Books, TV and Films, August 2020


1 August

With the football season at an end, there’s time to try out a classic film that I have never actually seen before — Ice Station Zebra — ‘classic’ in the very loose sense of a film with an all-star cast that turns up quite a lot on television. It came out in 1968 and is based on a novel by a famous thriller writer of the day, Alistair MacLean. I have only ever read one of his books, I think (Partisans, a book-club buy from the early-’80s), but I automatically place him in the same bracket as Jack Higgins — exciting, page-turning plots let down by unexciting, predictable and poorly drawn characters — whose books (the most famous is probably The Eagle Has Landed) I am a bit more familiar with.

Ice Station Zebra is set during the Cold War, but it has the feel of many of the Second World War movies that were popular in the sixties — the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare (which is also by MacLean). Watch any of the above and expect secret orders passed down from on high, plenty of suspense interspersed with bursts of derring-do, clean-cut heroes and dastardly villains, courage and betrayal, few if any women, and lots of cigarette smoking.

Life inside the submarine is suitably claustrophobic and, like Where Eagles Dare, the film features stunning location photography, though the scenes at the Zebra station on the polar ice-cap are poorly realised in comparison. Rock Hudson is the cool-under-pressure captain, Ernest Borgnine struggles to convince with his dodgy Russian backstory and even dodgier accent, and Patrick McGoohan plays a secretive (and, stretching it quite a bit, vicious) spook to type: it could be the exact same agent as the one he portrayed in a Columbo episode a few years later (Identity Crisis, the one in which he kills Leslie Nielsen).

2 August

More television (well, Amazon Prime). This time, Knives Out. I wasn’t too sure what to expect; my guess, based on media advertising, was some kind of ingeniously plotted farce or spoof. Actually, it is more like an homage and didn’t disappoint.

Once I got over Daniel Craig’s southern drawl (at first I thought his voice was badly overdubbed) there was much to enjoy, even if it was a bit silly in places — the suspect who is unable to lie without immediately vomiting, for example. It borrowed ingredients freely (though respectfully) from the Agatha Christie recipe — the labyrinthine house; the sudden and suspicious death of a wealthy patriarch; the family squabbling over the will; the everybody-is-a-suspect-and-has-a-shaky-alibi routine etc.

All very 1930s. In one respect, however, Knives Out seems to be making a very up-to-the-minute political statement. The family members — white, wealthy, privileged — are greedy, duplicitous and self-serving. They each make a show of welcoming the Latina nurse into their family and their home, but it is all pretence (their lies exposed when she unexpectedly receives the bulk of the fortune of the deceased patriarch). It is the nurse who, throughout, is the one genuine, kind and likeable character, determined to do the right thing. It’s hard not to see it as a commentary on the Trump administration and the state of US politics.

6 August

I had to re-read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, having watched the film a few weeks ago. At just 160 or so pages it’s really a novella. It’s quite extraordinary how McEwan is able to say so much in so few words.

A million years ago, sitting my A-level general studies exam, I answered an essay question that basically asked us to consider whether film adaptations of books can ever do justice to the original text. I was reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes at the time and, if memory serves, based much of my answer around a discussion of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films. I imagine I focused on the difficulty films have in exploring the inner voice (though it’s doubtful I used quite those words).

Films do narrative well. Sometimes — as in the ending of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone — they improve on the original text. But they have a harder task than books at exploring character in a nuanced way. Not the stock ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. That’s all too easy. Nor do I really mean the Bildungsroman-style character arc in which a person undergoes some sort of metamorphosis over the course of the film. I am thinking more about finding a way to portray the jumble of sometimes contradictory feelings, moods, emotions and urges that most of us feel most of the time. How to portray someone like Florence Ponting from On Chesil Beach, for example.

12 August

Being in a ‘horror’ frame of mind after just writing the first part of my blog on Dennis Wheatley, I decided to watch Interview with the Vampire. It came out in 1994, but I have never see it before. I won’t be in a hurry to watch it again any time soon. I know that the Anne Rice novel, which I haven’t read, was hugely popular but I found the film — and the performances of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt — less than enthralling.

Perhaps it was trying too hard to be sophisticated. Much more to my liking was Lust for a Vampire, shown on a cable channel the other day. It’s typical of those classic Hammer productions that don’t take themselves too seriously. Predictable plot. Stage-y sets. Generous helpings of tomato-ketchup blood. Dodgy overdubbing. And happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls who speak perfect English despite the central European location and who think nothing of going off alone despite a number of unexplained deaths in the local area of other happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls.

Scars of Dracula (starring a very young Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), released in 1970, is rather tame, but in a sign of changing times Hammer upped the sex quotient for its Karnstein trilogy: Lust for a Vampire, The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil all feature more than a hint of lesbianism and scenes of not-exactly-central-to-the-plot female (mainly) upper-body nudity.

It’s all harmless stuff — the most explicit thing about them are the original promotional posters — and quite ridiculous that films like these still seem to be rated 18.

13 August

After Robert Harris’s brilliant The Second Sleep, here’s another treat, bought on the day it came out in paperback: Winds of Change, the latest volume in Peter Hennessy’s postwar history of Britain, this time covering the early sixties.

I don’t watch a huge amount of television and I am conscious of having missed out on loads of great programmes over the years. When the lockdown first kicked in, I decided to try out something from BBC iPlayer. As a fan of the spy genre I settled on Spooks. Ten series. Eighty-odd hour-long episodes. Enough to keep anyone busy. I finally finished it this week.

A big surprise — I have only just found this out after looking up Spooks on Wikipedia — is that it was a production-company and not a BBC decision to end the programme. That’s quite refreshing. Even allowing for the fact that I was watching it over a relatively short span of time, it felt by series 10 like enough was enough. Another episode; another day in Spookworld. Another terrorist outrage averted here; another corrupt top-level appointee or politician unmasked there. Another intelligence agency up to no good here (take your pick — the CIA, the FSB, Mossad); another dodgy organisation with global tentacles up to no good there (the slightly preposterously named ‘Yalta’, for example).

It was smart. It was sexy. It was tech-y. It was exciting. Was it also a little too predictable? As soon as it was revealed in series 10 that new spook Erin Watts had a young child, it surely wouldn’t be long before the said child was kidnapped or murdered by bad guys. And indeed it wasn’t.

Somewhat predictable, then … except in one regard: the death rate among lead characters. Everybody was expendable. Nobody, but nobody (except Harry), was exempt, and not just in end-of-series cliffhangers either — from Helen in the second episode of series one to Danny, Zaf, Adam Carter’s wife, Adam Carter himself, and finally (the saddest one of all) Ruth. It’s a long, long list.

20 August

Peter Hennessy’s Winds of Change is excellent. No surprises there. I first discovered Hennessy via a work colleague who had been an undergraduate student of his at Queen Mary’s in London and spoke of him in reverential terms. I read Whitehall, his huge book about the history and inner workings of the civil service. He is a trusty guide and absolutely authoritative. He is a capable broadcaster, too; his is the voice I always listen out for as his media role as both ‘talking head’ and presenter has flourished over the last couple of decades.

In the preface to the first volume of his history of postwar Britain, Never Again, published in 1992 and covering the Attlee government, Hennessy refers to a project spanning the years from 1945 to 2000. Plans obviously changed. There has been at least a decade between each volume. The second, Having It So Good, encompasses the whole of the fifties. This volume covers only the years 1960 to 1964 but much of the media comment surrounding the book’s launch is of it completing a ‘trilogy’.

It is little surprise that Hennessy became a go-to academic for expert, objective analysis. As well as having encyclopaedic knowledge, he is also at ease in front of a microphone. And he writes like he talks, mixing magisterial insights with gossipy asides. “Poor Selwyn!”; “Very Rab.”

It helps that he has interviewed pretty much everybody that matters in British politics over the years. Liberal use of ‘private information’, often in footnotes and end-notes, combined with recently declassified documents and unpublished minutes of key meetings reinforces the sense as you read Hennessy that you are being offered privileged access to little-known, hush-hush stuff.

Hennessy specialises in what he calls the ‘hidden wiring’, the workings of government not ordinarily in the public gaze. This at times leads him to focus on such matters at the expense of other areas of importance and interest. For example, we return repeatedly to official (and top-secret) preparations for government in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Okay, but this reader at least would have expected in a history of sixties Britain a bit more than we get on social and cultural developments.

Hennessy has a keen sense of the absurd and the quirky; there’s half a page devoted, for example, to Selwyn Lloyd’s dog, Sambo. More often than not, such you-couldn’t-make-it-up stories — as in the extraordinary arrangements for the prime minister to use the AA roadside-phone network to contact the Number 10 switchboard in the event of a nuclear attack taking place when he was away from London — tell us something rather revealing about the state of Britain at that time.

I watched Lady Bird, another hugely enjoyable film starring the excellent Saoirse Ronan. It has a similar coming-of-age, teenage-angst theme as On Chesil Beach, though ultimately it’s less dark. It’s a tale of two strong-willed women — a mother and her daughter — and of things left unsaid.

24 August

I knew that after reading The Second Sleep I had to go back and re-read Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, another novel that plays around with history. I think I have read everything by Ben Elton, ever since his first novel Stark had me laughing out loud thirty or so years ago. For a long time he specialised in satirising whatever was the latest pop-culture obsession — drugs, talent shows, Big Brother-style fly-on-the-wall TV. Some of his books I enjoyed more than others. I loved Blast from the Past, but Inconceivable was less good. Some of his later efforts have been more historical — The First Casualty (the First World War) and Two Brothers (Nazi Germany).

This time around (no joke intended — the book concerns going back in time) the predictability of the characters in Time and Time Again grated a little. They are all larger than life, versions of Elton himself in a way. Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is the biggest, baddest ‘survivalist’ soldier around. Bernadette Burdette is the beautiful, loquacious free spirit he meets on a central European train, her every thought and utterance typical of the 2010s rather than the 1910s. Least believable of all is the foul-mouthed distinguished professor of history at Cambridge University who seems to think like a Sun editorial. Okay as a one-off maybe but then we meet the Lucian Professor of Mathematics, an “appalling media tart” who wears a ‘Science Rocks’ badge and says things like “Why in the blinking blazes was old Isaac getting his knickers in a twist?” Old Isaac being Sir Isaac Newton.

Nevertheless, one thing that Elton does brilliantly is plot. He is astonishingly imaginative, and although the basic set-up here is familiar — travelling back in time to change the past and therefore the future — Elton packs it with plenty of twists and turns. One, in particular, had me gasping (on p441 of the paperback). Nicely done, sir. I also liked the fact that the infamous assassination in Sarajevo happens (or rather, doesn’t happen) halfway through the book, allowing Elton to have plenty of fun with counterfactual histories.


More Books, TV & Film Chat


May

Rudolf Hess; Homeland; Agatha Christie; Salem’s Lot; Richard J Evans; To the Devil a Daughter

June

A classic international relations text; Richard J Evans, In Defence of History; James O’Brien

July

Philomena; On Chesil Beach; Richard J Evans; Robert Harris, The Second Sleep; Marxism


Books, TV and Films, July 2020


1 July

Some thoughts, to begin with, on Philomena and On Chesil Beach, two films I watched last week on the BBC and thoroughly enjoyed.

I was already aware of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book on which Philomena is based, from his time as a foreign correspondent at the BBC in the ’90s; it’s probably why I also vaguely remember his involvement in a bust-up with the Blair government a few years later. In Philomena the part of Sixsmith is played by Steve Coogan. He (Sixsmith) is not a particularly sympathetic character in my eyes: he is reluctant to take on the investigation at first (having been approached by Philomena Lee’s daughter to write about her mother who, as a young unmarried mother, was forced to give up her son by the Catholic Church in Ireland) and comes across as somewhat self-absorbed. His portrayal in the film carries the same sense of an exaggerated version of reality that is the central conceit of The Trip, the series in which Coogan stars with Rob Brydon.

The character of Philomena, played by Judi Dench, is satisfyingly multilayered. Initial impressions of her as merely eccentric, unworldly and frankly not very bright are quickly dispelled. She is quick to realise — and, despite her faith, to accept — that her son was gay and died of Aids. And despite the despicable way in which she had been (and, in the film version at least, continued to be) treated by the Catholic Church, she also comes across as dignified and remarkably forgiving. Sixsmith, on the other hand, is reduced to outbursts of impotent rage. Forgiveness is a central teaching of Christianity; but how many Christians would be able to find it in their hearts to be as forgiving as Philomena, I wonder.

I watched this just a few weeks after watching Spotlight, also based on a true story, about the work of a special investigations unit attached to the Boston Globe to expose the systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church, over a period of decades, of sexual abuse of children by priests. Both are powerful, disturbing and moving films, laying bare how innocent lives have been blighted by powerful institutional forces. And then I watched On Chesil Beach, which features malign influences of a different kind.

I read Ian McEwan’s novella a couple of years ago. I was particularly keen to watch the film adaptation because (a) McEwan himself wrote the screenplay and (b) it features Saoirse Ronan, a huge talent among the current generation of young actors.

It is set in 1962 but it might just as easily have been 1963, the year that sexual intercourse began, at least for Philip Larkin. Though the title references a place, I see this more as a story about a time — Britain after postwar austerity but before the so-called Swinging Sixties, when supposedly we never had it so good (yes, I am being a little unfair to Harold Macmillan with that misquote) — and about the dominant attitudes and mores of the era, not least with regard to sex.

This tale is a searing indictment of how we thought and behaved and preached and moralised and condemned, not really all that long ago: people’s lives — in this case Florence and Edward, but how many in reality, heterosexual as well as homosexual? — constrained, deformed and ultimately ruined by society’s prudish, repressive and in many cases hypocritical attitudes to sex.

Though much of the background story is told in flashback, the main setting for the film is the honeymoon suite of the couple’s hotel. The sniggering pageboys providing room service convey the immature, schoolboy-ish mentality that the Carry On series later so successfully lampooned. The couple are both virgins but their first night (well, afternoon) together is not a blissful consummation of their love; it is an ordeal to be overcome.

Edward is a fumbling, bumbling wreck, unable even to take off his pants. Florence has been reduced to taking tea with the local vicar and reading cold, mechanical sex manuals (think John Cleese classroom sketch in The Meaning of Life) to try and learn about sexual intercourse. She is clearly traumatised at the prospect of having sex. The film doesn’t make clear exactly why, but McEwan leaves us enough clues to suggest that it is as a result of childhood abuse from her father.

I interpreted the wild and unspoiled terrain of Chesil Beach itself as standing in stark contrast to the way in which the natural instincts of Florence and Edward have been repressed, controlled and restricted.

Great stuff from McEwan, as always. I seem to remember the ending of the book is different. It’s definitely on my shortlist to reread.

10 July

Richard J Evans’ The Third Reich in Power is turning into a mammoth undertaking. It’s a big book anyway (712 pages, not counting the extensive end-notes) and I have a lot of work on at the moment. I was hoping to read 50 pages a day but most days I’m only managing about 40.

