November 25, 2010
Here is one of those books which defies the current bookworld gloom: the gloom which asks, does anything interesting get published any more? And, are ebooks going to consume us all? It is a beautifully-produced, expensive title which has become a talked-about, or at least cooed-over, favourite (on my Twitter timeline anyway). High concept; slim volume.
Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (tr. Christine Lo), subtitled Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will, is that rarest of things, a coffee-table book which is actually worth reading. It combines elegant pointillist illustrations of fifty of the most remote and hostile islands on earth with fable-like narratives of their histories on the facing page.
One point of comparison here would be Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though Schalansky assures us in her introduction that “all the text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources.” However, as “I was the discoverer of the sources … I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.” This is just as it should be: “only that which is written about really happened,” and Atlas of Remote Islands is a vivid persuader that truth is larger than facts.
For me, into whom the Google Earth homepage drives a chill of dread, these faraway, isolated places seem initially frightening, so distant from what we think of as civilisation, so detached from what supports our way of life; so alone. In fact many of the smallest or most polar are uninhabited, such as the volcanic Semisopochnoi, where “the earth mutters to itself,” or Howland Island, where Amelia Earhart was expected to refuel in her equatorial circumnavigation in 1937 but never arrived, disappearing “just beyond the date line on a flight into yesterday.”
Some of the islands are inhabited only temporarily, by researchers or the military. On Ascension Island, midway between Africa and South America, there are over one thousand residents manning satellite dishes and transatlantic cables, “eavesdropping on the continents, listening to the world.” St Kilda, beyond the Outer Hebrides, was evacuated in 1930: before that, “the island’s future is written in its graveyard. Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict. [...] Between the seventh and the ninth day, two-thirds of newborn babies die.” (The mystery is unresolved in the text; only in the timeline above do we learn that these babies were dying from neonatal tetanus.) On Amsterdam Island, site of a meteorological station in the southern Indian Ocean, the district chief proclaims, “There is no such thing as isolation. Even on Amsterdam Island, we are cogs in a huge wheel; here, too, we receive signals that tell us who we are.” That, perhaps, is a theme of the book: people are incorrigible, however far you go to find (or avoid) them.
The permanently inhabited islands are easily identifiable at a glance: the images contain a few orange lines – roads, a runway – and a vibrant splotch or two near the coast (a settlement! – leading to more wonderment than ever. ‘People live there?’). The initial disappointment at the omissions of a full history of each island – a silly demand, as it wouldn’t fit, and anyway that’s what Google is for – is assuaged by the charm and precision with which Schalansky tells her stories. On the Pacific island of Rapa Iti, all we get is the bizarre tale of Marc Liblin, who in 1954 at the age of six begins to be “visited by dreams in which he is taught a completely unknown language” – which turns out to be the tongue of this remote Polynesian island, to which he decamps in 1983, having married a native speaker. It has the symmetrical perfection of a fairy tale.
The delicate shading of the drawings, showing perfectly the topography of the lands, looks disappointingly pixellated up close, but this doesn’t prevent the reader from marvelling at the unpromising forms which will support human life. If the book has a recurring thread, it is of humanity’s brave thirst for knowledge of every square kilometre of land on earth, and of its folly in believing that it can or should always be turned to our advantage. Many of the islands are atolls, fragile circles of coral, where the British forcibly deported five hundred native Chagossian families (Diego Garcia), or France tested its first hydrogen bomb (Fangataufa): afterwards, “nothing remains. No houses, no installations, no trees, nothing. The entire island is evacuated because of radioactive contamination. No one is allowed to set foot on Fangataufa for six years.” For Pitcairn Island, we get an interpretive account of Marlon Brando’s death scene as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. Only the closing line (“But the island’s story is far from at its end”) hints that Pitcairn’s greatest notoriety is yet to come, with the rape trials of the many descendants of Christian in 2004. In the introduction, Schalansky observes that sexual permissiveness is “a classic theme of the literature on the South Seas.” In Pukapuka, in the south Pacific, a recent immigrant from the USA finds that there “sex is a game, and jealousy has no place. [...] A word for ‘virgin’ does not even exist in their language.”
