Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 April 2012

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

The first in a short series of articles on the enduring popularity of diaries, including some of the most engaging examples from across a range of styles and times.

The diary as a literary form remains with us and continues to engage and enthral.  What lays behind its enduring appeal?  Firstly, there is the sense of intimacy - we are able to witness (at second hand, at least) events as they unfold.  In the case of political diaries, we are able to gain some insight (depending on the author's proximity to events) into the thinking behind occasions of importance and significance to which we might not otherwise have access.

We are also able to learn about the author in a manner different to that of a biography or autobiography.  In the case of the latter, there is always the tendency (however subconscious) for the subject to portray themselves or their role in events in a more positive light.  The benefit of hindsight works wonders, and the autobiography (particularly in the political sphere) often winds up being a litany of self-justification (when things went wrong) or self-congratulation (when they went right).  This doesn't happen with diaries - we see people's vacillations, indecision, and sometimes their sheer bewilderment at what is happening around them.  What an honest and forthright diary captures is the changes in the state of mind of the author - today, life is hopeless, tomorrow it will be exhilarating.  An engaging diary should remind us that our perspective on the world on any given day is not an irreversible, indelible truth.  Rather, it is a reflection of circumstance, mood and our relationships with others on a given day, and is always subject to change at short notice.

The diary has not been superseded by the blog.  They serve very distinct purposes and so their intrinsic characters will continue to remain separate.  The blog is written with the intention of its being published and read immediately.  It is written with a particular audience in mind and often invites instant comment or feedback.  This undoubtedly affects how we read a blog, as we take it in instalments as they are produced, and this doesn't always provide opportunity for detailed analysis or comparison, or allow us to stand back and take an overview of the author's changing perspectives.   The blog is not designed as a record, more of a running commentary, and so for that reason it will often tend to lack a sense of perspective.

The diary, on the other hand, while also recording events contemporaneously, is nevertheless not designed for immediate consumption.  We are able to digest a longer period of time in one sitting, and so we have more points of comparison and reference.  To push the analogy, we are able to order from the full menu at the outset, rather than simply taking each course as it comes.  The diary often offers such an engaging insight into events because it manages to combine both immediacy and overview at the same time.  We have events being recorded as they unfold, but we can simultaneously gain an understanding of the full story from beginning to end.

With the above in mind, we would heartily recommend the series of political diaries that have been published recently by the former British Labour MP, Chris Mullin.  Mr Mullin, as well as being the author of the 1982 novel A Very British Coup, led the campaign for the overturning of the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.  His diaries cover an historic time in British politics - the birth and rise to power of New Labour including, perhaps most significantly, the time of Britain's decision to join the allied invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As can be deduced from the titles, A View From the Foothills (2009), Decline and Fall (2010) and A Walk-on Part (2011) Mr Mullin was not a big-hitter in the New Labour regime (rising only as high as a junior cabinet minister), but the diaries are all the richer for that.  He is both an insider and an outsider at the same time, with access to the decision-making process beyond the rest of us, while still being (frustratingly, for him and us) a long way from the real heart of the action.

Mr Mullin is a wonderful diarist.  He writes with clarity, honesty and a degree of self-effacement that is extremely engaging.  We share his frustrations at the powerlessness (at times) of the backbench MP, his efforts to fight bureaucratic indifference on behalf of his constituents, and his moments of (admittedly) small triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.  The sections dealing with his elevation to junior minister ranks in the Department of the Environment are especially interesting, as are those dealing with his later return to government in the Department for Overseas Development.  What we see is a principled, decent and honest MP (and as the diaries reveal, the latter is in short supply) struggling against inertia to achieve positive change on behalf of his constituents and the nation.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the diaries is the vacuousness at the heart of the New Labour project that they reveal.  Mr Mullin rightly details the successes of the Blair/Brown years (and despite everything, they did undoubtedly improve the lot of many people in need), but he also chronicles their lack of vision and cohesion.  The infighting, political machinations and sheer opportunism of leading politicians is laid bare and, while none of this should come as a surprise, it is nevertheless a salutary lesson to us all.  This is nowhere in evidence more than on the debates regarding British involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr Blair is revealed to have essentially taken the decision to join the invading alliance of his own accord, with little or no pressure on him from either the electorate or members of his government.  Whether the decision was right or wrong, the lack of consultation, rational debate or disclosure of facts should give us all pause.

Mr Mullin undoubtedly ranks alongside Richard Crossman and Alan Clark as the pre-eminent political chroniclers of their times.  Anyone with an interest in recent international history, the nature of politics or simply engaging, well-constructed writing, should seek them out.

Chris Mullin's website can be accessed here

Chris Mullin writes about the genesis of 'A Very British Coup' in the 'Guardian'