My Life, Our Times
Gordon Brown, Penguin 2017
Shortly after John Smith’s death, Gordon Brown discovered his was one of those professions in which every lavatory visit is fraught with peril. Midway through a meeting with Blair to discuss which of them would seek coronation, nature called. Their host – a Tony stooge – neglected to mention that the handle on the inside of the door was missing. Back in the living room, it was assumed that the ever-diligent Shadow Chancellor was taking the time he needed to see the job done right. The less flattering truth was that Gordon was stuck.
What Brown does not give us is the punchline; he was rescued by Tony, who threatened to leave him there unless he withdrew from the leadership contest. Blair’s book, true to its theme, does not refrain from identifying the saviour. In fact, this is one of a handful of decent stories in A Journey, which, although sporadically nauseating and staggeringly ill-pruned, is not such a bad read. There are many kinds of people better qualified to pronounce incisively on policy than frontbench memoirists, so the anecdotes matter. Politics is a physical game. There are pratfalls and waste paper baskets; traffic jams decide votes; the corridors of power are first of all literal corridors. Some farces get civilian observation, as when Abraham Lincoln was spotted throwing himself from a second-story window to break a quorum in the Illinois Legislature, or more recently when the press found Ken Livingstone holed up in a disabled toilet at the BBC after a livid John Mann shouted him up a staircase. But most of the slapstick is lost to history; unless insiders spill the beans, that is.
It is undoubtedly edifying to learn that John Prescott rests his teacup on his belly and dips his head to drink from it, and that this spectacle perplexed Prince Charles enough for him to ask the Prime Minister whether such was the norm among the working classes. It is similarly edifying to learn that John Prescott, incensed by rumours that Blair was bringing Liberal Democrat MPs into his first government, barrelled into his office, beating his chest and crying out ‘WHERE’S MEN-ZEES?’, before accusing Blair of concealing Ming Campbell under the furniture, which he then inspected. As a rule, it is edifying to learn about John Prescott.
Like Blair, Brown has stories to tell. But he is maddeningly bad at telling them. At Edinburgh University, he and some cronies figured out there was nothing to stop him running for Rector, the number two position in the governing body and traditionally an establishment sinecure. Despite frantic sabotage by an embarrassed fellowship – who mounted a legal challenge that went all the way to the Privy Council – Brown found himself winning the role as a twenty-one-year-old postgraduate. It’s clear this was as much a coltish jeu d’esprit as a coup for virtuous student activism. Only Brown’s emphatically platonic relationship with the English language greyscales these colourful stories. And we hear nothing of Margarita, the stunning Princess of Romania he shacked up with for five years before his political obsessions made the relationship unworkable. Nobody wants a rerun of the election-night romp with Cherie. But a touch of romance would not go amiss.
Instead, My Life, Our Times table-thumps along with a merciless impersonality no ghostwriter could hope to affect. It is stuffed with observations anyone could say, but only a true heavyweight would think worthy of writing. Admirers of Andrew Marr documentaries will find much to like in an appraisal of the 1960s that notes that the Beatles were ‘young, unconventional’ and that the Kennedy assassination ‘seemed like a blow against democracy itself’. Likewise, Harry Potter fans will be glad to learn that Brown goes all Dumbledore at home with his wife: ‘as I told Sarah: “If the choice is between doing what is popular and what is right, I will do what is right.”’ There is not much, however, for anyone who thinks that the point of reading up on the recent past might be to remind ourselves just how little we know about events that seem familiar. Even when the book is at its best – near-invariably as a chronicle of Treasury policy – the inescapable conclusion is that the New Labour years happened exactly as anyone would think they did.
They were not, for example, ‘Shakespearean’, which is Campbell’s ridiculous appraisal of the ‘TB-GBies’. The evidence from his sixth and strangest volume is that Brown under fire went less from Stalin to Mr Bean (Vince Cable’s analysis) than Alan Partridge to Tommy Wiseau. As his chancellorship wore on and wore him out, he became increasingly given to neurotic allegations of conspiracy, which found expression in the sort of phrases that must be terrifying to hear delivered without irony: ‘they’re out to get me’; ‘for this to happen to me!’ Though generally candid, Campbell serves up the censored version. Circa 2009, the word around Westminster was that prospective Downing Street staff would be asked if they minded ‘extreme verbal abuse’. In 2010, the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley added lapel-grabbing and wall-pinning to the charges; it was about then that the public learned of a confrontation with a laser printer, which received treatment Brown usually confined to Nokias, or car seats, found perforated by hefty marker pens.