The limits of space and resources on these tiny spots of land means that many of them are further advanced than most of the world in today’s urgent issues, such as population growth. On Tikopia, a 4.7km² island east of Papua New Guinea,
the chiefs of the four clans preach the ideal of zero population growth. All the children in each family must be able to live from the land it owns, so only eldest sons can start families. [...] A couple stop having children when the eldest son is old enough to marry. This is when a man will ask his wife, Whose child is this, for whom I must fetch food from the field? He decides whether the baby lives: The plantations are small. Let us kill the child, for if it lives, it will have no garden. The newborn is left on its face to suffocate. There are no funerals for these children: they have not participated in life on Tikopia.
More significantly, it is the spectre of climate change which strikes the reader when looking at these fragile lands. What will happen to the low-lying islands of South Keeling, Tromelin, Napuka, Taongi (reciting the names in these pages gives another layer of aesthetic pleasure, like listening to the shipping forecast) when the sea levels rise and cover the coral atolls? The subject is touched on in the entry for Takuu: “The beach is narrower after every storm. Entire pieces of land disappear overnight. The sea is gobbling up more and more of the land. It is now covering the roots of coconut trees and turning the groundwater brackish, so the taro plants are withering and meals are too meagre to stave off hunger.” The inhabitants do not believe it, or refuse to think about it. In this, they are perfectly human.
Perhaps it would have been apt for Schalansky to close her Atlas with the story of Easter Island, well known as an exemplar of man’s rapacity toward his habitat. “The twelve tribes of Easter Island compete against each other: they make bigger and bigger monoliths, and secretly topple their rivals’ statues in the night. They exploit and over-cultivate their pieces of earth, chop down the last tree, sawing off even the branch they are sitting on.” As an ironic counterpoint, she adds that today, “the airport’s landing strip is so enormous that a space shuttle could touch down on it in an emergency.” So if the book began – for me – with fear of these unreachable places, so far from us, it ends feeling like an elegy. “The end of the world is an accepted fact, and Easter Island is a case in point with its chain of unfortunate events that led to self-destruction; a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean.”
November 18, 2010
Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures (1999) was such a reliably diverting volume that I rushed into this new collection of ‘occasional pieces’. (‘Frequent pieces’ might be a better term, given Dyer’s restless ubiquity in reviewing, introducing and afterwording.) The title comes from his essay on Susan Sontag: “Critics are always working the room. The way they do so changes over the course of a career. Young critics like to disparage and tear down. Later, when they write about the heavyweights, it is not so much the subjects as their own ability to go toe-to-toe with greatness that comes under examination.” How well does Dyer – at 53, surely no longer young – stand up to this demand?
Working the Room: Essays and Reviews 1999-2010 (the misadventures are missing this time, at least in the title) seems a less eclectic volume than its predecessor. This is because, as he notes in the introduction, in the last ten years Dyer has become the go-to man for editors looking for a certain type of essay: personal but analytical, rigorously reflexive, loose around the edges. He is in demand – his working title for the book My Life as a Gatecrasher had to be abandoned as he is clearly part of the literary establishment – and many of the pieces here are quite firmly categorisable, despite Dyer’s protests at the outset.
We know from The Ongoing Moment that photography is one of Dyer’s passions (perm three from photography, jazz, Burning Man, DH Lawrence, John Berger and travel confessionals to make your own Geoff Dyer book), and my decision to read Working the Room straight through gave me pause when I realised that the first fifteen essays were on photographers, fourteen of whom I hadn’t heard of. (Martin Parr, take a bow.) I needn’t have worried. Dyer is at his best when communicating enthusiasm, striking a lovely balance between basic facts for the uninitiated and acute analysis of the works. Each photography essay is accompanied by one monochrome or colour image, which Dyers uses either as a focus for discussion or a springboard for wider reflection. So writing about Richard Avedon’s 1960 portrait of the famously scrotal-faced W.H. Auden leads to the following:
[In the 19th century], according to [Walter] Benjamin, everything about the elaborate procedure of having one’s picture taken ’caused the subject to focus his life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it; during the considerable period of the exposure the subject as it were grew into the picture’. In these pictures, ‘the very creases in people’s clothes have an air of permanence’. Avedon, of course, worked with split-second exposure times but the results were in some ways even more striking: the creases in people’s faces have an air of geological permanence. There is the sense, often, of a massive extent of time being compressed into the moment the picture was taken. ‘Lately,’ he said in 1970, ‘I’ve become interested in the passage of time within a photograph.’ So, in one of his most famous portraits, Isak Dinesen looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world – about two thousand years ago.
