Archive for the ‘diaries/memoirs’ Category

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ADMIN: Diaries and Memoirs Collection Page

11 June 2009

In an effort to keep myself organised, I’ve added a new page to this blog that contains information on my collection of British political diaries and memoirs. Most of them, clearly, are from elected politicians, but I also have an interest in writings by civil servants or diplomatic officials.

I’ve been building this collection for the past few years, trying to acquire good condition volumes and the occasional signed or first edition copy. Like most collections, it’s very much a work in progress. I do have limits on how much I am willing to spend on individual acquisitions — recently, I passed up an absolutely beautiful signed first edition of Jim Callaghan’s Time and Chance because the price was a little too dear. With a little luck and persistence, though, I hope to build a fine little library in which I can take pride.

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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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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.

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

Autobiography/Memoirs
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.

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Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.

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Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.

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Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

13 May 2008

I actually finished this book almost two months ago, but tackling the review for it was more difficult than I thought it would be. Partly because of the book’s length and scope, but also because it’s tricky to review an autobiography without simply summarising the author’s life. I think I’ve done well enough out of this one, for the most part.

Autobiography by Bertrand Russell

Mathematician, philosopher, social reformer, conscientious objector, writer, lecturer, anti-nuclear protestor — Bertrand Russell’s life is remarkably difficult to summarise in a few words, not least because it spanned nearly a century of constant political and social change. His grandfather was Lord John Russell, later the first Earl Russell, two-time Whig prime minister in the mid-nineteenth century and a son of one of the most well-connected aristocratic families in Britain. His parents, Lord and Lady Amberley, held radical views on atheism, birth control, and other moral values which were not far short of a scandal in the socially conservative late Victorian era. This mixture of orthodox and unorthodox influences formed the background of young Bertrand Russell’s life, and at times appeared to surface in the few scandals he managed to produce alongside his publications and lecture tours.

Russell’s parents died early in his childhood, and he and his older brother Frank were raised at their grandparents’ estate in Richmond Park. Like many well-to-do young men of his age, he was educated at home by a series of tutors, who encouraged his natural aptitude for the study of mathematics. Yet Russell also spent much of his adolescence fighting off depression, worries about his sexual desires and the loss of his religious faith, and suicidal thoughts — indeed, he admits that the thought of not being able to learn more mathematics was one of the few things that kept him from taking his own life. He passed the entrance examinations for Cambridge and began to work on mathematics at Trinity College, soon expanding his work into philosophy and eventually taking a philosophy fellowship at Trinity shortly after he graduated. The connections between mathematics, logic, and philosophy formed the basis of much of Russell’s work for the rest of his life, and his influence appears in the writings of later logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers such as Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Even after he became the third Earl Russell upon the death of his elder brother in the early 1930s, he carried on much as before, though he wryly notes in the autobiography that he found the title occasionally useful for securing hotel rooms. He published numerous essays, articles, and works of short fiction; worked on sweeping surveys of the history of social thought and Western philosophy; and maintained an exhausting lecture circuit. And in 1950, his contributions to ‘humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’ were considered of sufficient merit to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Apart from his academic career, Russell became more and more involved in political and social causes as he grew older. He was an active participant in the markedly unpopular pacifist and conscientious objection movement during World War I, a cause that alienated him from formerly close friends and colleagues and eventually ended in a six-month stretch of imprisonment in 1918. He was interested in the mechanics of socialism and communism, though he became one of the more strident critics of the Soviet Union, something which did not endear him to other left-leaning associates like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. He was an advocate of women’s suffrage, contraception, sex education, and homosexuality and divorce law reform, all of which feature prominently in the pages of his autobiography — particularly in the sections in which he frankly and unashamedly describes the ups and downs of his various marriages (a total of four, of which three ended in separation and divorce) and occasional affairs with other women. After World War II, he became associated with the world government and nuclear disarmament movements. In 1957, at the age of 85, he served as the first president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and participated in marches and demonstrations for several years afterwards. Well into his 90s, he worked on his autobiography, and continued to write public letters and editorials almost up until the day of his death in early February 1970, at age 98.

