Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Holiday books

Having had a head start on the MPs with my summer reading, I confess to reading neither Bower on Brown nor the latest Harry Potter. And while I have no plans to read Dawkins on God (or as God), I am reading Alastair Campbell's diaries.

However in sunny Turkey, I did enjoy uber-Democratic strategist Robert Shrum's slightly self-serving and presumably ironically titled autobiography, No Excuses, which though sadly light on his engagement in British, Irish and Israeli elections, is full of great anecdotes about his time alongside doomed campaigns from George McGovern through Ted Kennedy to Al Gore, involvement said by waspish Washington insiders to attract 'the curse of Shrum'. Yet given Bob Shrum's close relationship with Gordon Brown his book has a wider interest. And to be fair to Shrum, he masterminded numerous back-from-the-dead campaigns for senators, governors and congressmen and women. And his story is laced with delightful anecdotes, some told against himself. He fell out badly both with Jimmy Carter (whom he clearly loathes) not least as Kennedy's adviser and Bill Clinton (who still used his services to write State of the Union speeches), the latter after being overheard by a mate of Hillary's retailing gossip about the then candidate Clinton's women problems, in a DC diner. Political junkies will enjoy this book.

I caught up too with Peter Hennessy's engaging romp through the 1950s, Having it So Good, now in paperback. Hennessy takes us from the austerity of Labour's last year in government to Harold McMillan's 'never had it so good' enthusiasm for public spending. Hennessy's story is laced with engaging detail, not least on the Suez crisis, but perhaps more interestingly on the social and economic dilemmas facing the Conservative governments of the time. His fondness for cabinet papers and ministerial correspondence produces a crop of far livelier debate than might be imagined. We are reminded of how, for example, McMillan started a two month Commonwealth tour a day after his Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and his junior ministers (including Enoch Powell) resigned in protest at a failure to implement some token spending cuts. Hennessy takes us through the 'winds of change' that led to independence for many African states, starting with Ghana fifty years ago. But intriguingly we also learn that Supermac considered joining Labour in the 1930s, but was supposedly dissuaded by Nye Bevan. Hennessy's book is a joy from start to finish: if only all history books were this good.

I also greatly enjoyed reading Andrew O'Hagan's tale of an English Catholic priest losing his way in a small Scottish parish, Be Near Me. O'Hagan writes beautifully, and has a great eye for detail. Ian McEwan's short taut tale of early 60s sexual frustration and fear, set in a Dorset coastal hotel on Edward and Florence's wedding night, On Chesil Beach, is a rewarding read. More extended short story than novel, it confirms McEwan's stature as one of our great novelists. Having found it second-hand recently, I re-entered a seedy and forbidding Dublin of drink, violence, dodgy politicians and despair over unemployment in the late eighties before the Celtic Tiger started to roar, in Dermot Bolger's gripping The Journey Home. Less impressive to my mind was the second novel by Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, whose tale of Islamicist terror and itchy IRA veterans Secret Asset ought to shout authenticity, but when the former spy chief thinks Dublin's main thoroughfare is called Connolly Street, it reads more like a particularly poor episode of Spooks. But for sheer pleasure and wonderful characters, I had to turn finally to Mma Ramotswe's Botswanese detective agency in one of her latest gentle adventures from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith. The plot of Blue Shoes and Happiness - a case of blackmail and a cook, and some mysterious happenings in the bush - is merely a sideshow in the sheer escapist ecstasy of being in the hands of a Master.

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