There is recurrence in these essays of thoughts previously given form in The Missing of the Somme, of photographs as memorials. Ruth Orkins’ ‘VE Day’ shows a crowd in Times Square “arranged in a way that has since become widespread in that its purpose was, partly, to be recorded”. Or for Enrique Metinides, “if something terrible happened, [he] was there with his camera, recording not just the wreckage but the way such incidents became sites of instant pilgrimage” (producing – in a clever wordplay also typical of Dyer – images that were “not so much film stills as still films”). His most obscure subject – I hope – is Miroslav Tichý, the ‘stone-age photographer’ who “put as simply as possible … spent the 1960s and 70s perving around Kyjov, photographing women.” Tichý’s work simultaneously displays a “kinship [with] Benny Hill” and offers a moving eroticism because it “gaze[s] longingly on a world from which he is excluded.” These essays show Dyer at his best: enquiring, enlightening, entertaining.
The corollary of this is that the essays that dealt with subjects I was more familiar with were less interesting to me. Primarily these are the literary ones – D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Salter, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, W.G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. (Though it may just be that I’d read some of them before, so they surprised me less. Certainly the Salter piece was one I knew.) Still, there are delights here too – marked, sure enough, by their unfamiliarity, such as his essay on The Goncourt Journals (perhaps the only diaries to contain the words: “A ring at the door. It is Flaubert”) and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (“an awkward tome whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”). Prime among these pieces however must be Dyer on Ryszard Kapuściński, which I read in a bookshop cafe and which rendered me unable to leave without buying my first book of Kapuściński’s reportage.
These essays also reveal perhaps more of Dyer than he – never slow to make guest appearances in his own writing – would intend. Kapuściński is, he says, “the victim of a received cultural prejudice that assumes fiction to be the loftiest preserve of literary and imaginative distinction.” Writing about Susan Sontag, he asks, “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” Of Rebecca West, he notes that:
[she] is considered a major British writer. If she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank that is largely because so much of the work on which her reputation should rest is tacitly considered secondary to the forms in which greatness is expected to manifest itself, namely the novel. … Her best work is scattered among reportage, journalism and travel – the kind of things traditionally regarded as sidelines or distractions.
What can he be getting at, this author famous for books “whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit”? He sees it too in John Cheever, whose “principal claim to literary survival” for Dyer rests not with the stories, novels or letters, but his journals. (Not perhaps such a controversial principle, as Gabriel Josipovici similarly argues that it is not Kafka’s novels or stories, but his aphorisms which “form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art.”)
The weakest pieces in the book are those where Dyer cannibalises himself entirely, perhaps not recognising that the tangents into his own life are charming in the other essays because they are based upon a stronger foundation. That is to say, the final section of the book, ‘Personals’, is largely dispensable. Similarly, the most egregious will-this-do pieces are little more than gagfests about fashion or the Olympics. The jokes are good (one couture show “was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets Mad Max, a combination that might one day result in a co-production called Back-combed to the Future“), but they’re just jokes. Real comedy needs more.
Still, even when he’s not on form, Dyer is a reliably generous source of aphorisms from other writers: his essays are peppered with the quotability of others. Who can consider time wasted reading an essay that quotes Maxim Gorky’s “Life will always be bad enough for the desire for something better not to be extinguished in men”? Or Philip Larkin’s assertion that holidays “are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life”? Or Søren Kierkegaard’s journal entry from 1836:
I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me – but I went away – and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit ————————————————- and wanted to shoot myself.
