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Why I prefer diaries to memoirs

Bernard Donoughue's diaries will endure when most of the memoirs of the period are forgotten. 

A confession: I do not like memoirs, at least not political ones. History might not be, as Tony Webster claims in Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, the lies of the victors, or, as his teacher does, the self-delusions of the defeated, but political memoirs certainly are.

It’s a truism that everyone is the hero of their own story, but one that almost every memoir proves at excessive length. Take Speaking Out by Ed Balls, which was actually quite good for the genre. The chapter headlined “Mistakes” concerns not him, but Ed Miliband. The biggest mistake that Balls admits to – not even in that chapter – is failing to be more “forceful” in a crucial conversation with Gordon Brown. There are exceptions, such as Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work, but in the main memoirs offer very little. If you want to get a sense of what something was really like, read a diary.

And if you’re looking for a good diarist, you could hardly ask for better than Bernard Donoughue. Farewell to Office is the fourth published volume of his diaries, covering his time as a Labour peer and junior minister from January 1998 to his retirement from ministerial life in 1999. A good diary-keeper will have personality, a keen eye for what matters, and the courage to make bold calls about the world around them.

Donoughue has all three qualities in spades. One particularly good prediction concerns Blair, who Donoughue fears will be undone because “he sees himself as a supreme presidential PM, with no obligations to his colleagues”. This prediction would have been too-perfect-to-believe had he not immediately added that the Blair premiership “won’t last ten years”. (Blair’s term in office lasted ten years, one month and 25 days.)

But the most joyous of Donoughue’s hunches is his most correct: the growing certainty that the many meetings he is attending to prepare for the Millennium Bug, which is predicted to throw computers worldwide into chaos, are a waste of time means that no mention of it goes by without at least one dismissive adjective: “mythical” sighs one entry; “preposterous” another; “farcical” a third.

This set of diaries has a somewhat melancholy quality. As Donoughue notes in the foreword, his career “happened in reverse”: starting as head of Harold Wilson’s policy unit where he in many ways helped to co-create the role of the special advisor – detailed in his Downing Street Diaries – before ending it as a junior minister in an unloved department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) in the early days of Blair. That gives this volume the feel of a New Labour version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: key protagonists are glimpsed in the shadows – Brown is seen “glad-handing and networking very effectively… building a party constituency for his future leadership bid”.

At Maff, Jack Cunningham, who is secretary of state when the book begins, is one of many luckless casualties of the long war between Blair and Brown. Donoughue recounts one late-night ministerial drink in which “Jack was clearly angry – at Brown, for the damage to his career, but also at Blair, for going along with this and doing nothing to protect his natural friends”. Cunningham is replaced by Nick Brown in a move that helps to spur Donoughue’s decision to enter retirement.

The presence of Brown is particularly enjoyable to modern readers. He arrives at Maff in July 1998, halfway through these diaries, having been demoted from his dream post as chief whip (though he would return under Gordon Brown and again under Jeremy Corbyn, remaining the current incumbent). The Brown of Donoughue’s diaries is an unimpressive figure, quickly captured by Maff’s conniving permanent secretary, Richard Packer (who is never given a first-name, only the dismissive “Packer”), who is very much cast as the villain.

Although Donoughue admires Blair, the man himself does not emerge unscathed from the diary – he is criticised both for his proximity to Rupert Murdoch, who Donoughue deplores, and for his lack of ability in party management. Readers are also given a neat glimpse into the Blair-era inability to reshuffle. Blair would struggle to tell people they had been sacked – in one of the diary’s final scenes, he seems unable even to end a goodbye with a minister who wants to go.

Farewell to Office is no more objective than any memoir. What elevates it is the immediacy of Donoughue’s writing, which makes it both a fun diversion and a useful glimpse into history. As Webster in The Sense of an Ending realises, history is neither the lies of the victors, nor the delusions of the defeated: “It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”  This book, however, is a triumph.

Westminster Diary, Volume 2: Farewell to Office
Bernard Donoughue
IB Tauris, 360pp, £25

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game