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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge