Monday, January 4, 2010

This way to the mad house

February 1669 had Samuel Pepys entertaining young relatives in London. One afternoon he had them head off for entertainment, viewing the lunatics in Bedlam. Today, of course, we can see at home to watch reality TV to the same effect.

Malcolm gets his jollies observing the inanities and insanities regularly provided at Iain Dale's Diary. Every visit provides a new piece of mockery. And yet ... once in a while, it also provides food for thought, as for example the droll selection of his "Top Ten Westminster Novels". As Malcolm half predicted, it didn't take too long for the name of that great prose-stylist, Jeffrey Archer, to get ticked.

Then that same thread took a twist: Dale was asked for, and supplied a list of political autobiographies (originally from 2006). Again, that was provocative for Malcolm.
  • First, because it begs the question of what a politician's reflections are for. Do they help us to understand the individual, the problems faced, and the contemporary scene, thus expanding the history? Or are they merely self-serving, self-aggrandisement and self-exculpation?
  • Second, because Nigel Lawson's A View from Number Eleven is in Dale's list. A worthy choice, but Dale qualifies it as a Huge book with perhaps a little too much economics for my liking, but a fantastic record of the Thatcher government. To be strictly accurate the title is The View from No.11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical, and now out-of-print. What really gripes there is that a long-serving former Chancellor, and former city editor of the Sunday Telegraph, should be held liable for a little too much economics.
  • Third, because it omits the most obvious candidate (and not just obvious for Tories): Churchill's memoirs of the Second World War, written to employ himself during the Attlee years. This is best approached in the abridged version, republished in 1996 and still being advertised. It remains a door-stopper, some 1088 pages. Then one can go to later sources and find what Churchill was coerced into leaving out (the Ultra material, for one obvious example, without which many episodes are rendered inadequately).
  • Fourth, because it started Malcolm on a new notion ...
Are there any worthwhile Irish political autobiographies?

Malcolm instantly discounted Bertie Ahern's offering. The full skinny on Ahern will take a long while in the making, and it won't be helped materially by the man himself.

Albert Reynolds brought out his autobiography about the same time. It is no great deal either: at least Reynolds had the good grace to acknowledge a "collaborator" (i.e. a ghost writer), Jill Arlon. For the record, Ahern's collaborator was Richard Aldous, who has a respectable day-job at UCD.

The only other Taoiseach to pen his account of himself, and by a country mile the most readable, has been Garret Fitzgerald in All in a Life, published back in 1991. That one certainly qualifies for the short list.

After that, Malcolm was reduced to scanning his shelves for further ideas. Two popped out at him:
  • Noel Browne's Against the Tide also goes on the list. This is a Marmite book, like it or loathe it (and most readers will experience both in the reading). Brown was a difficult, if not impossible man. He could alienate with the best. Yet he was also driven by the best of intentions. Here he is frank about his own frailties (which exceeded even his own estimate). What ensures this book's place is the background, in particular the débâcle that was the Mother-and-Child scheme and Browne's personal nemesis. If there needs to be evidence laid, further to vilify Seán MacBride and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, here it is.
  • Which brings Malcolm neatly to Maud Gonne MacBride's A Servant of the Queen, as deceptive a piece as one could wish. It was written as a catch-penny in 1938. It avoided her relationship with Millevoye, disguised Iseult as "my lovely niece", renames her half-sister (who was herself illegitimate), and abbreviated itself conveniently with Gonne's disastrous marriage to MacBride. Willie Yeats has a walk-on (but not a sleep with) part. It ornaments a book-shelf, but tells us little.
For something more rousing, we might have to look at Dan Breen's My Fight for Irish Freedom, dating from 1924. Some see it as a first-hand account of the War of Independence and the Civil War. others feel it should be shelved alongside Zane Grey and other Wild West fiction. Time would be far better spent with Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound and The Singing Flame.

Were it not for reliable, if antique, stand-bys like John Mitchel's Jail Journal, Malcolm would be in total despair. Of the others here, only a couple of those could be recommended unconditionally.

So, somewhat defeated, Malcolm goes off in a deep huff, to mock the loonies.
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