On the rebirth of political memoirs – reprinted from The Bookseller
Posted on 19 November 2010 | 3:11pm
Well, we’re having a right old book day are we not. Bad Sex Awards pitch this morning (I liked the line from journalist John Rentoul that it was ‘triple bluff’) and now I offer you the article I penned for the latest issue of The Bookseller, on the subject of political books. Though it is largely about the Blair era books, it has been illustrated also by a large picture of President Obama, the daddy of them all when it comes to political book sales.
I was intending to put up my review of George Bush’s book in the morning, after it had been pusblished in The Guardian section. But so excited are The Guardian to have my piece that they have already put it online as a trailer for tomorrow’s Review section.
What I will do in the morning is put up the random notes I made as I read the book – they contain a few extracts and observations that I couldn’t squeeze into the 1100 word space they wanted me to fill.
As for the Bookseller piece, here goes …
When Random House published my extracted diaries, The Blair Years, in 2007, the feeling was that political books did not really work. Politics was hardly flavour of the month, among publishers or the broader public. So there was relief all round when the book got to Number one in The Sunday Times bestseller list, sold well over 100,000 copies in hardback and even prompted one Waterstone’s executive to announce to the trade that it had restored faith in the political memoir.
I was pleased with the response to The Blair Years, which is still a good seller whenever I do dinners or festivals. And I know from the interest in the unexpurgated diaries that for some, there is a real hunger for the inside stories of a hugely interesting and important
period of our recent history.
For while politics – once described as showbiz for ugly people— gets more coverage in the day-to-day media than ever, it tends to be of a one-sided, negative tone, and often shallow. Intelligent readers who are interested in the world around them understand that, for all the extra space afforded by the modern media, it doesn’t really tell you what goes on. Newspapers have their own agenda, and broadcasters in the main tend to talk to each other about what they think about what’s in the papers. If you really want to know what’s going on, you have to go and find out for yourself. And while for some that means trawling the web, for many others it means books. For every hour I used to read the papers, I
now read books, and do not feel any less informed. On the contrary.
The three-and-a-half years since The Blair Years have seen an upsurge of interest in books by politicians. Of the Blair era books, Tony’s A Journey (Hutchinson) sits atop the sales pile, some way ahead of my diaries, with Peter Mandelson coming in, though perhaps
not in the way he intended, as the third man. TB’s book went well in part because he was prime minister— and a dominant, colourful one at that—but also because it was so different to what most people expect from a prime ministerial memoir.
Prime ministers are rightly in a league of their own when it comes to book sales. Margaret
Thatcher’s two volumes were huge bestsellers. So, more surprisingly, was John Major’s, even if it was at times as drab as his premiership. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man (HarperCollins) was probably helped by the extensive promotion via the Times, including
that TV advert, whereas in the book trade, it seems to have been widely judged that David Blunkett’s memoirs were harmed by twin serialisation. I think John Prescott’s Prezza: Pulling No Punches (Headline) suffered from it being too widely known that he had hired
a ghost writer, Hunter Davies, and the book focused more on JP the personality than JP the formidable politician. Among other good sellers, Chris Mullin’s diaries A View From the Foothills and Decline and Fall (both Profile) have shown that while being a senior minister is no guarantee of good book sales, being a junior one is no bar.
It is precisely because he is recording life well from the lower reaches of government and politics that his diary works. On the Tory side and in another era, the same went for Alan Clark. And over many years of publishing success, whoever has been in government, Tony
Benn has shown that if you lead a varied and interesting life, have an eye for detail and a capacity for insight, a certain audience will always come back for more.
I have nothing against standard memoirs. I read and enjoy lots of them. I may even do one myself one day. But you would have to be either sub or superhuman not to allow your own vanity or the seeking of your own place in history to part dictate what and how you
write. The Third Man, anyone?
Like Tony Benn, I intend to keep on keeping on with my diaries. The man from Waterstone’s said it was their frank, unvarnished quality that seemed to be drawing the
trade and readers alike. “Nobody can accuse you of being self-serving. You come over as a complete lunatic,” was the initial response from Jonathan Powell, TB’s former chief of staff and himself the author of two very good books. The diary, written every night in the heat of the moment, is raw, immediate, detailed and lacking in hindsight. I like to think it is in part that rawness and immediacy, in the era of so-called packaged politics, that has helped to bring politics back on to mainstream majority bookshelves.
And so it was into a slightly more receptive world for political books that we published the first volume of the unexpurgated diaries, Prelude to Power, last June. “It makes ‘The Thick of It’ look tame. And sane,” wrote The Sunday Times. I like to think there is more to it than that, but it is exciting to be involved in a fast-moving publishing programme —2011
sees the publication of the other three full volumes covering my time in Downing Street,
starting in January with Power and the People.
It opens as TB takes office in 1997, and includes the first big steps of a new government
and also the Good Friday Agreement, the death of Princess Diana, Bill and Monica, Robin Cook and Gaynor, Ron Davies and the Rasta on Clapham Common, the first attacks on Iraq, at the same time as Peter Mandelson’s first resignation.
Do people need yet more books about the Blair era, a radio interviewer asked me last
month. Well no, they may not need them, but a great many seem to want to read them. The point about all these books is that they are just one perspective. At a literature
festival recently I was asked how it felt to be publishing the longest and most detailed account of a remarkable period of UK history. Great, I said, but I added that neither
the length nor the immediacy of the daily diary negates the fact that it is just one person’s perspective.
True, I record events as they happen, without the benefit of hindsight or the disadvantage of forgetfulness over time. But even when I am describing and communicating other people’s perspectives, it is still my perspective. No one version can tell the whole story, not even one as long as mine will be when all the volumes are out there.
As John Lloyd wrote in the Financial Times, my diaries inspired “a thousand headlines and
hundreds of columns. But their real virtue, so far largely ignored, is that they picture people who differ widely in ability, evenness of temper and maturity of behaviour, working under huge strain and constant observation, with immense workloads seeking to achieve
large goals. The proper headline from Campbell’s memoir would be ‘Top politicians make mistakes, have arguments, don’t do everything they say they will, might lose power—insider’s shock revelations.’ Blessed is the country run by such people and we will be wiser if we recognise that this is the real story.”
As I look back I do know that the Blair era has spawned more films, TV dramas, plays and even musicals than any political period any of us can remember. It is perhaps the fact that the period was so interesting that means it is also producing a slew of bestselling books. And it’s interesting to note, finally, that it is the books of the participants rather than those of the commentators which appear to be more relied upon, and more popular, in the writing of the first draft of history.