I say this often but, in these benighted times when experts are widely distrusted and the meaning of words like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are seemingly up for grabs, it needs saying over and over again: what a joy it is to read a book like this, written by an acknowledged expert on the subject. There are the broad judgements he makes, of course: I particularly enjoyed the ‘revolutionary or reactionary’ discussion that ends the book. Sometimes, though, it’s little details and anecdotes. This one, in particular, caught my attention: on the morning after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been announced the front garden of Nazi Party headquarters was covered in party badges thrown there by disgruntled party members.

One thing about this book that really stands out is the way it is organised. It is divided into seven parts, each with four chapters and each of roughly similar length. This is clearly an artificial contrivance and yet it all fits together so beautifully. At no point does it really feel as if content has been placed in a certain section merely to fit the framework, though inevitably there is a lot of potential overlap between Mobilisation of the Spirit (propaganda, arts and culture) and Converting the Soul (religion, school, universities, the Hitler Youth).

19 July

A huge birthday treat — the latest Robert Harris novel, The Second Sleep, is just out in paperback. I have been waiting for this for ages. I think publication of the paperback edition may have been delayed because of the coronavirus emergency. I really like Harris anyway, but when I first read the synopsis I was genuinely excited because it covered favourite ground — time travel or, to be absolutely precise, playing around with history.

On Twitter someone asked what kind of stuff Harris writes. It took me a while to think of what to reply because, though all his books are rooted in history and/or politics, it ranges from ‘alternate reality’ (Fatherland) to novels that stick fairly close to actual events (An Officer and a Spy; Munich). I eventually answered: ‘Mainly well-plotted thrillers, often tied in with real historical events. Superbly researched.’

24 July

I finished the last 100 pages of The Second Sleep this morning. It certainly lived up to my expectations, ranging across several of my favourite fictional genres — mystery; thriller; history-twister (is that a genre?). It is brilliantly structured and genuinely gripping; we’re talking Robert Harris, after all.

I will need to go back and re-read the final 50 pages or so, I think. There are twists and turns aplenty, as you would expect with any good novel of this type. I was turning the pages so quickly by the end that there is much I doubtless missed. Nothing was quite as it seemed. I also found it to be refreshingly thought-provoking. Others have commented that it is an urgently needed ‘wake-up call’; it’s certainly hard to miss the many references to plastic.

As someone long interested in the science and reason versus faith and religion debate — and associating myself very clearly with one side of the argument — I found that the book added some welcome hues to my monochromatic thinking, illustrating the value and strengths as well as the dangers and weaknesses of both sides.

28 July

I repeatedly find myself drawn back to the world of left-wing politics and political ideas — specifically the heyday of the so-called New Left in the ’60s and ’70s and its precipitous decline in the ’80s. I am re-reading Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left by Paul Blackledge, which I first read three or four years ago probably.

I find this milieu endlessly fascinating. It’s the discussion of ideas that draws me in, encompassing political theory, philosophy, history, sociology and economics. No doubt it’s partly the challenge. Left-wing thinkers, in particular, seem to delight in abstruse theorisation. An appropriate level of abstraction, they might say; gobbledegook, others would doubtless counter. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton excoriates them mercilessly in his brilliant Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Sometimes you really do have to wonder if Scruton has a point:

John Roberts has criticised [them] for what he argues is a systematic confusion in their work between “the end of the avant-garde as the positivisation of the revolutionary transformation in action … and the avant-garde as the continuing labour of negation on the category of art and the representations and institutions of capitalist culture.”

from end-note 73 of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left

Putting this sort of tripe to one side, I find that, as I widen and deepen my reading, I am understanding more each time, especially as my very sketchy grasp of philosophy improves. Perry Anderson himself is a fascinating figure. Astonishingly well read, he was a leading left intellectual by his mid-20s, taking over the editorship of New Left Review at an extraordinarily young age and using it as a vehicle to introduce new left-wing thinking from continental Europe.

The history of the New Left, especially in the ’60s, is as much about generational divides and personality clashes as it is about theoretical arguments. Two interconnected threads of the story are of particular interest. The first is the debate, with Anderson at its centre, over why Britain never developed an indigenous Marxism, a debate that focused in part on rival interpretations of key moments of British history, especially the English Civil War. The second is the attempt, particularly associated with the historian EP Thompson, with whom Anderson repeatedly clashed, to articulate a socialist humanism in contradistinction to the mechanical, ‘scientific’ Marxism that was in vogue particularly in the ’70s.


Books, TV and Films, June 2020


6 June

After seeing a tweet from the great Steven Pinker a few days ago, I decided to reread Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans J Morgenthau.

It was a book that I used a lot at university. My own copy of it means a great deal to me. As I was constantly borrowing it from the library, I asked my parents to buy me a copy one Christmas way back when. This was long before Amazon and online shopping, of course. My parents would have been reluctant to go to a major city to visit an academic/university bookshop that might stock a copy, and so they ended up ordering a copy from a local bookshop. It arrived weeks later, beautifully bound but costing something like £25 — an awful lot of money for a book back then.

It is a classic of political science, not a work of history. Though half of my degree was in international relations, I consider myself a historian, certainly by inclination: I had originally chosen to do a joint degree with international relations because I was worried (with good reason at the time) that the history syllabuses would stop in or around 1945.

I quickly realised that I was far more comfortable with the contemporary history elements of the international relations course than with the analysis of contemporary systems and structures. Most of the books on the reading lists were American (like this one), and the pseudo-scientific, theoretical approach used to get on my nerves (I suppose that’s why it’s called political science … doh!). Sometimes it seems like they are just stating the obvious. Take this quote:

When we say that the United States is at present one of the two most powerful nations on earth, what we are actually saying is that if we compare the power of the United States with the power of all other nations … we find that the United States is more powerful than all others save one.

Hans J Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

Well, blow me down.

13 June

I finished the Morgenthau book today. It was originally published in the late-1940s (as the Cold War was kicking off). It was groundbreaking and highly influential in its day, not just on university campuses but in political and diplomatic circles. It went through several editions over the years. My copy (the sixth — and final? — edition) was published after the author’s death, with updating done by a professional colleague.

Leaving aside discussion of the ‘realist’ perspective that Morgenthau adopts, two thoughts about the book come to mind.

It is a long book, No doubt the process of preparing a new edition requires a great deal of time and effort, but the ‘joins’ between the original and newer sections of the text are glaringly obvious. Some of this sixth edition, published in the mid-1980s, seems to be the original, unaltered text written in the ’40s. Then there is the briefest of discussions of Nato and the ‘European Communities’, which clearly dates from the ’50s. In the section on the United Nations, meanwhile, statistical information stops abruptly at 1965 — presumably when that portion of the book was last updated. Other parts of the book, on the other hand, talk in some detail about Reagan and developments in the 1980s. I’m not sure that I noticed it at the time but now it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory.

The main takeaway, however, is how much the international scene has changed. Even my sixth edition was published in a ‘bipolar’ world that assumed a global struggle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. China was an impoverished minor actor on the world stage, taking its first faltering steps on the road to industrialisation. The environment is mentioned occasionally — though nothing as specific as climate change — and, according to the index, there is just a single reference in the whole book to terrorism.

15 June

As a longtime history teacher, I am listening in some despair to the ‘statues’ debate that has erupted following the death of George Floyd in the USA and to the discussion that surrounds it about the teaching of history. I was troubled by two comments from activists quoted in the Guardian in the last few days:

That history [of the nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased, it’s a lived reality for people in southern Africa, but it needs to be contextualised, it needs to be accurately represented and not glorified in the way it is today.

Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history …

I instinctively find phrases like “accurately represented” and “accurate portrayal” alarming. What worries me is that, other than those on the right with their own small-‘c’ conservative agenda, nobody seems to be picking this up. Before commenting further, I want to go back over a few things in my head, so I am rereading In Defence of History by Richard J Evans.

18 June

I am not quite sure why I thought the Evans book would be particularly helpful. It was written in 1997, primarily in response to the rise of postmodernism and the threat to what most people would think of as history. My main takeaway from the book is what utter drivel many of the so-called ‘intellectual historians’ and philosophers of history — people who focus on the theory and writing of history, not on the events of history itself — write. They do themselves no favours. Time and again they express their ideas in overblown, pretentious language, — or, as they might say, ‘at an appropriate level of abstraction’. It is as if they believe that writing in a way that is deliberately abstruse and impenetrable somehow proves how profound and worthy it is.

I suppose the book reinforces my conviction that there is no single, universally agreed, true story of the past ‘out there’ waiting to be told in the correct way. Talk of “an accurate portrayal of history” is therefore less than helpful. Accurate — according to whom? Who gets to decide?

23 June

I headed to my local Waterstones again today. If anybody is reading this years in the future, a visit to a bookshop is indeed noteworthy because all the shops have been shut for months due to the coronavirus pandemic and are only slowly, tentatively, reopening their doors.

I don’t have the second volume of Richard Evans’ history of Nazi Germany (I am working my way through the three volumes), so I thought I would go into the shop to buy it and show my support. Surprisingly, neither their large-ish Preston branch nor the smaller Wigan branch stocked any of the three volumes. Anyway, I ordered it and it arrived within two working days. Well done, them.

Mooching around the ‘buy one get one half-price’ tables, I picked up the latest Ian McEwan novel, Machines Like Us, and a book I have been itching to buy for some time: How to Be Right by James O’Brien. It feels like the perfect time to get a bit of clear thinking from O’Brien. The online clips from his radio phone-in show really are essential listening.

In a media world dominated by right-wing newspapers, loudmouth columnists and shock-jocks, O’Brien’s is a rare voice of the moderate centre-left. He is hated by those on the opposing side in our ever more visceral culture wars. Of course I am biased but he really does strike me as a voice of reason, with a refreshing willingness (in the book at least) on things like wearing a burqa in public to say: ‘I’m not sure’.

30 June

Well, the James O’Brien book was a quick read — just two days — though it is one I will doubtless dip into again and again. The paperback edition includes a short afterword and is another reminder of why I very rarely buy ‘current affairs’ books. It was written in April 2019 and is about Brexit. But the political landscape is changing so quickly that, already, it feels completely out of date. Much journalistic commentary — however insightful the writer — is inevitably contingent and quotidian, quickly superseded by events. Tomorrow’s chip paper. That’s why, though very tempted, I have resisted buying any of the books published about the Trump presidency.

That’s also why I no longer buy biographies of serving prime ministers or other new faces suddenly propelled into the limelight. I think the first one I ever bought was Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, One of Us, written I think in 1989. She was defenestrated a year later. Such books — another one I bought in the mid-’80s is Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution, written by another Guardian columnist of the time, Peter Jenkins (late husband of Polly Toynbee) — are best read now as historical texts, offering an insight into the mindset of the times in which they were written, rather than as reliable, in-depth accounts of what happened.

And finally this month, a quick mention of two films that I have just caught up with: Philomena and On Chesil Beach. Both absolutely delightful. Both unbearably sad. Both wonderfully acted. More thoughts on these and other things next month.


Enlightenment Now: Book Review

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world – fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy.

Diogenes

Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker (2018 edition)

I agree with Bill.

Gates, that is. Bill Gates. The front cover of the paperback edition of Enlightenment Now boasts a striking quote from the co-founder of Microsoft, multi-billionaire and philanthropist: “My new favourite book of all time”. Hyperbole? Well, perhaps, but Enlightenment Now is good, very good — an absolute must-read for progressives in these benighted times.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

Steven Pinker first appeared on my radar about six years ago when I took a chance on The Better Angels of Our Nature, the ‘other’ book in a Waterstones ‘Buy one, get one half-price’ offer. Something of a punt in the dark, this impulse purchase demonstrated the influence the high-street chain exerts through its store layout choices and promotional campaigns. Would I have selected the book in any other circumstances? Almost certainly not. Knowing nothing of the author (of whom, more below), the book was shouting ‘trendy’ (to be clear, that’s a bad thing), but I was intrigued by its self-stylisation as “a history of violence and humanity” as well as its breathtaking ambition. It wasn’t always like this.

By way of background, a mea culpa: I plead guilty to years of appalling narrow-mindedness. From sixth-form days way back when, my reading interests extended little further than modern British and European history and politics. One shelf after another filled up with books drawn from a narrow circle of academic historians, political biographers, politicians, broadsheet journalists — or some combination of the above, people like Michael Foot. Hidebound by conservatism, I indulged year after year in comfort reading, to the extent even of skipping the arts and culture surveys to be found in most general histories.

The rigid compartmentalisation condemned in CP Snow’s Two Cultures (which Pinker references) — the one scientific, the other literary — ensured that I neglected even to entertain the notion that a science-grounded book could be read for pleasure. This was less intellectual snobbery (Snow’s charge) and more the absence of three key intellectual attributes on my part: a solid grasp of basic science and mathematics, confidence and — most important of all — curiosity. Reluctant to sail beyond the near horizon, seasickness struck whenever I dared venture out of sight of the calm, comforting shores of modern political history.

Steven Pinker Enlightenment Now review Darren Waterworth

My own enlightenment — if that is not too grand a word — came achingly slowly, beginning with the occasional history of some earlier time or place; my interest in Marxism led me to the English Civil War, for example. Peter Ackroyd’s felicitous prose was a sure guide through the byways of early England, having chanced upon the initial volume of his planned six-volume history from a shop specialising in remaindered books (volume five came out recently). The Shield of Achilles by Phillip Bobbitt was a challenging but rewarding introduction to multi-disciplinary writing. By the time I picked up Peter Watson’s Ideas: A History about ten years ago, I was sold: an ambitious, sprawling ‘intellectual history’ of just about everything — from the beginnings of civilisation, language, religion and writing to the turn of the twentieth century and Freud, Nietzsche and modernism. Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is equally good on modern times.

I credit the incomparable Richard Dawkins with curing my myopia, enabling me to see that the scientific community is equally capable of writing in an elegant and arresting manner. The God Delusion combined an impressive knowledge of religion and ethics with science, history and philosophy. Now I read the likes of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Ancestor’s Tale for pleasure, even if the science quickly passes over my head (though Dawkins’s more recent The Magic of Reality — written for young people but great for buffoons like me — is a splendid introduction to the mysteries of the scientific world). A Damascene conversion of sorts.

Better Angels, then, chimed with my new-found interest in culture and ideas, principally science, philosophy and religion, and sprawling thematic histories. It delivered in spades. A Harvard professor, Pinker’s field is cognitive science, which (as best as I can narrow it down) involves the study of the use of language, the workings of the brain and psychology, the mind and human nature. But Pinker’s writing is a polymathic tour-de-force: he seems equally at ease with history, philosophy, political science, linguistics and statistics. He writes with utter believability, supporting his arguments with a staggering array of empirical evidence, regularly citing up-to-date research and effortlessly deploying pithy quotes from thinkers old and new.

His recent Enlightenment Now picks up the same central argument as Better Angels that — notwithstanding your everyday impressions and assumptions — the world is in fact becoming a better place. Not perfect, note, but better. Not the smallest achievement of the book is the reproduction of 88 graphs, carrying data on everything from calorie intake and childhood stunting to retirement, life satisfaction and loneliness, in order to demonstrate in visual form his core argument about human progress.

