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Tony Benn: a Biography

From terror to treasure.

Tony Benn: a Biography
Jad Adams
Biteback, 560pp, £14.99

“Most Labour politicians start on the left and end up in the House of Lords," Tony Benn is fond of saying. He then adds (referring to the peerage he briefly inherited from his father), “I did it the other way round." That pretty much defines the pattern of his life: born into the liberal establishment, elected to parliament aged 25, 11 years in the cabinet and then, somehow, transformed into a serial dissident before finally, in old age, being reincarnated as a national treasure, filling theatres in the Home Counties with people who would have run a mile from the Benn of old.

This is an updated version of a biography first published in 1992. At that time, Benn's political career appeared to be all but over. From the early 1980s, he had suffered periodic bouts of ill-health. Against the advice of his wife, Caroline, and just about all his closest friends (myself included), he insisted on contesting the Labour leadership in 1988, and attracted just 11 per cent of the vote. In 1993 he lost his seat on the party's National Executive Committee; by the late 1990s he was no more than a voice in the wilderness as the New Labour machine swept all before it. In 2001 he stood down from parliament in order, as he put it at the time, "to devote more time to politics". A good line, but no one (perhaps not even Benn) could have anticipated that he would remain a fixture in the political landscape for another decade.

To what does he owe his resurgence? The turning point was undoubtedly Iraq, when he emerged as a leading opponent of the war. The decline in New Labour's fortunes and the collapse of the global financial system, coupled with his willingness to bash the government, made him friends across the political spectrum.

The irony is that, had Benn stuck to the centre ground that he occupied for his first 20 years in parliament, he might well have become Labour leader and prime minister. As a cabinet minister in the 1960s, he boasted an energy, intelligence and relative youth that all seemed to mark him as the coming man. What went wrong?

The first signs of a radical Benn began to emerge in the early 1970s when, after the disappointments of the Harold Wilson governments, he championed an industrial strategy which, to the irritation of his senior colleagues, appeared to repudiate all that had gone before. What really set him apart from his colleagues in parliament, however, was his decision to take the side of members against the party establishment in the long struggle to democratise the Labour Party. This came to a head in the 1981 campaign to unseat Denis Healey as deputy leader, which ended in Benn's defeat by the narrowest of margins. From then on, it was downhill all the way, until he regained his sense of direction two decades later.
Jad Adams has written a well-researched and sympathetic biography - though not a hagiography - about someone who will live for ever in the pantheon of Labour heroes. Here is a man capable of arousing great and contradictory passions among friends and foes alike, by turns inspiring, infuriating, courageous, irresponsible, right about some of the big issues of the day and sometimes just plain wrong.

How will he be remembered? To be sure, he has considerable achievements to his name - not least his role as energy secretary in the mid-1970s in facing down the oil companies, obtaining for the UK a much fairer share of North Sea oil revenues than that bequeathed by the Heath government. (Margaret Thatcher later squandered the proceeds on tax cuts and unemployment benefit.)

In the end, however, he may be remembered as the Labour leader who never was, a man who traded power for influence - as Adams puts it, in "a sort of reverse Faustian pact". The last word should go to the author:

Benn's great continuous achievement is the endurance of his challenge to authority. With calmness, politeness and eloquence . . . he gave people faith in their own power to bring about change. The personal achievement is as great . . . he retained his gaiety and humanity. He was always true to himself, and no sacrifice made a stone of his heart.

Amen to that. l

“Decline and Fall", the second volume of Chris Mullin's diaries, is newly published in paperback (Profile Books, £9.99)

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide