A few musings on diaries (mine) and memoirs (Peter M’s)
Posted on 14 July 2010 | 1:07am
The Daily Telegraph yesterday asked me to fill their notebook slot with any thoughts inspired by the coverage of Peter Mandelson’s book. Here they are, as printed in the paper today.
One of the reasons I keep a diary is that when ev
ents are fast-moving and days and nights roll into each other, my memory is unable to hold more than a few general impressions and key moments. So when the BBC’s Nick Robinson – despite my thrashing him on Top Gear as a so-called Star in a Reasonably Priced Car – asked to interview me for a documentary on the days between the election and the forming of the coalition government, I consulted my entries for May 6 to May 12.
Nice chap that I am, I even took extracts along, and read out my account of the final call from Nick Clegg which preceded Gordon Brown’s departure from Downing Street. When GB said to NC: “It is a choice one way or the other and you have made the choice. I’m not going to hold on…”, his final words were: “OK, thanks Nick, goodbye.” Then he turned to us and said: “OK, let’s do it.” He was referring to his resignation. Doubtless the formal record – the one taken by the civil servants – will be different in tone.
Minutes are but one form of historical documentation. Diaries are another. And memoirs yet another. The benefit of the diary over the memoir is its immediacy and lack of hindsight. The benefit of the memoir over the diary is, hopefully, a broader perspective – which Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, clearly felt was missing in my diaries. “Nobody can accuse you of writing a self-serving memoir,” he said, “you come over as a complete lunatic.”
Peter Mandelson is perfectly entitled to write a memoir, and as I found when publishing The Blair Years and Prelude to Power, there is never a perfect time and someone, somewhere will always find reason to criticise.
But in getting out his version of the election aftermath, he could have done worse than ask to see my diaries of the time. According to an extract of The Third Man published yesterday, Gordon came back from his constituency in the early hours of May 7, spoke to staff and then had a meeting with Peter and Andrew Adonis. I’m afraid his memory is playing tricks. Gordon did have a meeting, but it wasn’t with Andrew. I remember this beyond doubt, partly from my diary entry (I noted the meeting was with Sue Nye and David Muir from his office, Peter, me, and party polling expert Greg Cook), but mostly for GB’s mild irritation that Andrew was in a television studio rather than hitting the phones to the Lib Dems. Andrew called in shortly afterwards, just as GB was finishing another bacon sandwich. Nick loved the bacon sandwich detail. Robinson that is, not Clegg. The Nick I beat on Top Gear.
“To serialise or not to serialise” may not be up there with “to be or not to be” in terms of dramatic moment, but it can be a sleep-loser. After my third troubled night, I called my agent Ed Victor and asked him to pull the plug on the large deal he had been negotiating for my diaries. I am not criticising those who do, but I worried about ceding to others the way the book was portrayed. Ed took my news as well as could be expected for someone on 15 per cent of any deal struck. He clearly hasn’t forgotten, though. Reflecting on Peter’s “Let me tell you a story” adverts, he emailed me: “I assume your worry was that they would make you wear a cravat.”
Despite our many ups and downs, Piers Morgan invited me to his wedding party on Saturday. Piers, too, is a diarist, though perhaps not as assiduous or as contemporaneous as I am. How else, one wonders, did he manage to record in one of his published “diaries” that he had a meeting with Tony Blair in Downing Street in 1996?
Good to read Pat McFadden’s Fabian speech today, with its strong defence of Labour’s record, not least on the economy where far from blowing it, we helped people enjoy considerable rising prosperity and vastly improved public services. I appreciated also his analysis of the new government and the scale of pain it will inflict, and all without a convincing or credible plan for growth or investment in the future. He is also right, however, that Labour needs to do more than just ‘fight the cuts.’ There are many fights against cuts to be had, but what we must not do is go for the comfort zone of opposition. We also have to be providing fresh thinking on the economy and Pat’s speech is a welcome prod in that direction.
*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.