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On transforned cities, and tales of Princess Di and Laura Bush

Posted on 8 September 2009 | 9:09am

I’ve just been for a longish run along the Newcastle quayside, which confirmed me in the view I tweeted last night – that this area has seen a real transformation since the days of successive Tory governments.

I know the people who responded on Facebook and Twitter, being ‘friends’ and all that, are likely to be like-minded politically, but fair to say my claim met with a favourable response, whilst people from other once run-down and desperate cities said the same went for them too.

None of which means there are not economic, social and other problems to be addressed. But it does mean people should think very carefully about going back to a Tory Party which believes pretty much the same things it always did.

I was speaking at a dinner for The Entrepreneurs’ Forum, a body which exists to promote and foster entrepreneurship in the North East. As everywhere, you get a mixed picture, economically and politically.

One of the speakers before me felt the country was in a mess, tuition fees were a disaster, money was being wasted on apprenticeships when it ought to be going on helping people like him to create real jobs, and he was for some reason particularly irked by an interview Ed Balls had given in the morning, so fair to say he went off on one.

Others used that to sidle up to me and tell me he did not speak for them, there were real signs of recovery, and the government could take some credit for that.

Politically, things were mixed too, with some thinking the election was now a foregone conclusion, and the Tories were going to get in with a big majority, others saying that the thought was making them think about swinging back to Labour. Plus others who had never left us. When I spoke, and said I did not think Cameron had ‘sealed the deal’, and that there was not for him the positive enthusiasm that there was for TB in 1997, it led to what speakers call a ‘nodalong moment.’

But that is all merely a preamble to the real subject of the blog – the portrayal of real people and events in what are effectively creative works.

Where did the leap come from, you ask? In the q and a, someone called Rob Lawson – I know his name now because he commented on Facebook after he got home – asked me about my portrayal in the film, The Queen, and the extent to which the film captrued real events in the days following Princess Diana’s death.

I told him the story of a chance meeting I had with one of the people involved in the making of the film, who was keen to know what I thought of it. I asked him first how they did the research. He said ‘well, we read everything we could, we watched everything we could, we wrote to lots of people directly involved, like you, you all told us to get lost, so we went off and made it up.’ Top marks for honesty.

What I said last night is that though there were lots of inaccuracies and inventions, the film reflected something of the nature of what went on, and for my part it worked as a film because though Prince Philip, Cherie, Robin Janvrin and I were cardboard cut-outs, The Queen and TB were not; they were rounded out, and the film did not just surround them with a cynical gaze.

And all that is just a preamble too … to tell you about a book I have just read, American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld. It is the story of  the wife of Republican President who was in power until recently; who came from a well-known political family; was the least obviously intelligent of a group of brothers; had a bit of a drink problem until he found God; owned a baseball team; whose Presidency was largely defined by September 11; who took the country to war in Iraq … you get the picture.

There are also elements of the wife’s backstory that are familiar to anyone who knows Laura Bush … basically a Democrat sympathiser, was driving a car which collided with another and led to the death of the young love of her life; teacher/librarian, and so on.

I have no idea if Laura Bush’s lawyers were ever instructed to take a close look, as some of the other plotlines, if not true, might lead them to think she had a case to pursue … but it is to her credit that she hasn’t.

Because even if some of the story details are ‘true,’ and others are not, the result is a really good novel which mixes in stories of class, race, fame and fate, and gives you a strong sense of what life must be like for someone who just happens to get marrried to the man who – to her surprise – goes on to be President.

I met Laura Bush a few times and of course it is impossible to read it – the First Lady is the narrator – without seeing her and hearing her voice. I cannot claim to know her well, but I always had the impression of someone who had a strong sense of duty, but who never really fully understood how she got there, or ever fully came to terms with what ‘being there’ entailed. But she makes for a good basis as the heroine of a really enjoyable book.

  • jlocke13

    you must have a long memory… which party has been in control of Newcastle?… from 1974 to 2004 it was the labour party, from 2004 it has been the liberals … 35 years and not a tory in sight!
    With regard to labour winning the next election…do not take heart from the North East…this is truly the last bastion of socialism, and most of them voted lib dem at recent elections…
    As for the portrayal of real people in the media..I never thought that George W was as stupid as some media led us to believe, but then again, looking back at his inglorious presidency, maybe he was…

  • Emma

    While the transformation of the quayside can’t be denied, if you come down to my area of Newcastle, a working class residential town, I think you’d find it to be a very different story: boarded up houses, thugs wondering the streets, bad schools, teenage mums, nothing for kids to do, loads on the dole and a crazy high crime rate.

  • Casssie hall

    Was Laura Bush a democrat? Why didn’t she stop him?

  • Emily Trent

    I thought you came over ok in The Queen. Straight-talking, a republican but knowing what you had to do for the boss who wanted to do his best. Sounds like the Laura Bush story would make a good movie too

  • Catriona Smith

    Interesting blog AC,I must get a hold of American Wife.
    Can’t agree with E…I thought the portrayal of you in The Queen was dire; all knowing looks and cynical comments, without an ounce of feeling being shown at all! You should have sued !…. And as for Prince Philip, Cherie etc., it was like Spitting Image come to life!