‘The best political memoirs are shot through with a kind of candour’
The finest political memoirs disclose an ability to write well on subjects which have nothing to do with politics. Winston Churchill writes well, in My Early Life, on being thought a stupid schoolboy, and on what it was like to take part in a cavalry charge. Alan Johnson writes well on being a postman.
The first volume of Johnson’s memoirs, This Boy, was garlanded with praise. But it is my obtuse habit not to read a new book which has been praised to the skies, for I can never believe it is as good as the reviewers say it is. So Johnson’s second volume, Please, Mister Postman (Bantam, £16.99), is for me his first. In 1968, as students rioted in America, Paris, West Berlin, Prague and even in London, he became a postman. The Post Office was still part of the civil service, and was dominated by ex-servicemen: “We didn’t come to work, we came ‘on duty’; we didn’t go on holiday, we went ‘on leave’; and we didn’t sign for jobs but for ‘duties’.” He conveys the dependability and unassuming character of these men. Nikolaus Pevsner once suggested that the square-topped church tower “remains England at its most English”, in part because of “its absence of demonstrated aspiration”. This phrase exactly describes the young Johnson. He read in secret The Times and various poets he had discovered. He hid his aspirations, which were musical and literary. His brother-in-law and his closest friend both advised him against spending the rest of his life as a postman. His mild response was that he “liked being a postman”.
Yet by the mid-1970s he found himself troubled by “a general restlessness and slight dissatisfaction”. He began to make his way in his trade union. Already there had been a strike, which was perhaps (though he does not say so) the equivalent in this sphere of the student riots. In the unprecedented postal strike of 1971, the ex-servicemen turned out to be staunch supporters of industrial action, but after 47 days the strike failed. I was at boarding school at the time, and enjoyed the sensation of being cut off from the outside world. But I had always wondered what the strike was like for those who were actually engaged in it, for whom it was a desperately serious venture, and Johnson tells us. He has captured with immaculate understatement an unglamorous period in our history. And just as the reader thinks nothing very exciting is ever going to happen, a completely unexpected and appalling event occurs in Johnson’s own family. All this is a long time before Johnson became a Labour MP, a Cabinet minister and the man some people would like to see replacing Ed Miliband as Labour leader. If a qualification for high office is writing a good book, then Johnson has passed it.
Dennis Skinner, who has just published his reminiscences, Sailing Close To The Wind (Quercus, £20), enjoys reminding us at quite frequent intervals that he isn’t looking for high office. Skinner is a brilliant speaker who can put fire into socialist audiences and could only be kept in bounds, once he became the Labour MP for Bolsover, by the tried and tested method of turning him into a parliamentary character. The late Frank Johnson dubbed him the Beast of Bolsover, to be found snarling day after day in impotent fury at the Establishment. He himself admits: “I know in my heart that I cannot make words as exciting on the printed page.” But he tells us, like some once fashionable dowager, that he has at length yielded to the pleading of his friends that he make a few jottings about his life. A characteristic sentence is found at the start of Chapter 14: “The Prince of Wales tried to meet me once, but I wasn’t interested.”
One is bound to wonder whether Skinner has led his present leader astray, for in the course of some good advice about the art of public speaking, he says: “I advised Ed Miliband early on to memorise his speeches.” This method let Miliband down badly at the recent Labour Conference, during which he was derided for forgetting, in a speech of more than an hour, to mention the deficit and immigration. Skinner’s textless delivery is better suited to the launch of a slashing attack than the enunciation of a sober and well-considered programme.
And here comes Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, with a second volume of memoirs. The title of the first was Stanley, I Presume?, so the continuation is called Stanley, I Resume (Robson, £25). Both volumes contain some very funny anecdotes, but both, ultimately, are frustrating — for the reader is never allowed to get close to Stanley. The jokes act as a kind of screen, and when we laugh at them, we are meant to stop noticing that we are not really being told anything.
The best memoirs are shot through with a kind of candour. One does not expect the writer to behave like a latter-day Rousseau or Boswell, and purport to tell one everything. But one does want to be told something. The memoir that amounts to an extended exercise in self-justification, or self-importance, is less welcome, especially when the writer is less brilliant and virtuous than Cardinal Newman.
But politicians spend their lives trying to justify themselves, and to persuade us or at least themselves that they are important. It is their métier. So even the literate ones tend to write books which from a literary point of view are disappointing. I have a quite large, if random, collection of memoirs by modern British politicians, and although most of them contain material which can be quarried with profit by those of us who take a morbid interest in recent events, there are few one could recommend to a reader who wants to encounter a human being rather than a politician. For amusement, and an authentic feeling for the period and its people, one turns to diaries, not to memoirs, and usually to those of quite minor figures such as Chips Channon or Alan Clark. The account of his premiership given by Tony Blair, who long ago lost himself in a wilderness of self-righteousness, is less enjoyable, and more bogus, than that given by Chris Mullin, a junior minister who in his diaries admitted the futility of almost everything he was asked to do.