One of the most interesting aspects of reading a book of essays like this straight through is that we get to see what we might call the ghosts, that is, the figures who recur in Dyer’s writing but who don’t – here, at least – have a place of their own. Walker Evans, Walter Benjamin, E.M. Cioran, Miles Davis, Robert Frank, Keith Jarrett, Friedrich Nietzsche and others are threaded through the essays like totems or mascots of Dyer’s cultural life, absent and present at the same time. After the teasing references to them, any full treatment would probably be disappointing, just as I fear that reading my new Ryszard Kapuściński book will be less enjoyable than reading Geoff Dyer telling me about it. Writing on Susan Sontag, he recalls how she “cattily dismissed” a famous story of Lorrie Moore’s, which Sontag said “you don’t respect yourself for finishing.” Dyer, while full of admiration for Sontag’s critical work, cats back with the observation on her novel In America, that “I respected myself so much for finishing it I felt I deserved a prize.” Dyer’s book – the “distractions” that make up a life of letters – at its best combines both: pleasurable enough to feel guilty about, but sufficiently filling to make finishing it a source of both satisfaction and regret.
November 11, 2010
“Bruno Schulz”, says the author page of this book, “was one of the most gifted writers to have come out of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.” Considering the others who qualify for this description, that’s no small accolade. Like many of them, he was Jewish, and like too many of them – that is, any of them – his career and life were cut short. Jonathan Safran Foer’s foreword gives us the horrible details: Schulz, a talented artist (the cover illustration below is his), was protected by a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau; Schulz painted murals for his son’s bedroom. In November 1942, Landau shot dead a Jew favoured by another Gestapo, Karl Günther. Later, Günther exacted revenge when he came across Bruno Schulz in a forbidden Aryan zone in the town, and shot him in the head. “You killed my Jew,” he told Landau, “I killed yours.”
The Street of Crocodiles (1934, tr. 1963 by Celina Wieniewska) is an object lesson in the effect which expectations have on our reading of a book. Although the title of my edition (above) clearly states The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, I had it in mind that The Street of Crocodiles was a novel, and that the ‘other stories’ were the additional ones collected here, from Schulz’s second book, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I was right and wrong: what we have is clearly more than a collection of discrete stories. Equally it is not quite a novel; it is more a story cycle, with recurring characters and themes, where the end and the beginning are arbitrary, and the potential seems infinite.
Discovering Schulz is like reading Kafka or Robert Walser for the first time: my reaction was something like, “Well. Here is a new way of looking at the world.” (Kafka is also recalled in details: the end of ‘A Hunger Artist’ in one story, the opening of ‘Metamorphosis’ in another.) The writing is vivid and violent, the imagery superabundant, the imagination unfettered. This is partly because the settings are notionally mundane: Schulz’s subject matter (there is no distinction drawn between him and his unnamed narrator) is his home town – then in Poland, now Ukraine – and his family. Typically for great writing, the subject is secondary to (inseparable from) the treatment.
The way in which the stories rub up against one another, cross-pollinating and seeming to merge, is a result of Schulz’s powerful literary vision. It is this sense of a unifying intelligence which makes them more than ‘just stories’, and suggests a greater whole. Sound and vision is turned up to maximum: “thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon”; “the golden field of stubble shouted in the sun”; “in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed.” But where nature is high-contrast and brightly illuminated, the people – Jews of 1930s Europe – are presented otherwise. Uncle Mark, “small and hunched, with a face fallow of sex, sat in his grey bankruptcy, reconciled to his fate.” When cousin Emil sits down, “it seemed as if it were only his clothes that had been thrown, crumpled and empty, over a chair. His face seemed like the breath of a face – a smudge which an unknown passerby had left in the air.”
Of all the family members Schulz details, his father holds his fascination the most; he is the central character of The Street of Crocodiles, as far as it has one. (Cynthia Ozick also made Schulz’s father the protagonist of her novel The Messiah of Stockholm.) We first meet Father in the second story here, ‘Visitation’, “slowly fading, wilting before our eyes … shrink[ing] from day to day, like a nut drying inside its shell.” But he behaves eccentrically: he “climbed on top of the wardrobe, and, crouching under the ceiling, sorted out old dust-covered odds and ends,” and spent “hours rummaging in corners full of old junk, as if he were feverishly searching for something.”
We became used to his harmless presence, to his soft babbling, and that childlike self-absorbed twittering, which sounded as if they came from the margin of our own time.