A genuine wish to atone for his thuggish turns best explains why Brown derails paragraph after paragraph to praise ‘effective’ or ‘reliable’ staff, though it is unfortunate that in his hands they all appear to have been the same person. The greater problem is that real characters slip in and out of the narrative too lightly sketched, so there is as much a feeling of being short-changed on the big dogs as oversupplied on the pups. Given the quality of what we do get, this might be a blessing. Boris Johnson is guilty of ‘typical hyperbole’. Jeremy Clarkson’s epithet of Brown (“one-eyed Scottish idiot”) contains ‘by no means the most offensive words uttered by the former Top Gear presenter’. Prescott was ‘energetic and consistent’. Apparently history’s first MP to have enjoyed constituency work, Brown claims to love people. When it comes to writing about them, he is boring, wrong, or both.
Granted, there are virtues to pursuing decorum at any price. A crisp reticence elevates moments of anguish, as in an affecting treatments of the early death of his newborn and a Concorde engine blowout that nearly killed him in 2003. And indeed it is the spin god himself who takes the foot-in-mouth biscuit; unless, that is, he has started doing jokes, in which case the change of tack is to be welcomed: ‘En route, I heard the news that Rebekah Wade had been arrested for assaulting Ross Kemp [then husband]. A bit of a jaw dropper.’ But on the whole, Brown’s stylistic deficit wins out; adopting the tone (and not infrequently the content) of a cover letter for an accountancy job leaves precious little room for manoeuvre. Though he wistfully recalls his blunders as a schoolboy hack, the elder statesman is not immune to unwitting absurdities. Only the abominably gentle could object to Prescott’s rough treatment of his egger, but observing that ‘it was about time someone stood up to hooliganism’ is an impressively tin-eared response to the lamping of a member of the public by the Deputy Prime Minister. Barack Obama’s way with words is represented by the President’s ‘eloquent plea’ to leaders at a summit for the 2008 crisis: ‘Let’s get this all in some kind of perspective guys’. And why Brown quotes his own speech announcing that New Labour ‘would “celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the NHS by rebuilding it for the next sixty years”’, which must have sounded almost as stupid at the time as it does knowing he lost the election, is another of the book’s many mysteries of taste. At any rate, it is as much of a confession of divinatory hubris as we get from the man that outlawed child poverty and announced the end of boom-and-bust. Nor is this the only point at which one questions how far seven years’ hindsight works to Brown’s advantage. Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor turned Strictly shape-thrower and festival correspondent, is now indeed ‘a national celebrity in his own right’. It is less clear that he remains, as his old boss would have it, ‘a future Prime Minister’.
It would be devious to suggest Gordon Brown comes out of this all that badly. Neither he nor anyone else comes out as anything much at all. A boar in office, on paper he’s a bore – but a bore with a heart of gold. Another political memoir of last year has proven equally dull, though it too has its redeeming features. In the sixth volume of his diaries, From Blair to Brown, Alastair Campbell’s knives are blunted, delivering only mild new lacerations and having largely exhausted public appetite for salting the old ones. Such surprises as there are have been meticulously buried: the volume owes its heft to 8000 accounts of meetings with sports icons, each of whom Campbell is keen on in eerily close proportion to their fame. To his delight, the part-return to sports journalism saw his adoption as a ‘fully-fledged member of the banter team’. The reader, unless deranged, disbelieves this, and craves the next political homecoming – even if this does bring with it a relapse in mental health. For it is in these moments of suffering that we sympathise with Campbell most. He tackles his mental health with greater honesty and depth than previous entries, introducing a tame psychiatrist whose sessions are interesting (not to mention structurally convenient) and handling the spousal factor with well-observed sympathy.
Brown, for his part, goes too far the other way. Having done a sort of drive-by on Great Man history early on, he proceeds to erase all of his life from our times, except where it works as a host for abstract economic deliberations. We all know the rest of him mattered. Brown detects the problem here, but cannot quite get the angle right. He harps on the poor communicator theme, with a particular feeling that he was almost congenitally unsuited to the age of the 24-hour news cycle. His response was to govern from the cacophony of an open-plan war room plastered with televisions and news cuttings, and to claim he liked Glee. One might think his unpolishedness was never as damaging as the hysterical efforts to compensate for it; that what really felled him was the curse of being self-conscious without being self-aware. That sounds like a recipe for madness regardless of the decade you’re born in.
My Life, Our Times table-thumps along with a merciless impersonality no ghostwriter could hope to affect. It is stuffed with observations anyone could say, but only a true heavyweight would think worthy of writing.
Joshua Young is still pretending to read English at Magdalen. He is a fully-fledged member of the ORB's in-house banter team.