At first read, his thesis feels counter-intuitive and simply wrong, at odds with the news that confronts us every single day (he has a convincing theory about this too, of course). Just in the last few days, for example, we have read of an appalling massacre in Sri Lanka, of civil war in Libya, of unrest in Algeria and Sudan, of continuing austerity, cuts and rising debt, of rising knife crime, of air pollution, of species extinction and of other climate-change perils. A typical newsweek, in other words.

The sceptic might choose to start with Pinker’s thought experiment. Ask yourself when in history you would want to be born, assuming that you had no control over where in the world you were born, your economic and social circumstances, your gender, your skin colour, the state of your mental and physical health and so on. The answer, he says, is an emphatic one: you would want to be born now.

Pinker focuses not on the ephemeral, the quotidian or the blip — the stuff of the daily headlines — but on longer-term patterns and trends. The core of the book is a demonstration of his belief that human progress is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested. In one scintillating chapter after another, he does exactly that, examining everything from personal safety and war to education, health, longevity and so on.

Pinker is clear-sighted about the enemies of progress: intuition, religious faith and scripture, authority and unquestioned obedience. Too often, we deny the very fact of progress, and he outlines a variety of fallacies and cognitive biases — the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, negativity bias and so on — to which we are all prone. This is gripping stuff, our all-too-human flaws and failings. We are often unreasoning and irrational, generalising from anecdotes, seeking to confirm prior beliefs, reasoning from stereotypes, ignoring evidence that disconfirms and so on. Nevertheless, his case is that, since the Enlightenment two hundred years ago, we have used reason and science to improve our knowledge and understanding, to overcome our cognitive weaknesses and thereby enhance human flourishing.

He rejects the idea of any kind of ‘Grand Plan’, a cosmic force of God, nature or history propelling us inexorably forward. Progress has been hard-won and must not be taken for granted. We have learned to use the tools of reason to combat unreason and irrationality: free speech and open criticism, fact checking, empirical testing and sober, logical analysis. Pinker is a champion of science and scientific reasoning, and of humanism, the belief that the ultimate moral purpose is to enhance the flourishing of individual human beings (as opposed to the tribe, race, faith etc). He argues that forces of cosmopolitanism — education, art, mobility, urbanisation — have helped develop what he calls our ‘circle of sympathy’, our sense of compassion, our ability to empathise and our concern for the welfare of others. I remember a similar point being made about the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century by, I think, Sebastian Faulks.

Pinker is difficult to categorise. It would certainly be far too simplistic to pigeon-hole him as a ‘lefty liberal’. He believes in the efficacy of free trade, market-based economics and free enterprise (though not of unregulated, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism), detests ‘political correctness’ — something else that he believes inhibits progress by feeding the false narrative of populists and anti-progressives — and espouses a variety of policy positions anathema to many on the left. He is sanguine about developments in artificial intelligence, adopts a moderate position on climate change (in a nutshell, we have serious problems but it’s not all doom and gloom, and extreme solutions are not the answer) and supports nuclear power and genetic modification of crops.

We live in dark times. The forces of irrationalism and anti-progressivism are on the rise across the world: fascism, populism, nativism, authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism. Enlightenment Now is thus a profoundly welcome book, a worldview diametrically opposed to that offered by populists, demagogues and religious fanatics. It is a bible for progressives and a rallying cry for moderate, secular liberal democracy. Michael Gove famously claimed during the 2016 Brexit referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”. Pinker loudly and proudly proclaims the value of learning and of experts. He offers hope, but it is hope grounded not in faith but in reason and in evidence, welcome sustenance for even the most Panglossian of optimists.


Darkest Hour: Film Review


‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

Diogenes

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film — questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing — beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails — is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many — especially on the right — as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures, uncovering something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display, dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed — perhaps even applauded — as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and — the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate — struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene — controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings — serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the return to the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre — the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, with the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness, the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering, far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament — “In the name of God, go!” — is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs, a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.


Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.


‘Fake History’ and Film


Elizabeth I meets Mary, Queen of Scots! Churchill rediscovers his mojo on the Underground! Homosexual genius Alan Turing is blackmailed by Soviet spy John Cairncross at Bletchley Park! Hmmm. Memo to self: ‘Films based on historical events are not documentaries. Stop judging them as if they are.’

Diogenes

The above are not happenings in an alternate reality (to borrow some American sci-fi terminology) but scenes from films about real people, their lives mediated through ‘Hollywood’ — just three examples of what we might call ‘fake history’ offered up for our viewing pleasure in well-known films released over the last few years about famous people and/or events.

The buzz surrounding two recent films that focus on the lives of female monarchs from Britain’s past — Mary Queen of Scots (about the rivalry between the eponymous Mary and Elizabeth I) and The Favourite (set in the court of Queen Anne) — has poured lighter-fuel on a debate that seems to smoulder away all but unnoticed before re-igniting whenever a blockbuster film portraying iconic figures and events from the past is released.

Fake history Saving Private Ryan
Though lauded for its realistic depiction of war, Saving Private Ryan has also been much criticised for ignoring the role of the British armed forces and those of other countries in the D-Day landings.

The usual suspects — lower case, not the Kevin Spacey film — have again been hauled in to take up their place in the line-up of cinematic shame: films such as The Patriot, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, all charged with the heinous crime of playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’. The only surprise is that nobody appears to have brought up Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise comes within minutes of bringing down the Third Reich.

The debate about ‘fake history’ operates at a number of levels, with questions of historical accuracy morphing into arguments about how much fidelity to the facts actually matters and broader discussions about representations of the past.

At its simplest is a binary question, the answer to which is either ‘yes, this did happen, that’s accurate’ or ‘no, that didn’t happen, that’s not how it really was’. We’re not just talking feature films and television dramas, of course. Any self-respecting pub quizzer will doubtless remind us that, when Cassius declares in Julius Caesar that “The clock has stricken three”, Shakespeare had (deliberately or otherwise) penned an anachronism: mechanical clocks of that type were not around in the first century BC.

Playing ‘fake history’ is fun for all the family. BBC Bitesize (targeted at a young audience) recently ran an online article highlighting inaccuracies in eight popular films — the Alpine escape of the von Trapp family from the clutches of the evil Nazis in The Sound of Music, the death of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator, the clothing worn by thirteenth-century Scots in Braveheart. And so on.

There are deeper issues involved, however — not least the rather important question of what we mean by ‘the truth’ — and unsurprisingly these trickier matters attract the interest of heavyweight journalists and academic historians alike. In this latest round, for example, Oxford historian and BBC4 regular Dr Janina Ramirez was commissioned to write a piece on The Favourite for the Sunday Times. The Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins set out his views in a typically forthright piece headlined ‘The new threat to truth: fake history films’. He accused film-makers of claiming “the right to mis-sell films as history”, sexing them up with invention, out of fear that “accuracy will not put bums on seats”.

This terrain encompasses all ‘texts’, not just headline-grabbing films about famous people and events found on the school history curriculum. Take two other recent films, both of which might well have come with some variation or other of the words ‘based on real events’ attached. And what is ‘based on real events’ exactly — a neutral statement, a caveat, a disclaimer, a cop-out?

Fake history Stan and Ollie
Stan and Ollie depicts Stan arguing about money with Hal Roach on the set of Way Out West, with Ollie caught in the middle.