He begins to disappear. “Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us; point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.” By the end of the story, we have enjoyed a stimulating tragedy in seven pages. But in the next story, ‘Birds’, having “finally disappeared … as unremarked as the grey heap of rubbish swept into the corner,” Father is back, behaving oddly in new ways, importing and hatching birds’ eggs. “We did not yet understand the sad origin of these eccentricities, the deplorable complex which had been maturing in him.” This complex comes to the fore in ‘Tailors’ Dummies’, when Father expounds his theory of matter (“I shall attempt to explain [it] with due care and without causing offence”), where he proposes the ability of man to create golem-like creatures and the interchangeability of all matter, which brings conceits both disturbing -
All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. There is no evil in reducing life to other and newer forms. Homicide is not a sin. It is sometimes a necessary violence on resistant and ossified forms of existence which have ceased to be amusing.
- and absurd:
“Am I to conceal from you,” he said in a low tone, “that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights?”
These passages convey the surprising, eccentric and sobering qualities of this extraordinary book. Time itself does not behave: “demented and wild, [it] breaks away from the treadmill of events and like an escaping vagabond, runs shouting across the fields.” People in The Street of Crocodiles are retreating or escaping into other worlds and other lives. At night, “there open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets.” Reality, just one of many options, “is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.” Of all these, Schulz’s own transformation is most impressive. He took the grim reality of life in eastern Europe and exchanged it for the strangest fiction; he evaded his brutal death by escaping into literature.
November 4, 2010
Almost ten years ago, I read Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People, his account of the first term of Tony Blair’s Labour government. What impressed most, other than the sheer addictiveness of it, were Rawnsley’s impeccable contacts. When he reported the details of a conversation at which only Tony and Cherie Blair were present, it didn’t take much to work out that his sources went right to the top. For the sequel, he waited until the New Labour project was gasping its dying breaths, and gave us a clangingly obvious title.
The End of the Party is a massive undertaking, for writer and reader (and this review, I’m afraid, will be too): the expanded paperback edition runs to 900 pages, including a 40-page index, a 160-strong bibliography, and more than 4,500 notes. Verifiability is important to Rawnsley: he points out that he has omitted some incidents from the book because he could not obtain satisfactory independent corroboration. Even without these assurances, it is clear that his account is to be preferred to the autohagiographies of the main players – Mandelson, Blair, no doubt Brown soon to follow – simply by virtue of its independence. Rawnsley may be political correspondent of a broadly pro-Labour paper, but he is a critical friend and there is nothing to suggest that he has glossed over ugly details.
The book opens in what now seems like several geological eras past: Tony Blair’s second landslide election victory in 2001. “You may never be as strong again as you are now,” Blair is warned by the Cabinet Secretary. (Civil servants, as permanent fixtures in the machinery of government, tend to have a longer view of things than mayfly prime ministers seeking “eye-catching initiatives.”) In any event, Blair – determined in his second term to be bolder than in his first, where the primary aim was to get re-elected – did not get much settling-in time. Three months after the 2001 election, he was thrown into a forced but willing partnership with George Bush (remember him?) which would define the rest of his premiership and, in all probability, his future legacy.
Blair did not expect Bush to become US president in 2000. He “was looking forward to working with [Al] Gore, hoping it would be a continuation of his relationship with Bill Clinton but without all the embarrassing bits.” Although in September 2001, Blair “was already embracing America’s crisis as his crisis,” he had no natural affinity with Bush. His first phone call with the new president had been a toe-curling affair, “basically consist[ing] of Bush talking about various places in Scotland where he’d got pissed when he was young and asking Tony if he knew them and Tony not knowing what to say.” But Blair was determined to show loyalty after September 11, even though an early warning sign appeared when his statement committing the UK to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America was considered too “poodling” by his adviser Alistair Campbell. Blair in fact was worried that the Americans would, in the words of Blair’s ambassador to the US, “go thundering off to Afghanistan and nuke the shite out of the place” (a fear not without foundation), and wanted to be close to Bush in order to “stop [him] doing something silly.” It was too late: when advised by Donald Rumsfeld that the use of force was not permitted for retribution, Bush’s response was, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” (A sentiment inherited by his officials in the rebuilding of Iraq a few years later.)
Blair went to Washington, where he was “seduced, as most British Prime Ministers are, by the relationship.” His response to the crisis was governed by two personality traits which were hallmarks of Blair’s premiership. The first was his “messianic tendency,” leading to a weakness for promising more than he could deliver and oratorical hyperbole (“The tough and tender third way will rule from Kinshasa to Kabul”). The second was his desire always to find points of agreement with his interlocutor, never to leave someone feeling that they had not got what they wanted. So Bush got what he wanted, and Blair got to feel “pivotal to historic events”, “eager to effectively become Ambassador at Large for Bush. ‘Tony is in his element. He loves this stuff,’” said one senior aide.
