Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Kind of Blue
Ken Clarke (MacMillan: £25; e-book £ 6.64)
Electronic book pricing remains a mystery. However one hopes that such an enjoyer and partaker of so many fabulous lunches as Ken Clarke is not disheartened that this equally fabulous book is selling for less than the price of a modest starter at Ronnie Scott's, one of his favourite jazz haunts. The title of this political memoir can only relate to the musical interests of the author: witty, erudite, self effacing, searingly honest, bon viveur. This book is a welcome relief among many a dull retelling of days in office and attempts to perhaps rewrite perceived ill reporting of past policies, or simply attempts to fill less full pockets.
Ken Clarke came from humble beginnings, had the benefit of a traditional education and went on to Cambridge, where he cut his political teeth with colleagues who (small world that politics can be) reappear years later as political bosses, colleagues but still friends.
There is never a dull moment while we follow the rise of the author through the departments of trade, health, education and ultimately to Chancellor and Lord Chancellor, serving Thatcher, Major and Cameron. Clarke does not stop short at honest assessments of immediate predecessors in office and those around him: John MacGregor “had presided over the (education) department in an exceptionally calm and inactive way even for someone of his measured temperament”.
Of course, Clarke was at the centre of two memorable political events, the UK's ignominious withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and the removal from office of Margaret Thatcher. He confirms he was the first minister to see her in her infamous one to one meetings, and he was straight with her, encouraging colleagues to do likewise, although he clearly had great admiration for her.
A busy practice at the Bar, while taking late trains to and from London while running a constituency, demonstrates the ways of a traditional politician.
However, he will now be forever be remembered as the sole Tory to vote against the bill imposed on Parliament by the law, and for his now infamous “down the rabbit hole” speech. For Europe is at his core, what he calls a “sound pro-European”. He saw the legislation which took the UK into Europe and now watches on as that same House, for which he has the deepest affection, reverses that legislation. Needless to say, he has something to say on Cameron's decision to hold a referendum.
As Sammy Cahn wrote in 1960, “Ain't that a kick in the head.”
The Long and Winding Road
Alan Johnson (Bantam Press: £16.99; e-book £9.99)
This is the third volume of Alan Johnson’s autobiography. The title of this, along with the first two, This Boy and Please, Mr Postman, discloses one of his first loves, music in general and the Beatles in particular. After reading the journals of most politicians (something I try to avoid where possible), one is usually left with the impression that their 500 or so pages of self-aggrandisement could have been easily compressed into 50. In Johnson’s case, the complete opposite is true.
His story is a truly remarkable one. Born in a west London slum just after the war, his family was abandoned by his father. His mother struggled thereafter, dying at age 43. Thereafter Johnson was supported by his elder sister. Aged 16, she somehow managed to acquire the tenancy of a council house and keep the family out of care. From there, his career started as a postman on the rounds, rising to the top of what was then the United Communication Workers’ Union. He came to public notice as the coordinator of a successful campaign to oppose privatisation of the Post Office, no mean feat since his opponent was a steadfast Michael Hesletine. He became an MP in 1997 after an approach from Tony Blair, the latter being concerned, even 20 years ago, that Parliament was filling up with people who knew nothing of the world apart from their degrees in politics and jobs as political interns.
He held a variety of posts including Home Secretary, Minister for Education and Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, helping to avoid some ludicrous name changes. Those who favour acronyms might consider those he rejected – Minister for Health, Education & Lifelong Learning (HELL) or Secretary of State for Productivity, Energy, Industry and Science (PENIS). Unusually for a politician he highlights his mistakes as much as, if not more than, his achievements, and there is virtually none of the cheap point scoring which often helps sell such books. This is one of the more balanced views of what historians will surely mark down as a turbulent period in British history.
Not only is Alan Johnson’s story a fascinating one, the whole trilogy is superbly written. I believe that no ghost writers were involved. The first and second volumes won the Orwell Prize and the National Book Award for Autobiography respectively. If, like me, you tend to shy away from political memoirs, you might do well to make this book and its predecessors your exceptions.
Mick Herron (John Murray: £14.99; e-book £9.99)
Mick Herron is, for my money, one of the very best writers around. This is his 10th novel, and the fourth in the terrific Slough House series, which features a group of misfit British intelligence operatives, known disparagingly as the “slow horses” – the addicts, the screw-ups, the just plain obnoxious – who are too much trouble to sack. Instead, they’re transferred to menial work in an ill-kept office building, in the hope that they’ll get fed up and walk away. And it would be entirely understandable if they did, given that Slough House is presided over by one of the great creations of modern fiction: the appalling, odoriferous and foul mouthed, yet oddly sympathetic, Jackson Lamb.
Spook Street starts with seemingly unconnected events: a suicide bombing in a London shopping centre, and an attempt to assassinate a senescent, retired spy. There is, of course, a link; and it’s one which the slow horses will discover, although in doing so they will unearth long-buried secrets of both the espionage and familial types. As with all of Herron’s work the plotting is clever and intricate, and the mood – which I can only describe as nihilism tinged with hope – is keenly attuned to our times. But the real joy is in the writing: wry, elegant and literate, with astutely deployed laugh-out-loud humour. Spook Street is every bit as good as its predecessors, which is to say that it is, at the very least, a minor masterpiece. I’m already impatient for the next one.
SAS: Rogue Heroes
The Authorized Wartime History
Ben McIntyre (Viking: £25; e-book £12.99)
Some may know Ben McIntyre best as a respected Times journalist. Others may know him better for his wartime books, so astonishing that they read like fiction. These include Agent Zigzag, the remarkable story of double agent, Eddie Chapman, and Operation Mincemeat, recounting the astonishing piece of wartime deception involving the planting of a dead body with false papers designed to divert Nazi attention from Normandy as the site of the proposed Allied invasion.
His latest book is the first authorised book concerning the SAS. For a mere £975 you could acquire a copy of the SAS War Diary; for rather less buy this instead – it does contain some facsimiles of original documents. The regiment was the brainchild of Scottish eccentric David Stirling. In its early days it was made up of a bunch of maverick misfits who were not typical army material. What they all had in common was extraordinary courage and resourcefulness. If you were daft enough to think that special forces are in any way glamorous, allow McIntyre to disabuse you of this notion.
The original concept of the SAS was regarded by some old-school generals as not quite cricket. Stirling had to enlist the help of Churchill (and his son Randolph, an early member) to ensure the regiment survived an early, disastrous operation. After the first months it never looked back. Its effectiveness was such that the SAS has its clones in most armed forces throughout the world. Such was the fear and uncertainty which its operations sowed that Hitler ordered his soldiers to breach the Geneva Convention and execute any prisoner found behind enemy lines, even those in uniform.
The terrible pressures under which these men operated, first in North Africa, then in Europe (with their next posting already organised for Japan had circumstances not intervened) are described in remarkable and gripping detail. Read this and separate reality from myth. A five star book.