The first, Stan and Ollie, uses a Laurel and Hardy music hall tour of Britain in the twilight of their careers as a vehicle for exploring the duo’s relationship. As a narrative frame, it works brilliantly well, though I don’t know enough about their actual story to make confident assertions about how accurate it all is. My gut instinct is to doubt the literal ‘truth’ of certain events depicted, such as the on-set arguments between Stan and Hal Roach and Ollie’s collapse in Worthing, and the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as the scheming, oleaginous impresario, Delfont.

The second, meanwhile, I have discussed in detail elsewhere: the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that wields a knife with wilful abandon as it cuts the Queen story to shreds. Guitarist Brian May has spoken of his journey of understanding as an executive producer, ending (he says) with the realisation that a film is a very different beast from a documentary — but that both are valid artistic means of telling a story. He is, in essence, criticising those Queen fans unwilling or unable to see beyond the film’s cavalier approach to the facts. That formula — ‘based on real events’ — is, if nothing else, an elastic one. Maybe that’s part of the problem: how exactly are viewers expected to know how literally to believe what is being portrayed?

Fake history The Exception Himmler Kaiser Wilhelm II
The Exception suggests that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Wilhelm II in 1940 and offered him the chance to return to Germany as Head of State in a ruse to flush out anti-Nazi monarchists.

Of course, should we so choose, we refer to Wikipedia or whatever for (usually) in-depth analysis of the accuracy of this or that scene, portrayal or storyline. My immediate reaction after watching the excellent film The Exception, about Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in Holland in 1940, was to reach for a biography of the ex-German emperor to clarify how much of it was true (answer: not much). But how many of us ever bother? It’s a fair bet that many film-goers and TV-watchers don’t give the matter a second thought and/or don’t particularly care whether a film is accurate or not — as long as they are entertained.

The business of films, in more than one sense, is first and foremost to entertain — fair enough. Self-styled “public historian, broadcaster, author, and historical consultant to Film & TV” Greg Jenner disagrees with the Simon Jenkins line quoted above, tweeting recently about the importance of historians engaging with pop culture:

Historical films are not “fake history”; they’re stories. They aren’t documentaries and nor do they try to be. So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves) these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.

Greg Jenner

In other words, if films are stimulating public interest in the past, that’s surely a good thing, right? Jenner says that historians are taking part “in droves”. I accept that it would be churlish to ignore or downplay the tireless efforts of a wide range of academics and others (a big shout-out here to classroom teachers) to engage with the public via an ever-widening variety of platforms — from websites and podcasts to public lectures and TV programmes.

But a nagging question remains: beyond a stratum of enthusiastic, educated amateur history buffs — to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen” — how much actual purchase is there at grassroots level among non-history buffs? I refer, perhaps, to those who drink at that bustling yet ever so elusive pub, the Dog and Duck, spoken of in hallowed terms by politicians and media commentators alike, where issues of the day are discussed by ‘ordinary’ folk over a warm pint of beer or glass of wine.

I also accept that, although accuracy obviously matters a great deal in historical re-creations, it isn’t the be-all and end-all — and perhaps not even the most important element of a film. A film may include plenty of inaccuracies, even wholly fictionalised situations, and yet still be bloody good, as Stan and Ollie certainly showed (assuming the narrative isn’t all literally true). After all, most if not all the dialogue in every historical film is made up: who knows who said what to whom in reality?

A great artist — actor, writer or director — uses their raw material — part-fact, part-fiction — to capture and convey the essence of a person or situation, hopefully revealing deeper or more complete truths. In that sense, even if some of it didn’t really happen, Stan and Ollie still stands up as an utterly delightful window into the world of Laurel and Hardy, funny, moving and sad, a warm-hearted, bittersweet film about friendship, fame and the inexorable passing of time.

I further agree that it is naive and simplistic to expect ‘the truth’ (singular). A ‘text’ — a book, a play, a film, a painting — is a representation (literally, a re-presenting) of the past, an authorial construct based at least in part on the selection and presentation of information. As the historian Anthony Beevor has argued persuasively, the price of supping with the Hollywood devil is stomaching a degree of creative licence for film-makers with regards to ‘what really happened’.

At its worst, however, this Faustian pact leads to oversimplification (not to mention ‘dumbing down’), serious distortion and the flattening of individuals and historical situations into one-dimensional caricatures. It filters out complexity, balance, nuance, ambiguity and paradox. It does not permit doubt, ambivalence and confusion. In other words, it comes at the expense of the stuff of reality and cheapens the study of the past. Ask John McDonnell, who foolishly accepted the request to reduce the life and career of Winston Churchill to a single word.

Films are also products of their time, reflecting the mood, norms and expectations of the day. However, unless handled skilfully by writer and director, they can end up seeming uncomfortably forced and contrived. Darkest Hour, the 2017 film dealing with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, is an intriguing case in this respect. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges.

Fake history Darkest Hour Underground Winston Churchill
Darkest Hour includes an entirely fictional scene set on the London Underground.

In the film, a key supporting player is therefore a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary in the typing pool, she is manoeuvred close to the action and the locus of power, often involved in one-to-one situations with Churchill. Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

A David Low cartoon from 1940. The caption read:”Very Well, Alone”. This mood of popular defiance was a feature of the fictional ‘Churchill on the Underground’ scene in the film Darkest Hour.

In the film’s ‘Underground’ scene — wholly fictional, of course — the passengers (a handy cross-section of the British people — men, women and children) are united, defiant and resolute. It is like a David Low cartoon brought to life, a re-creation of the mood portrayed in the official propaganda films of the time and later mythologised as ‘the spirit of the Blitz’. It is a version of history for the Brexiteers.

One of the passengers is a young black man, who appears to be in the company of a white woman — whether friend, lover or spouse is left unclear. While not wholly implausible in 1940, this depiction of relaxed attitudes to inter-racial relationships (and even friendships when involving people of the opposite sex) nevertheless feels anachronistic, and it is certainly very different from attitudes portrayed in the recent Rosamund Pike/David Oyelowo film set partly in late-’40s Britain, A United Kingdom.1

And of course, as consumers of history — watchers of films, readers of books etc — we sprinkle our diet with liberal (small ‘l’) helpings of our own beliefs, values and biases. With our relationship with the European continent currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, and with much hyperbolic talk about threats to our freedom, Darkest Hour resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst. Would the ‘ordinary’, non-political, non-Eurosceptic viewer have felt this way about the film ten years ago, say?

Or take the films of Mel Gibson as both actor and director. Now something of a bête noire of the film industry and the wider public2, how much are people’s opinions of his work influenced by opinions of the man (drunk, misogynist, Christian extremist, anti-Semite are some of the labels attached to him)? Or, mutatis mutandis, re-read this paragraph, replacing the name in the first sentence with ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Kevin Spacey’.

As a keen student of history, I feel protective of the people, events and circumstances of the past, and instinctively recoil at falsification, at bias and at individuals and their reputations being brazenly glorified or traduced. When I open a history book — especially on the many topics about which I know little or nothing — I bring to it certain expectations and assumptions. First and foremost, I want accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Secondly, I trust that the representations shown to me — and judgements offered — by the writer are judiciously reached, based on the best available evidence. I want to learn about three-dimensional characters, not black-and-white ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Where doubt about the evidence exists, I want it to be made clear that doubt exists.

Fake history Adolf Hitler Downfall
Bruno Ganz’s brilliant performance in Downfall was both celebrated and criticised for ‘humanizing’ Adolf Hitler.

Is it too much to expect all this of a film — and to be entertained as well? In the week of Bruno Ganz’s death, it is worth remembering what can be achieved. Though no Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps known to many people only via much-circulated social media memes with joke subtitles, Downfall — and particularly Ganz’s electrifying portrayal of Adolf Hitler — demonstrates that films can indeed combine serious, well-researched history and gripping entertainment. More, please.