It is not surprising that Blair wanted to spend much of his time on international issues (to coin a euphemism). His home relationship with Gordon Brown was going from bad to worse. “Gordon is stronger because he doesn’t care whether people hate him and Tony does,” said one “very senior civil servant” (a term I take to mean one of the handful of cabinet secretaries who served through the New Labour years). Their relationship was poisoned because Brown believed that Blair had committed to standing down after the first term to make way for him. Probably they both believed what they said. “Tony is a great one for saying what he thinks the other person wants to hear. Gordon is a great one for only hearing what he wants to hear.” Blair was so intimidated by Brown – frankly, frightened of him – that he even sent the Chief of Defence Staff to argue a point with Brown about the defence budget which Blair should have handled. Except among Brown’s closest allies, there was no appetite among MPs to replace Blair (who, after all, had won them two thumping victories in general elections): if Brown became PM, the cabinet was divided between “those who feared they would be shot that night, and those who knew they would be shot that night.” Brown’s Treasury was not only “a government within a government, but an opposition within a government.”
Anyway within months of the September 11 attacks, Blair had bigger plans. He “made a general commitment to regime change [in Iraq], and told Bush so, a full year before the war started” – that is, by March 2002. “He was concerned about how to handle domestic opposition,” but “about the merits of having a war, he raised no objection at all.” Like Macbeth, Blair was softened up for further conflict after earlier ventures: Kosovo and Afghanistan. “It’s easier, having done it once, to do it again,” noted Blair’s army commander. Even Colin Powell, who wanted to rely on the UN to deal with Iraq, was frustrated at Blair’s unwillingness to stand up to Bush. “As soon as he saw the President he would lose all his steam.”
Blair’s desire to remove Saddam Hussein from power led to the famous dossiers promoting an invasion of Iraq, each dodgier than the last. One of these cost the BBC its Director General and Chairman, after a Radio 4 reporter said the dossier had been “sexed up” by the government to enhance the case for war, and Lord Hutton’s subsequent inquiry exonerated the government almost entirely. If this looked like a whitewash then, it’s even more blinding now. Rawnsley reaffirms that “in the frenzied September  days leading up to the dossier’s publication, it was intensively reworked, each edit hardening up the claims within it. [...] The propagandist Campbell supervised the spinning of thin, dated and flaky material to make the threat look new, real and urgent.” Moreover, the key problem was that the dossier was commissioned in order to prove the case for war – not to investigate whether or not there was such a case. The terms of reference made it ‘sexed-up’ before it had even been started.
The intelligence services were not coolly and disinterestedly sifting through their thin material and then making their best estimate of Iraq’s capabilities and intentions. They were scrambling under intense pressure to come up with material to support a pre-cooked conclusion that Saddam was a growing menace.
Let alone what came after, this might be reason enough for Blair to have earned his fate as an ex-Prime Minister who, rather than spend time in the country he led for ten years, “preferred to fly the world in private jets and first class cabins [as] he felt he was accorded much more respect abroad than he received in his home country.” (That is one way of putting it.)
It would be unfair, however, to pretend that Blair sailed through Iraq and the preparations for war smoothly. He was in fact “utterly shattered by anxiety” over the issue, though never enough to change his mind. “He looked drawn,” a family friend observed. “He wasn’t sleeping. He hadn’t been eating properly.” He was opposed in the cabinet. Jack Straw told him: “If you go [to war] without a second [UN] resolution, the only regime change that will be taking place will be in this room.” His advisers told him, “This could be the end of you.” When he had to go on TV to announce to the British people the commencement of the invasion in March 2003, Alistair Campbell mockingly suggested he begin, “My fellow Americans…”
Iraq and the aftermath takes up almost 200 pages of The End of the Party, including the miserable story of the death of Dr David Kelly, named as the source for the ‘sexed-up’ allegations. Rawnsley coolly cuts between contrasting moments on 17 July 2003: David Kelly’s last moments alive, alone in the woods of Oxfordshire, and Blair’s speech before US Congress, where he received a standing ovation before even opening his mouth. (“After all the negativity, it made my heart sing.”) By the death of Kelly, Blair was again shaken and shocked. His wife had “never seen him so badly affected by anything.” At a news conference with the Japanese PM, he was asked, “Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister?” As Rawnsley puts it, Blair “stood there in staring silence for several seconds until Japanese officials stepped in to end the news conference.” His response, or lack of, is not surprising, given the details Rawnsley shares of how Blair’s spokesman had briefed against David Kelly, calling him a “Walter Mitty” fantasist in an attempt to destroy his reputation for having dared to expose the government’s dissembling over weapons of mass destruction.
