Reviews round-up | 11 November

The critics' verdicts on Philip Short on Mitterrand, the last instalment of Tony Benn's diaries and Sebastian Faulks being PG Wodehouse.

Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity by Philip Short

François Mitterrand had an eventful career. It wouldn’t be too extreme to suggest that his political life was a timeline interwoven with scandal. He condoned torture in Algeria, fathered an illegitimate child at the state’s expense, managed to keep his cancer a secret from the press and choreographed an assassination – on himself. Yet he rose above it, and has even been described as "great". Philip Short, a former Parisian correspondent for the BBC, has written a new biography on the man entitled Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity and the critics are intrigued.

Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times describes Mitterrand as a "double-dealing, Gallic Blackadder" who is "inscrutable, sphinx-like" and in the habit of "rewriting history to cast himself in a more favourable light". Overall, he is impressed with Short’s work as he "guides us through the shadows and mirrors with great authority." The book keeps Campbell fascinated, particularly in an age of greater transparency. He thinks the book is bound to be a "riveting read for anyone interested in political psychology". However, he thinks it could have benefited from delving deeper into the murkier waters of diplomacy.

The Literary Review’s Robert Gildea also describes Mitterrand as "Machiavellian and Sphinx-like". He is impressed that "ambiguity" is used to frame Mitterrand’s life and finds the book to be a "fascinating interweaving of the public and the private", its greatest asset being exactly that combination. Gildea finds Short hinting at the idea that Mitterrand appropriated De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic despite his vocal criticism and is impressed with Short, finds him "adventurous" even, for interviewing Anne Pingeot, Mitterrand’s "other woman".

The women of Mitterrand’s life also interest John Lichfield of The Independent. These are the interviews which "without fanfare" add much new material into the life of this elusive man. Their examination is "scattered throughout the book, bringing alive, without prurience, the sub-plot of Mitterrand's energetic private life." Lichfield commends Short on his archival research too. He leaves the book feeling that times have changed, "partly because Mitterrand changed them."

Look out for Andrew Adonis on Mitterrand in this week's New Statesman (out 14 November).

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn

Death looms heavily through reviews of this book – reading them all, it feels as if Benn has already passed away. Indeed because of his seniority, Benn, now 88, finds himself somehow politically muffled - in the uncomfortable position of being embraced by the Right as a harmless "national treasure", when he has spent his whole life trying to be a formidable threat to the establishment. "That’s what they do," he said in conversation with socialist dauphin Owen Jones at the Bishopsgate Institute on Friday, "to sideline you."

At the same event, he said that if he would like anything to be written on his headstone it would be that he "encouraged people", and whatever his other failings, it is impossible to deny that Benn has inspired thousands to cherish their political convictions.

The FT’s Matthew Engel argues that it is not ageism or a conspiratorial "sidelining" that has neutered Benn into being a "national treasure", but rather that he’s brought it upon himself: "most of the causes he espoused are so out-of-fashion as to render him harmless." However, somewhat confusingly, Engel also calls Benn "the embodiment of the British left" in the same review.

For good or for ill, Tony Benn is not really the embodiment of the current British left at all, and indeed, his utter disdain for New Labour and his no longer being an MP are the very reasons these diaries are so different to his past ones. But Engel does hit upon the essence of the book when he writes of how, even in the life of a committed ideologue such as Benn, politics sooner or later has to take a back seat, writing that they offer "a chance to contemplate Enoch Powell’s maxim that all political careers end in failure, and also old age in general. Even for this most political of men, sharp pains, bad nights, a leaking roof and an intractable computer start to loom larger than the news."

Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times captures the charmingly naïve (or faux-naïf) tone of the diaries when he writes "it is a little bit The Diary of Tony Benn Aged 84½, with lots of 'It was fun!' and, after an especially good day, 'It was huge fun!'" Indeed, even Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the 1964-70 Labour Cabinet Benn served in, said "he immatures with age."

But the rest of Lawson’s review takes a less sympathetic line. For instance, when disagreeing with Benn’s hopes for a resurgence of socialism born from the 2008 financial crisis, Lawson denies they had any sociological import: "The riots in London in 2011 were nothing more than looting: a desire for yet more consumer goods, not a socialist revolt."

On interpreting Benn’s decision to forgo a royal invitation for a street protest, he says: "A cynic might say the difference between the two invitations is that at the latter event Benn would be the speaking star rather than a decorative adjunct: but I take a more charitable view." And yet somehow this manages not to sound particularly charitable at all.

The way in which The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff effectively describes Tony Benn as being on his "deathbed" in her review is a little hard to stomach, as well as (one hopes) overstating the case somewhat, but she is otherwise full of affection and praise for the book, focusing not so much on politics but on what the diaries have to tell us about mortality itself. If you have bought the book for an insider’s glimpse into the corridors of power, she warns, you’ve made a mistake: "The ideological warfare of the late Blair-Brown years plays second fiddle in this book to a very human struggle against the dying of the light."

In fact, the words "The Last Diaries" appear before the author’s name or even the book’s main title on the dust jacket. The uncanny sense of an ending - the irrefutable fact that these are the last diaries – means that one’s reading cannot help but be coloured. "The real Benn is with us still," Hinsliff says, "but that friendly diarist's voice in one's ear has now fallen silent for good. It is an eerie foretaste of quite how much we will miss him when he's gone."

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks is deft at pastiche. Fans of Radio 4’s The Write Stuff will know this. However, the thin line between pastiche and parody is made even thinner when the author being imitated is PG Wodehouse. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sequel to the Jeeves and Wooster catalogue. The critics, while commending Faulks for his effort, have found that mirroring Wodehouse is a difficult task perhaps no one is up to.

The Observer’s review is most optimistic. Sam Leith is surprised that the novel is "not half bad." Indeed, "considering the Eiger he has assaulted, considering the soufflé he is attacking with his spade, it’s a pretty remarkable performance." Leith is glad that the "voice of the novel is recognisably and pleasurably Wodehousian." Yet, there are shortcomings. Leith thinks that Faulks employs the use of the Wodehousian definite article too much, that the novel simply isn’t as funny as Wodehouse and that Faulks "can’t resist a shade of pathos that the originals are immune to." It is this injection of the sentimental, references to the Somme and death, which has failed to impress other reviewers.

The Scotsman’s review finds the conjuring of the Warwickshire cricketer who died on the Somme and from whom Jeeves’ name derives as Faulks "eager perhaps to show himself well versed in the lore". Faulks has allowed the real world to enter the novel, something Wodehouse would never do, and has allowed "a nasty whiff of the harsh real world into Arcadia"; it is a "grave error of taste." The plot is also deemed "adequate". This is important as Wodehouse attached great importance to getting the plot right as evidenced by his letters. Ultimately, despite a valiant effort by Faulks, the book "still seems unnecessary."

Cristopher Howse at the Telegraph is least impressed with the novel. He feels the author has put too much effort and intricacy into the plot. The mention of the Somme is also jarring. Worse, Faulks places the novel temporally, which regardless of it differences to Wodehouse, also has inherent problems. The novel is set in 1926 yet there is no mention of the General Strike and Howse fears Faulks steers clear of Wodehousian phraseology as it may be too archaic by today’s standards. Howse is most unconvinced with Faulks’ use of the literary reference. He identifies that "Wooster may be a bit of an idiot, but he quotes poetry, from Keats to Longfellow, that modern readers might not recognise. Faulks sticks largely to Shakespeare." All in all, Sebastian Faulks just isn’t PG Wodehouse.

François Mitterrand: an ambiguous man. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.