Ralph Miliband Biography Review


A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles — not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

Diogenes

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left by Michael Newman

Twenty years on, I can still vividly recall scanning the shelves of the university library — me, an eager second-year history/politics undergraduate — in search of a Marxist critique of fascism and happening across a book by Nicos Poulantzas. Three hours, one much-thumbed dictionary, two headache tablets and five pages later, I gave up. My next encounter with the World of Marx was Professor David McLellan’s 1973 biography of Marx himself: well researched and worthy, to be sure, but dense and daunting for the uninitiated. Finding Ralph Miliband was something of a revelation, therefore, for here was a academic — what’s more, an avowedly Marxist academic — with both the ability and the willingness to elucidate Marxist ideas in an accessible way.

Miliband’s most influential book — The State in Capitalist Society — transformed the political sciences in the 1970s and provoked a famous debate with the aforementioned Poulantzas, in part concerning the role and importance of abstract theorising. Poulantzas championed an ultra-theoretical school of Marxism that shunned empiricism and seemed to glory in abstruse theorisation. For these ‘Althusserians’, Marxism had its own discourse, purposely distinct from much of the terminology and assumptions of ‘bourgeois’ debate and thus intelligible only to those who could decode its arcane meanings. Miliband, on the other hand, always sought to test even the most basic of assumptions within the Marxist tradition with reference to the ‘real world’. Moreover, Marxism was much more than a theory for Miliband: it was a guide to action.

As Michael Newman’s book shows, Miliband was an academic, a teacher but, above all, a committed socialist, happiest when he felt he was contributing to the advancement of the left. Thus, in Parliamentary Socialism — the book that secured his international reputation in 1962 — by analysing the reasons for the Labour Party’s failure to implement ‘socialism’, he was implicitly offering a guide to future action. Apart from a brief flirtation with the Bevanites in the 1950s and the Bennite left in the 1980s, Miliband kept his distance from the Labour Party, highly sceptical as he was of its efficacy as an agent of socialist change. He spent his adult life in the ultimately fruitless search for a suitable vehicle to secure a political breakthrough, wedded to the belief that only a class-based political party could do so.

Born in 1924 into a Jewish home, Miliband’s political consciousness was awakened by the Nazi menace in the late-1930s. Though the death camps cast a dark shadow over his childhood and youth, Miliband was one of a number of European refugees who escaped the clutches of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in Britain and going on to form the nucleus of a radical intelligentsia that helped shape the cultural, academic and — to an extent — political landscape of the 1960s and early-70s. Indeed, Miliband lived through a remarkable, if turbulent and ultimately unsuccessful, period for the left. This book is in part, therefore, also a history of the British left from the twin crises caused by de-Stalinisation and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 through the upheavals of 1968 to the challenge of Thatcherism and the collapse of Soviet-type communism.

In writing the book, Newman had access to family, friends and Miliband’s own letters and papers, including a diary and notes made in 1983 for a planned but never completed autobiography. Newman uses this impressive selection of primary source material to paint a convincing portrait of the ‘private’ man as well as the more familiar public figure. His style is — like Miliband’s own — both accessible and, on the whole, eminently readable. A strength of the book is that, throughout, the reader senses that judgements made are balanced and fair, sympathetic to the man but not blinkered to his mistakes, failures and personal foibles, not least a tendency to irascibility and impatience towards others as well as moments of self-doubt and, on occasion, fierce self-criticism.

On the other hand, given the breadth of Miliband’s interests and concerns, judicious editing might have resulted in a more balanced book. Several extracts from Miliband’s work are quoted verbatim and at excessive length. Elsewhere, 13 pages are devoted to ‘the troubles’ at the LSE in 1968 and an entire chapter to his involvement in a campaign for academic freedom. This particular reader frankly hoped for less description and rather more in the way of reflection on matters such as Miliband’s position on academic freedom (which was somewhat inconsistent), his widening disagreements with others on the New Left vis-à-vis the nature and role of the working class by the 1980s and the wisdom of his wish to see a Marxist party of a non-dogmatic nature filling the void between the Labour Party and the Leninist CPGB (which he held in little short of contempt). Tightly written summaries of Miliband’s ideas and actions and relevant narrative would have given Newman more space for his own analysis, commentary and judgements.


This review relates to the edition published in 2002 by Merlin Press. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.


The Bibliophile’s Curse

I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes… I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

Diogenes

First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?

Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.

I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.

It started here: probably the first history book I ever bought.

At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.

A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War and Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess of the D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. My ‘main’ read — picked up at various points of the day — alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a — crikey — 5:1 ratio.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down — rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable, at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.

It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.

And so to The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book — and why now?

Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words — usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ — about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.

Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be — at least in part — historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet the Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds — fiction and non-fiction — it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.

Magical, in more ways than one. But, at 1000 pages, have I time to read it again?

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything — past or present — by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again are bona fide page-turners.

Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.

A prized possession: this cost me £2.95 in 1981.

I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name of the Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath — an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.

And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…


Aneurin Bevan Biography Review

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator — a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers.

Diogenes

Nye Bevan by John Campbell

Arguably, Aneurin Bevan, the miner-turned-politician who became in roughly equal measure the darling of the British labour movement and the bête noire of the right-wing establishment, is better remembered than any other member of the historic 1945–51 Labour government — better than his colleagues Ernie Bevin (part-architect of NATO), Stafford ‘Austerity’ Cripps and even the prime minister himself, Clem Attlee. This is because Bevan’s name will be forever linked in the public consciousness with the NHS, which, as minister of health, he brought into being in 1948.

Unlike every other political issue of that era — it pre-dates serious squabbles over Europe by more than a decade and outlasted the Cold War— the health service continues to excite debate and controversy today. In this splendid biography, John Campbell examines the pertinent issues: the extent to which the NHS was Bevan’s own creation; his dealings with interested parties such as the BMA; the administrative and financial structures put in place to support this audacious social experiment; and the post-1948 political fallout.

Tellingly, however, Campbell devotes a mere 30 or so pages directly to the NHS — though indirectly it casts a lengthy shadow across the latter half of the book and the final decade of his life — because there was, in fact, so much more to this remarkable figure, a combustible mix of self-taught intellectual, instinctive rebel, eager, ambitious minister and charismatic leader. Campbell provides us with a fully rounded portrait of the man as well as analysing his impact on the Labour Party. He tackles with impeccable balance the highs and lows of Bevan’s life: the (relatively few) periods of triumph as well as the more frequent times of struggle, failure and schism — not to mention odd moments of bathos, most notably the publication of an eagerly anticipated book In Place of Fear in 1952.

Bevan was a passionate man, a man of unimpeachable integrity and honesty, a great orator (indeed, one of the towering parliamentary speakers of the century) and an able minister and administrator — a true political heavyweight. Yet, we sense also an imperious temperament, a restless and ambitious spirit, prone to bouts of petulance and arrogance, and demanding unquestioning loyalty from his devoted followers. Moreover, it becomes apparent that his judgements about politics, about future developments, about the nature of mankind no less, were often seriously flawed, a consequence of a deterministic Marxism that he learnt in his youth and carried almost to the grave.

The controversies surrounding Bevan did not end with his untimely death in 1960. The party wounds of the 1950s, patched up for the 1959 hustings, were reopened well before the election of Wilson’s unhappy government in 1964. Thus, the first volume of Michael Foot’s biography, published in 1962, brilliantly written to be sure, is hagiographic and tendentious and reads best, as Campbell himself says, as “an episode in the long-running civil war” within the party.