After all this, where the reader at times feels soiled by the indirect contact with the people who populate these pages, the book’s coverage of the remainder of Blair’s years seems somewhat trivial. There is a good deal more of ‘the TB-GBs’, as colleagues referred to the perpetual state of war between Blair and Brown, and of Blair’s wobbles toward resignation, which never came to anything until Brown’s loyalists finally forced the issue in 2006. Blair’s very human desire to cling to power once he had it is in contrast to his lack of interest in how that power worked. “The truth was that a lot of government bored him,” said his second cabinet secretary. His third added that, “Tony thought that if you said to someone ‘reduce crime’ or ‘improve the health service’, they would just go away and do it.” Too late, he came to understand toward the end of his second term that “real delivery is about the grind, not the grand.”
Blair won a third term – or at least the opposition lost it – but much weakened, both in parliament and in his ability to put off the accession of Gordon Brown. But again within months, “he once again bound himself to a hugely unpopular position taken by George Bush for no obvious purpose or gain other than of cleaving to the White House.” In this case it was his refusal to call for restraint or a ceasefire in the bloody battle between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006. Blair’s former Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, observed that “there were only three countries in the world against a ceasefire. Israel was one. The United States was another. And we were the third. People were nauseated.” Blair insisted to his inner circle throughout his tenure that he needed to stay close to Bush in order to maximise his influence on him, but many observed ruefully that he never seemed to exercise this power.
The Brownite coup which finally displaced Blair – by making him commit to a date for his departure in 2007 – might almost have come as a relief after the years of attrition between Chancellor and PM. One unqualified good that Blair could point to, however, was his success in Northern Ireland, securing a lasting (so far) political settlement out of the least promising elements (albeit ones that had been laid in place by John Major). Nonetheless, “there was something repellent about the eventual outcome of the peace process: the power was going to be carved up and the glory enjoyed by the two parties [Sinn Fein and the DUP] who had most fed the hatreds that fuelled the Troubles. They got to enjoy the rewards of the efforts and sacrifices of moderates who had dedicated themselves to peace for far longer than the extremes.” It was a major achievement nonetheless.
The British had had an Irish problem – or perhaps it is fairer to say that Ireland had a British problem – since the Earl of Pembroke landed at a rocky headland near Waterford in 1170. A settlement of peace and justice had eluded kings and prime ministers ever since. The problem defeated William Gladstone and beat David Lloyd George. A resolution to the gruesome and apparently eternal cycle of sectarian violence that broke out in the 1960s was beyond Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Peace in Northern Ireland was Tony Blair’s crowning claim to have achieved something of enduring and historical greatness with his premiership.
In June 2007 Blair left, with his all-shall-have-prizes hatred of personal conflict, and Brown, the “psychotic thug,” took what he believed to be his long overdue right. Paddy Ashdown predicted that the handover would be “Camelot converted to Gormenghast. Owls will hoot as you go up Downing Street.” In fact, the differences between Blair’s and Brown’s styles of government were not so great. Both were presidential, and both obsessed with headlines. Brown quickly learned, with the floods crisis that engulfed parts of the country shortly after his accession, that he could get an easy headline with “PM chairs COBRA” – the dramatic-sounding acronym for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, where special meetings were convened to deal with urgent matters. Brown micro-managed everything: “if Blair was a control freak, Brown was the control freak’s control freak.”
