Saturday, 21 April 2012

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

On Reading Other People's Diaries (Part 1)

The first in a short series of articles on the enduring popularity of diaries, including some of the most engaging examples from across a range of styles and times.

The diary as a literary form remains with us and continues to engage and enthral.  What lays behind its enduring appeal?  Firstly, there is the sense of intimacy - we are able to witness (at second hand, at least) events as they unfold.  In the case of political diaries, we are able to gain some insight (depending on the author's proximity to events) into the thinking behind occasions of importance and significance to which we might not otherwise have access.

We are also able to learn about the author in a manner different to that of a biography or autobiography.  In the case of the latter, there is always the tendency (however subconscious) for the subject to portray themselves or their role in events in a more positive light.  The benefit of hindsight works wonders, and the autobiography (particularly in the political sphere) often winds up being a litany of self-justification (when things went wrong) or self-congratulation (when they went right).  This doesn't happen with diaries - we see people's vacillations, indecision, and sometimes their sheer bewilderment at what is happening around them.  What an honest and forthright diary captures is the changes in the state of mind of the author - today, life is hopeless, tomorrow it will be exhilarating.  An engaging diary should remind us that our perspective on the world on any given day is not an irreversible, indelible truth.  Rather, it is a reflection of circumstance, mood and our relationships with others on a given day, and is always subject to change at short notice.

The diary has not been superseded by the blog.  They serve very distinct purposes and so their intrinsic characters will continue to remain separate.  The blog is written with the intention of its being published and read immediately.  It is written with a particular audience in mind and often invites instant comment or feedback.  This undoubtedly affects how we read a blog, as we take it in instalments as they are produced, and this doesn't always provide opportunity for detailed analysis or comparison, or allow us to stand back and take an overview of the author's changing perspectives.   The blog is not designed as a record, more of a running commentary, and so for that reason it will often tend to lack a sense of perspective.

The diary, on the other hand, while also recording events contemporaneously, is nevertheless not designed for immediate consumption.  We are able to digest a longer period of time in one sitting, and so we have more points of comparison and reference.  To push the analogy, we are able to order from the full menu at the outset, rather than simply taking each course as it comes.  The diary often offers such an engaging insight into events because it manages to combine both immediacy and overview at the same time.  We have events being recorded as they unfold, but we can simultaneously gain an understanding of the full story from beginning to end.

With the above in mind, we would heartily recommend the series of political diaries that have been published recently by the former British Labour MP, Chris Mullin.  Mr Mullin, as well as being the author of the 1982 novel A Very British Coup, led the campaign for the overturning of the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.  His diaries cover an historic time in British politics - the birth and rise to power of New Labour including, perhaps most significantly, the time of Britain's decision to join the allied invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As can be deduced from the titles, A View From the Foothills (2009), Decline and Fall (2010) and A Walk-on Part (2011) Mr Mullin was not a big-hitter in the New Labour regime (rising only as high as a junior cabinet minister), but the diaries are all the richer for that.  He is both an insider and an outsider at the same time, with access to the decision-making process beyond the rest of us, while still being (frustratingly, for him and us) a long way from the real heart of the action.

Mr Mullin is a wonderful diarist.  He writes with clarity, honesty and a degree of self-effacement that is extremely engaging.  We share his frustrations at the powerlessness (at times) of the backbench MP, his efforts to fight bureaucratic indifference on behalf of his constituents, and his moments of (admittedly) small triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.  The sections dealing with his elevation to junior minister ranks in the Department of the Environment are especially interesting, as are those dealing with his later return to government in the Department for Overseas Development.  What we see is a principled, decent and honest MP (and as the diaries reveal, the latter is in short supply) struggling against inertia to achieve positive change on behalf of his constituents and the nation.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the diaries is the vacuousness at the heart of the New Labour project that they reveal.  Mr Mullin rightly details the successes of the Blair/Brown years (and despite everything, they did undoubtedly improve the lot of many people in need), but he also chronicles their lack of vision and cohesion.  The infighting, political machinations and sheer opportunism of leading politicians is laid bare and, while none of this should come as a surprise, it is nevertheless a salutary lesson to us all.  This is nowhere in evidence more than on the debates regarding British involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr Blair is revealed to have essentially taken the decision to join the invading alliance of his own accord, with little or no pressure on him from either the electorate or members of his government.  Whether the decision was right or wrong, the lack of consultation, rational debate or disclosure of facts should give us all pause.

Mr Mullin undoubtedly ranks alongside Richard Crossman and Alan Clark as the pre-eminent political chroniclers of their times.  Anyone with an interest in recent international history, the nature of politics or simply engaging, well-constructed writing, should seek them out.

Chris Mullin's website can be accessed here

Chris Mullin writes about the genesis of 'A Very British Coup' in the 'Guardian'







Saturday, 10 March 2012

Adelaide Fringe Review - The Right Dishonourable Dickie Daventry

Adelaide Fringe Review - The Right Dishonourable Dickie Daventry at The Austral (The Bunka) Saturday 10 March

Having spent a bright and beautiful Saturday buried in the bowels of the Barr Smith Library researching Singapore's historic role in ASEAN, it is not hard to imagine that I was approaching my appointment with the Right Honourable Dickie with something approaching gay abandon.  A hour or so in his company brightened my day considerably.

