New memoirs by Alan Johnson and Ann Widdecombe: "Look, I'm like you, I'm human, I've lived!"

Politicians create narrative from scant facts on a daily basis - it's part of the job. New memoirs from Johnson and Widdecombe offer an example of how-to (and how not-to) use this skill.

This Boy: a Memoir of a Childhood
Alan Johnson
Bantam Press, 304pp, £16.99

Strictly Ann: the Autobiography
Ann Widdecombe
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 452pp, £20

Politicians adore narrative. They spend their careers telling stories, of a sort, in a bid to make sense of reality and create an impression of control. They tell their own stories, too: the childhood memory, the apposite encounter with the man on the street, the time they were treated so kindly by the NHS nurses when they had their tonsils removed. Anecdotes colour up a speech. It’s their way of saying, “Look, I’m like you, I’m human, I’ve lived.”

Then there’s memoir. The exceptions – such as Barack Obama – write their lives into myth before the apex of their political career. But most wheel back to the beginning from the discomfort of old age and semi-irrelevance. The perspective should help – there’s no need to win votes; honesty can prevail. Yet often they’ve been so well-schooled in the art of political narrative that they can’t resist the urge to manipulate.

Here, anyway, are two lessons in the form: a how-to and a how-not-to. Alan Johnson captures only the first 18 years of his life in This Boy but there is enough pain, poverty and hardened experience in his childhood to fill volumes. He achieves two exceptional things. First, he manages to write about stark deprivation while growing up in North Kensington – permanent hunger, no electricity, constant damp, parental abandonment – without a note of self-pity. Second, he writes about his life without dominating the story. He gives the stage instead to his elder sister, Linda, who takes charge of their unwell mother, the household and Johnson after their father leaves. Somehow, while they are both still children and then orphaned, Linda keeps the authorities at bay, finds them a home and supports them financially.

Johnson is as movingly fulsome in his admiration as he is unflatteringly honest about his fears and limitations. When he sees his mother weeping in hospital before a heart operation, he admits to being “as embarrassed as I was concerned . . . In the space of a few minutes I’d had three thoroughly unwelcome experiences. I’d seen Lily cry openly, she’d hugged me for practically the first time and now she was talking about dying.” He is the anti-hero of his own tale.

And then there’s Ann Widdecombe. You know you’re in trouble with Strictly Ann on page seven, when the author has just been born and she segues bluntly from her mother’s attitude towards friendship to her views on gay marriage (against). This is the way Widdecombe rolls: memory, negligible link, moral pronouncement. She hasn’t managed to unwind her life from her work or her real self from her public image. Instead, she reveals how smitten she is by her curious fame – framing the most cruel of political cartoons, quoting with glee the brutal criticisms of her laboured efforts on Strictly Come Dancing (“a dalek in drag” and so on).

If Johnson’s is a work of self-effacement, this is the opposite: a blast of inelegantly transcribed ego. Perhaps Johnson is saving his politics for subsequent volumes but it would have been easy for him to spin his often desperate childhood into a party political broadcast. Instead, he fills his book with vivid recollection and genuine style – recalling a shop where “ambrosia was available” for sixpence in the form of pie, mash and a “thickish clear sauce freckled with parsley”. This is not memoir as PR but as storytelling. Almost until the end of This Boy, he is convinced that his future holds rock stardom, a dream only undercut by some gentle self-mockery.

Irony isn’t in Widdecombe’s arsenal: this is political memoir played straight and dull, through long Westminster procedural chapters with the odd break for a sermon (she is particularly strong on the absurdity of linking Catholic teaching to the prevalence of Aids: “The best cure for HIV and Aids is chastity before and fidelity within marriage,” in case you weren’t aware). At last, you think, when you reach the final chapter on Strictly, some laughs! Some witty self-deprecation! But no. Widdecombe’s heavy prose and psychologically fascinating lack of humorous selfawareness means that even an account of a Titanic-inspired rumba, with Widdecombe as Winslet, falls as flat as the rest.

Public image limited: Ann Widdecombe. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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