Covering more than 700 pages, Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography is an expansive text that is as much a work of social history as it is an individual’s life story. Each chapter contains a selection of personal letters, notes, and short articles that round out the written recollections. Although Russell writes engagingly of his adventures and travels, and is willing to admit his own faults and failings in retrospect, he does not always come across as an easy person to know or to live with — as a friend and colleague, he could be warm and disapproving, generous and chill, caring and frustrating by turns. Yet the book quite clearly presents the human being behind the careful mathematician, introspective philosopher, and active elder statesman, a life lived fully and as best as anyone might be able to live. In the end, it is unsurprising that Russell would preface the account of his life by saying, ‘This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

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Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed (edited by Peter Davison)

6 May 2008

A few years ago, Penguin Press released a series of four books that each take one of George Orwell’s works and place it in the context of selected letters, articles, essays written by Orwell which relate to the subject of the book. I’ve split this review of the four books into two parts, with this one focusing on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed.

Orwell in Spain

The central text in Orwell in Spain is Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of his time as a volunteer soldier in Barcelona and the Catalan area of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party’s contingent, a group of two dozen or so British volunteers who were allied with the Workers’ Part of Marxism Unification (given as POUM, the Spanish-language abbreviation, in the text). Orwell sent several months in the front line and was finally invalided away from the front when he was shot in the neck — the bullet just barely missed his carotid artery, and the only lasting effect of the wound was a paralysis of one of his vocal cords. (People often told him how lucky he was to have survived, but Orwell usually responded by saying something to the effect of how it would have been even luckier not to have been shot in the first place.) Even after being invalided away from the front, Orwell’s troubles were merely beginning. He was very nearly arrested for being part of a militia that had been declared ‘illegal’ by the anti-Franco forces — the Spanish Communist Party was in the sway of the Soviet Union and was attempting to eradicate rival communist and anarchist groups — and he and his wife Eileen (who had accompanied him) had to flee Spain only a few steps ahead of the Spanish police.

The Spanish Civil War is a very confusing period of 20th-century history, and Orwell was writing for an audience which often had only the most general knowledge of what was going on in Spain at the time. But as the letters and articles emphasise, Orwell’s intent in writing Homage to Catalonia was not merely to denounce Franco and the Fascists, but to criticise the Communist forces in Spain for what he saw as their betrayal of the working classes AND to castigate the press (particularly the English leftist press) for its refusal to entertain any possibility that the Spanish Communists and their Soviet allies could be just as guilty of betrayal and deceit as the monarchists and the Fascists. Orwell’s experiences in Spain also had a direct influence on the writing of 1984. On a personal level he was very concerned with the case of Georges Kopp, a fellow soldier and friend who had been imprisoned by the Spanish police, tortured in an attempt to get him to sign a false confession, and subjected to a special type of punishment which involved being locked in a confined space with a horde of large rats. On a literary level, Orwell’s writings on the Spanish Civil War reveal some of the ideas that would later end up in books like 1984 — one example being the famous ‘two and two are five’ equation that would become so crucial to Winston Smith’s fate in that particular book.

Orwell and the Dispossessed

The central story in this collection is Down and Out in Paris and London, a predominantly autobiographical account of Orwell’s time ‘slumming it’ as a restaurant dishwasher (plongeur) in Paris and a tramp in London in the mid-1930s. The book is a grim account of a grim life, as Orwell describes in great detail the backbreaking labour and low wages of the staff at a fashionable hotel and his struggles in a small cafe — and includes stomach-turning accounts of the utter filthiness of the kitchens in which he worked. The writings that deal with his time in as a tramp in London and the Home Counties are equally grim, presenting a grinding, depressing life of poverty and homelessness in the capital city that still bears a strong resemblance to conditions that exist today. His criticisms of charitable organisations and city-run lodging houses for the poor and indigent are particularly trenchant, and remain so 70 years later.

Down and Out in Paris and London is a fascinating read in its own right, but this volume also contains some of Orwell’s articles, essays, and reviews on popular subjects of the time. He analysed boys’ school stories (such as the Greyfriairs stories that feature Billy Bunter), compared British detective fiction to American ‘pulp mags’, and examined the political leanings of the serial novels published in women’s magazines. There are also a few essays about Orwell’s other ‘slumming journeys’, including one where he joined a group of East End residents who travelled out of London to pick hops for a fortnight and another where he attempted to get himself sentenced to prison for drunk and disorderly conduct. In general, the material collected in Orwell and the Dispossessed focuses on the author’s observations of those who for one reason or another are deprived of choices in their own lives and societies — with subjects as diverse as the poor of India and Morocco, British schoolchildren, and the unfairly persecuted P.G. Wodehouse. And although the theme of this volume is not quite as solid and unified as that of Orwell and Spain, the compilation is a good collection of some of Orwell’s nonfiction writing.