The former Tory MP and all-round old school cad is the wonderful comic creation of actor Dave Lemkin.  Part Alan Clark, part Sir Rowley Birkin, part Lord Morgan of Glossop (spot the odd one out), this is intelligent and thoughtful comedy that somehow seemed entirely out of place in a back room at The Austral - if only he could have appeared at the Royal Institution (the former Adelaide Stock Exchange) all would have been perfect (there are rooms there decked out with Chesterfields and wing back armchairs!)

Ostensibly, the show is a political memoir and the Rt. Hon. Dickie takes us through his life and career - Eton (buggered senseless), Christchurch College, Oxford (buggered senseless) and then, with remorseless inevitably, into the upper echelons of the Conservative Party.  Along the way, we hear about his marriage to Marjorie (drowned in a sea of her own lesbianism), his feckless children and his rampant sexual encounters with Margaret Thatcher that involved Dickie dressing up as Breshnev on the outskirts of Wolverhampton (it's hard to work out which part of that is the most frightening!)

This is a beautifully imagined character in the Wodehousian tradition, and appropriately Mr Lemkin uses language and verbal dexterity with great aplomb.  Having known one or two chaps in my time not that far removed from Dickie,  everything about Mr Lemkin's creation resonated, from the genteel poverty suggested by the slightly shabby tweeds that had seen better days, to the hair with a mind of its own (a la the Mayor of London), although I am afraid that I had to take exception with his shoes which were clearly not from John Lobb as one would reasonably expect from a man of Dickie's pedigree.

The fact that I would appear to be engaging with this character on a level that takes almost no account of Mr Lemkin's contribution to the entertainment goes to show just what a fine portrait he has created.  This was old-fashioned character acting and story-telling of the first order.  The fogeyish inability to engage with a mobile phone, the condescending attitude towards the colonies and the muddled retelling of one of the funniest 'An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman go into a pub...' jokes you will ever hear all added up to a splendid entertainment that was thoroughly engaging and inordinately witty.  My only regret is that it didn't go on for longer - a long convivial lunch and a dangerous third bottle in the company of the Right Honourable Dickie Daventry would be the perfect way to unwind on a late summer's afternoon.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Adelaide Fringe Review - Bob Downe: 20 Golden Greats

Adelaide Fringe Review - Bob Downe: 20 Golden Greats at the Arts Theatre, Friday 9 March

I first saw Bob Downe on TV in London in, I think, about 1992.  For some reason, the self-styled Prince of Polyester resonated with me and I found him hilarious without ever quite knowing why.  Nothing much has changed.  I may be fatter, older and balder but Bob still looks as youthfully effervescent at the age of 53 as he did all those years ago, and is just as wonderfully funny.  If only he still wore the legendary beige safari suit...

There is something quintessentially Australian about Bob Downe, but I don't quite know just what it is.  Perhaps it's his warmth and the sheer delight he seems to take in performing.  You cannot help but think that he lives to be on stage and that really does reach every corner of the theatre.   Mind you, the feeling is very much reciprocated.  Many performers have fans who enjoy watching them, many have devoted followers, but I have rarely seen a crowd that so adores their idol.   Genuinely adores him.  Bob (we can't even conceive of him under his real name, Mark Trevorrow) could literally do anything on the stage and he would have the audience in raptures.  And what a mixed audience it is - he has a demographic that other acts can only dream of.

For those of you who have never seen Bob perform, his genre is probably best defined as retro-kitsch (another sign of the impact he has made on me, as this sort of thing is not normally my cup of tea at all).  He performs classic pop from the 60s, 70s and 80s punctuated with gags and banter, and enhanced by nifty but naff dance routines.  But I think it is the eyes and teeth that really seal the deal.  He has a piercing, wide-eyed stare and stage-school smile that have to be seen to be believed, topped off (literally) by the most immoveable hairdo known to man.  He started the show in a 70s style tracksuit, but then stripped down to reveal his Caribbean Cruise Collection - floral shirt and stunning white polyester slacks, while a mirror ball whirled away gaudily above.  You get the picture...

It is only right and proper to point out, however, that Bob Downe really can sing.  I have never seen Mr Trevorrow in any context other than as Bob Downe (except in some episodes of Kath and Kim) but it would be great to hear him belting out some big band classics, as under the playful camp there is unquestionably a truly fine interpreter of a song.  I would also love to hear him doing some Sondheim one day, or perhaps some Noel Coward.  That I would travel a long way to see.

It is also worth mentioning that Bob really does seem to know and like Adelaide and his many knowing references to the city and its personalities are very entertaining and only made the crowd love him more (if such a thing were possible).  And, as a final coup de theatre he is joined on stage by a local living legend, who tells a truly scandalous story about William Shatner, a yellow sports car and a trip to Windy Point.  Get along to the Arts Theatre if you want to find out more...