrace — and that his public image had been severely damaged by his association with the Nazi propaganda machine.

That backstory aside, Robert McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse is superbly done, a detailed and well-crafted account of a literary life. If I had one reservation to make about the writing style, I would draw attention to the fact that McCrum seems to want to exonerate his subject at the expense of good prose-writing. He over-emphasises Wodehouse’s relative ignorance of international politics — or if not over-emphasises it, then at least is less than subtle in his description of it. Sentences like ‘This was the conversation that would lead inexorably to his disgrace’ feel a bit forced at times. (My instinctive reaction to a sentence like that is, ‘Yes, thank you, Story, now may we continue from where you left off?’) But that is to nitpick at what is otherwise a lovely and well-researched literary biography, definitely recommended to fans of the Wodehouse canon.


Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins

30 September 2007

As with the Lib Dem conference, so now with Labour’s. If we do get word of a snap General Election, I’m well prepared with book reviews tangentially related to that subject, too.

Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins

‘Authorised biography’…it’s a phrase that’s often a turn-off to any potential reader. The fact that the biography is ‘authorised’ by its subject suggests that the author has had to pull his or her punches in dealing with the less pleasant aspects of the subject’s life. After all, it’s a rare individual who would be willing to have a biographer dig through and publish all the really sordid and/or private bits of his or her past, or point out a truly breathtaking blunder and declare, ‘Why yes, So-and-so really did mess up there, and wasn’t it just awful?’ Reading an authorised biography can often be like eating a low-calorie snack when you really want the regular kind — before you start you can pretend that you’re about to enjoy the real thing, but the taste is the first giveaway and it doesn’t get much better from there.

That said, I think that Anne Perkins did a spectacular job in giving a warts-and-all presentation of the life of one of Old Labour’s most high-prolife figures. Barbara Castle was at one time thought to be the most likely woman to become the first leader of a major British political party (an honour that would go to Margaret Thatcher shortly before the end of Castle’s time as a Minister). In Red Queen, Perkins draws a neat sketch of her subject’s early life that contains many parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s own upbringing. Barbara Betts, as she then was, was born into a middle-class family that was very politically active, headed by a dominant father whom Barbara spent much of her young life trying to please. The autobiographical detail is very good, pulling in information that doesn’t necessarily find its way into a political autobiography — specifically, some of the hints of Barbara’s early sex life and her longstanding affair with a married man (which happened before she met her husband Ted). From the well-rounded picture of young Barbara, it’s a bit of a jolt when Perkins goes into detail about the intricacies of Labour politics in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. (So much detail, in fact, that she occasionally loses sight of the biography proper.) But Perkins speaks quite readily of Barbara Castle’s successes and failures, her personal faults and her obsession with her looks, ‘In Place of Strife’ and its aftermath, her dependence on Harold Wilson for her political position and her abrupt sacking shortly after Wilson’s resignation in 1976…it’s all there, and very well organised and fluently told.

Perkins does play upon the pathos of Castle’s later life. It’s hard not to be affected by the swift progression of personal tragedies: the death of her husband and mother in the space of a few weeks’ time (over the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, no less), the bout with breast cancer that led to her mastectomy (an incident which was not very well known until after her death), and the solitary existence that Castle led until her death in 2002 (she died after a nasty fall down the stairs in her home). Rather abruptly, the autobiography ends there, without the usual general ‘summing up’ chapter to analyse Barbara Castle on the whole. Perhaps Perkins felt that there was no need for summing up, in the end. I’m inclined to agree, because the book really does speak for itself…and lets Castle speak for herself in a way that feels more honest than the carefully selected entries in her published diaries.


Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter

27 September 2007

I wrote this review quite a while ago, more than three years ago by now. It definitely needed a good bit of editing before I felt comfortable posting it here, which I suppose shows that I’ve made some improvement in my reviewing style since I first started writing reviews of books I’d recently read.

Anthony Blunt: His Lives by Miranda Carter

The World War II Cambridge spy ring is an intriguing subject for espionage historians, and a subject on which a great deal of variable quality material has been written. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that the whole set-up of the ring is perfect fodder for an espionage buff. A group of middle- and upper-middle class young men with leftist leanings, who had attended Cambridge University, had jobs in British intelligence services during the war, used their positions to send a torrent of intelligence information to the Soviet Union, and were not discovered until after the war’s end — really, they were the Soviets’ proverbial ace in the hole for almost a decade. In fact, they were so good at passing information that at times the KGB thought they were a clever counterintelligence plot to feed false information to the informal Soviet network in Britain. Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean were the first to escape Britain for the USSR, having fled in 1951 just before they could be rounded up. Harold ‘Kim’ Philby worked his way even higher in the intelligence hierarcy than Burgess or MacLean, and by the time he managed to defect he’d been responsible for revealing any number of confidential secrets to the Soviet Union. At the time of Philby’s defection, there were speculations about a ‘fourth man’ in this spy ring, but it wasn’t until 1979 that a name was truly confirmed. The ‘fourth man’ was Sir Anthony Blunt.

Blunt’s exposure came as shock to the Establishment, particularly the art world, because he was not only a respected art critic and historian, but he had been the director of the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art for almost three decades and had even been given a knighthood for his service to the Crown’s collection of artwork. But Blunt had confessed his spying career in the mid-1960s, shortly after Philby’s defection, and it remained an official secret until his secret was revealed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shortly after she took office. When the news came to light, a whole host of inquiries were made into his life and conduct — particularly the open secret of his homosexuality.

That bit of history aside, Miranda Carter’s book about Blunt and his ‘lives’ is positively stunning. It’s incredibly comprehensive, delving all the way down to his childhood and pre-Cambridge school days to find hints of what shaped Blunt’s character in his youth. And she treats Blunt’s art career with as much depth and detail as she does his espionage work; this isn’t a book that tries to turn Blunt and the others into dashing Ian Fleming characters or sinister John le Carré types. It’s not an openly sympathetic portrayal, but it does try to open up possible explanations for his motives and the reasoning behind why he chose to work for the NKVD during wartime. Carter makes much of the fact that Blunt was an emotionally compartmentalised type of person, who not only strove to keep different aspects of his life and his emotions under tight control but who also seemed to take pleasure in doing so — and this might have fuelled his fascination with his secret lives. Espionage relies so heavily on human psychology that understanding Blunt’s character is key to understand why he did what he did…and why he wanted out, at the end.

(One thing that bothered me a little about this book (and perhaps it’s just an odd reaction of mine rather than anything the writer consciously happened to do) was that Carter tended to link espionage and homosexuality in a way that made spying sound rather like a sexually transmitted disease, or the unfortunate consequence of a one-night stand. As if saying that So-and-so slept with Guy Burgess, and soon enough he came down with a nasty case of passing confidential MI5 files to the Soviets. But I digress.)

I really can’t do this book justice in a single review — it’s far too complex and twisting to really summarise here. It’s also about 500 pages long, and not the kind of thing you can sit down and read straight through. But for all its density, it’s extremely filling and satisfying, and Miranda Carter is able to give Blunt a sound biography that neither tries to apologise for his actions nor attempts to paint him as an evil communist mastermind.