Foot, himself a born rebel and Bevan’s acolyte-in-chief, refused to serve in Wilson’s first government and then renewed the fight with a second volume in 1973. In an excellent introduction, Campbell deals with Bevan’s political legacy, particularly the claim made for Bevan’s imprimatur by a host of Labour politicians (the latest, to update Campbell, being John Reid, Blair’s health secretary since 2003) as they re-brand and re-invent policies — or (increasingly) consign them to the dustbin — and seek to sell a new manifesto to a deeply sceptical and conservative movement.

John Campbell is a fine, experienced biographer, scrupulously fair in the judgements that he reaches. The book is authoritatively written and meticulously researched, marred only by a handful of proofing errors. I confess to finding one ‘Wildean’ slip (a reference to Alan Bullock’s book Earnest Bevin [sic] in the bibliography) highly amusing but, as a reader with no knowledge of the publishing world, I am puzzled as to why such errors should remain to blight later editions of published works. This book was originally published under the title Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism in 1987 and re-issued with an abridged title ten years later, presumably to mark the coincidence of the centenary of Bevan’s birth and Blair’s first landslide.

Reading Campbell opens a window on the politics of a bygone era, allowing us to draw comparisons with modern times. Take age, for example. With Tony Blair having been prime minister for seven years by the time he reached 50, it is fascinating to learn that Bevan himself was the most junior member of the 1945 Cabinet aged 47. Or, take the press. Setting the headlines Bevan received c1951 alongside the obituary notices of a decade later, reminds one of the kicking meted out to Tony Benn, Bevan’s successor as Labour’s bogey man in the 1970s and 1980s — now rather fondly admired as a harmless, slightly eccentric, elder statesman.

The writer uses a 1997 introduction to update us on important political developments in the decade since the first edition; the main text, however, seems to be untouched and, as Campbell went to some trouble to relate the political controversies in Bevan’s life to the issues of the 1980s (particularly Neil Kinnock’s battles to modernise party policy vis-à-vis nationalisation and unilateralism), the reader is left with an unmistakeable sense of the ephemerality and sheer unpredictability of modern politics. For example, writing in 1987, Campbell was obviously taking seriously predictions of the Labour Party’s terminal electoral decline (p253 — “Some would say [the 1951 election defeat] was the beginning of the end of the Labour Party”); a mere 14 years later in 2001 it was the Conservatives about whom such prognostications were being uttered.

I thoroughly recommended this marvellous book to political animals and the intelligent general reader alike.


This review relates to the edition published in 1997. It was uploaded to Amazon in 2004.


Bill Clinton Autobiography Review

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional — and brief — pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next.

Diogenes

My Life by Bill Clinton

Jed Bartlet, the fictional US president in TV’s The West Wing, is a political hero of mine, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself instinctively warming to Bill Clinton. The Bartlet character is, in part, a reflection of Clinton — a deeply religious, hard working, liberal internationalist, driven by the desire to serve community and country.

A self-styled ‘New Democrat’, Clinton first came to national prominence as governor of Arkansas in the 1980s. Architect of the once-fashionable ‘Third Way’, Clinton modernised the progressive message by co-opting core ideas from the conservative agenda (fiscal hawkishness, family values, work not welfare) and infusing them with a strong belief in social justice and opportunity for all. Along the way, he revitalised a factious Democratic Party, forced the Republicans to the wilderness of the radical right and blazed a trail for his soulmate Tony Blair to follow in Britain after 1994.

I approached this autobiography with some trepidation — as well as a dictionary of American idioms and an atlas. Though a keen student of politics, I am a novice with regard to American government; its systems, structures and procedures seem arcane and baffling. Another potential obstacle for the British reader is the vernacular of American politics, a problem compounded by the folksy, conversational style of Clinton’s writing. Hence, I’m still not au fait with the politics of campaign finance reform, ‘soft money’ and the rest and Clinton’s confession that, during preparations for the 1996 presidential TV debates, George Mitchell “cleaned my clock” just mystified me.

Aside from the Bartlet parallels, it is evident that the Clinton presidency has proved a rich seam of storylines and subplots for The West Wing, as well as helping this reader negotiate his way through the White House labyrinth. Thus, I was suitably prepared for the bizarre tradition of pardoning a turkey each Thanksgiving; meanwhile, issues as diverse as brinkmanship in the Taiwan Straits, America’s refusal to sign an anti-landmines treaty and backstairs haggling with congressional movers and shakers all have a familiar feel.

My Life is really two books spliced together – the one more enjoyable than the other. The weaker ‘Book 2’ covers the years of Clinton’s presidency. Written as a breathless narrative, this diary of events is a whistle-stop tour of domestic and (especially) international politics — a handy primer, perhaps, for first-year politics undergraduates — with everything from trade relations with South America to climate change negotiations meriting a paragraph or so.

A thematic approach might have allowed a more coherent analysis of Clinton’s overall record in office. On the other hand, the book at least has the advantage of raising issues as Clinton experienced them at the time (with occasional — and brief — pauses for reflection); day-to-day events are not neatly compartmentalised. One is frequently astonished by the bewildering pace of modern public life as Clinton lurches from one critical issue to the next. Even opportunities for mourning — whether for family (his mother), close friends and colleagues (Vince Foster) or political leaders (Yitzhak Rabin) — are sharply curtailed in the maelstrom of activity, and Clinton himself questions the extent to which he was truly master of ceremonies.

Less welcome is the overwhelming sense that everyone, but everyone, merits a line; My Life reads in places like a roll-call of thanks, of debts acknowledged and repaid. Yet, we are told that the final draft omitted “countless” numbers of people along the way. Central to Clinton’s survival and success in the cut-throat world of American politics was his remarkable ability, from a young age, to stockpile friendships (the so-called FOB — ‘Friends of Bill’) and build up networks of powerful acquaintances across the social spectrum who could be mobilised when required to campaign tirelessly on his behalf.

This is a major thread running through ‘Book 1’ — the years before 1993. At times, the young Clinton comes across as almost too earnest: the reader comes to expect each paragraph to end with a lesson gleaned from each experience or happenstance of life. Nevertheless, it’s an appealing story of an intelligent and thoughtful young man raised in a poverty-stricken southern state struggling to come to terms with trends in postwar society, through university (including two years at Oxford) under the shadow of Vietnam and ultimately to a career in politics.

Some readers will buy this book to read about the scandals that bedevilled his time in office. It is, of course, Clinton’s opportunity to present his own version of events but there is enough soul-searching and self-criticism throughout the book to convince me of his basic integrity, humanity and overwhelming commitment to public service. If his version of the ‘Whitewater’ story is one-sided then it is arguably a welcome corrective after incessant mudslinging by a largely hostile and partisan media, happy to accept financial backing from implacable opponents of Clinton and to weigh in with presumptions of guilt. Revealingly, Clinton refers to ‘Whitewater World’. He is implying, in effect, that the obsessives who lived the story year-on-year were ‘on another planet’ but it also suggests a psychological need to ‘box off’ Whitewater in his own mind in order to get on with the day-to-day job of governing.

The absence of prurient detail is welcome but his sexual shenanigans did have a major impact on his life story: they put his marriage under intense strain, almost cost him the Democratic nomination in 1992 and led to an impeachment trial. Yet, the first reference to his adultery only comes during his account of the Gennifer Flowers furore at the time of the New Hampshire primary in early-1992. Politicians are, of course, entitled to a private life that is private but this politician has written his autobiography — My life not My Political Life — and one is left in this case with a nagging sense of a lack of full disclosure.

This review relates to the hardback edition, published in 2004. It was uploaded to Amazon in August 2004. Other than stylistic updates, the only alteration to the text is the addition of several paragraph breaks and of the word ‘nagging’ in the final sentence.