Brown’s premiership is likely to be remembered as short and disastrous. But like Blair with Northern Ireland, he did have one unalloyed episode of success, when he presented the template to the rest of the world which prevented the collapse of the banking system in October 2008. But only weeks before the beginning of the credit crunch in the summer of 2007, Brown made his last Mansion House speech as Chancellor and used it to praise the City’s “modern instruments of finance” (the ones that would bring the world’s banking systems to the edge of breakdown a year later) and praised himself for “resisting pressure” to apply stronger regulation to the banking sector. (His successor as PM, David Cameron, was just as myopic, claiming in September 2007 – one month after the beginning of the credit crunch – that “the world economy is more stable than for a generation.” The Conservatives disagreed with New Labour on only significant point: they felt there should be “even less need for regulation.”) Brown’s laissez-faire approach to regulation was one subject on which he could have agreed with his predecessor: Blair opened a meeting with one group of bankers by saying, “I’ve taken the view all my time in office that I should leave you people to get on with making money for yourselves. …And the country.” Peter Mandelson, the third man of New Labour, famously assured executives in one speech that his party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich … as long as they pay their taxes.” Brown allied himself with (and arranged an honorary knighthood for) Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve for twenty years and an architect of the 2008 crash, who only when it was too late accepted that his free-market “ideology was not right, was not working”.
Brown’s tenure as PM may have been extended by his handling of the global economic crisis – it avoided an immediate leadership challenge – but his premiership was permanently damaged by the “bottler” attacks which came after he dithered over calling a snap election in the autumn of 2007. He then looked weak when he insisted on his chancellor Alistair Darling (probably the only senior Labour politician to come out of the book with any credit) matching the Tories’ inheritance tax commitment. From then on, his government staggered more or less from one crisis to another: missing data discs, the 10p tax rate (a result of Brown’s “decision-making process [of] almost endless prevarication followed by absolute inflexibility”), and so on. He was embarrassed by President Obama’s official gift to him on their first meeting, of a DVD boxed set of American films. (“It looked like something they’d found in Wal-Mart,” said one of his aides.) He became the headline-chaser that he had so despised in Blair: “in the space of just five days, he popped up in the Sun and on American Idol to promise that he would wipe out malaria; signed up to a Daily Mail campaign against supermarket plastic bags; [and] told football crowds they should be nicer to referees.” He brought his old foe Peter Mandelson back, and tried to destroy his Chancellor after Darling – two weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers – said in an interview that economic conditions were the worst they had been in 60 years. (“The only thing I’d change if I had my time over again,” he later added, “is that I should have said 100 years.”)
As if all this were not meat enough for politics junkies, the paperback edition of The End of the Party brings us up to date. This presents the bizarre moment when Andrew Rawnsley appears in the book himself, as in some Nabokovian hall of mirrors, arguing with John Prescott on Newsnight after the first edition of his book sent ripples through Whitehall. Largely this was down to the surely unsurprising revelations that Gordon Brown was a miserable bastard to work for, who regularly took his bad temper out on his colleagues, and even pushed and shoved people. Asked if he had ever been hit by the Prime Minister, Peter Mandelson replied, intriguingly, “I took my medicine like a man.”
The paperback also gives us Blair’s performance at the Iraq War Inquiry, when by refusing to express sorrow for the loss of life in Iraq, the consummate political actor showed that “he had either forgotten how to do empathy or could no longer be bothered to try.” Brown appeared too, later having to admit lying to the inquiry (but not apologising) with the figures for MOD funding he gave. The penultimate chapter is the election which nobody ever thought Gordon Brown would win (except Gordon Brown), and includes the painful preparations for the first ever televised debates in the UK, with advisers spending one whole session persuading Gordon Brown that “Where’s the meat in the pie?” was not going to be a killer line that would slay David Cameron. We also get the aftermath of the election, and the protracted negotiations which led to Britain’s first coalition government in 65 years.
The End of the Party is not a book of political analysis. Rawnsley rarely offers his own comment on the acts of the people involved (he doesn’t need to). It is instead a story of how reactive and short-term politics in the UK is, and how it is the personalities of the people involved, rather than any political philosophy, which primarily determine the policies they enact. It is gripping and horrifying, and sometimes funny (“Where’s the meat in the pie?” is the killer line that slayed me). We can only hope that Andrew Rawnsley is already in confidential conversations with the players of the coalition, collating material for an equally eye-opening book on our new political masters.