Sunday, March 14, 2010


So farewell then, Critical Eye . . .

I’ve been writing – or compiling – the weekly Critical Eye column in the Guardian Review since 2004 and my last piece went in a couple of weeks ago. I thought it might be enlightening – or simply just fun – to dip into the archive from time to time. So first up, here are ten books about Tony Blair, taking us from 2004 to 2008. (My thanks to all the critics quoted below.)


Andy McSmith in the Independent on Sunday found Anthony Seldon’s Blair “light on policy, light on the broad social picture [and] very dependent on anonymous sources”. George Walden in the Sunday Telegraph dismissed it as a “Big Mac biography” and pointed out “sonorous banalities by the bucket-load . . . What was needed was a book . . . which discussed not just Blair and his pals, but Blair and Britain.” “Slowly he nibbles towards the conclusion that Blair has squandered the chance to be a radical prime minister,” observed Quentin Letts in the Telegraph. He actually welcomed the appearance of Derry Irvine in the narrative as “one of the few figures in the Blair story not to smell faintly of toothpaste”.


“Sometimes unpopular ministers redeem themselves with a principled resignation,” wrote Michael Portillo in the Sunday Times, citing Robin Cook as an example. But Clare Short “made a mess of quitting” and her new book An Honourable Deception? is “her attempt at rehabilitation”. She comes across as “genuine” and “passionate” about politics, added Portillo, while providing us with “a disturbing insight into a government where Blair seems to take every decision”. “Her critique is compelling,” agreed John Kampfner in the Observer, as Short details “the concentration of power in a small, largely unelected cabal” at Number 10. “The only major players to come out of this sorry narrative well are Kofi Annan and Hans Blix.”


“Peston has written a book which everyone interested in serious politics – the politics of ideas – should read,” declared Roy Hattersley in the Observer, reviewing Brown’s Britain by Robert Peston. “Blair by the end comes across as some sort of Iago figure” and Brown “a credulous Othello”, noted Anthony Howard in the Sunday Telegraph; it is “the portrait of a victim rather than a hero”. But Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times disagreed: “Reading this apologia-cum-manifesto, I see that Brown is not just the victim of spin but its most adept practitioner.” “The book’s biggest weakness is its one-sidedness,” complained Peter Riddell in the Times. A major source for Peston was Brown’s confidant Ed Balls, which prompted Riddell to suggest that “the book could equally well have been called Ball’s Briefing”.


In 2003 Peter Hyman left his job as Head of Tony Blair’s Strategic Communications Unit to become a classroom assistant at the rough Islington comprehensive to which the Blairs declined to send their children. In 1 Out of 10: From Downing Street to Classroom Reality he reveals what it was like. “He is frank about how his experiences have challenged, if not changed, the perceptions of education he had as a strategist for the Blair ‘project’,” noted John Kampfner in the Observer, but Francis Gilbert in the Sunday Telegraph recoiled from Hyman’s clichéd adulation of Blair (“his ‘great speeches’, ‘powerful ideas’, his ‘star quality’ and so on”); nevertheless, “buried behind all the New Labour platitudes . . . is a serious critique of this government”. “Tony, despite what amounts to Hyman’s own pretty damning critique of government educational policies, can do no wrong,” objected an equally horrified Chris Woodhead in the Sunday Times. “Tony this, Tony that. Ugh!”


“I would like to report that this book is unreadable, being the fake, ghosted ‘diaries’ of an egomaniac,” wrote Andy McSmith in the Independent on Sunday of Piers Morgan’s Insider: the Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade. “I would, indeed, report that,” he added, “if it were not so grippingly readable.” “These scurrilously entertaining diaries . . . confirm [the fact] that we live in a tabloid world,” lamented Andrew Anthony in the Observer. “Never has the line between high politics and low celebrity looked so flimsy. Blair, Beckham, Mandelson, Jordan – the whole sorry lot merge into one great farce of behind-the-scenes briefings, boozy get-togethers and topless photos. It surely says something . . . about our media-saturated culture that the topless shots in question are not of Jordan but the Prime Minister’s wife. Morgan elects not to publish them but gallantly reassures the First Lady that her breasts ‘looked fantastic’.”


“This book is substantial, a brutal study of a brutal topic, mendacity in British politics,” thundered Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times of Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying. “The chief targets are Blair and his courtiers, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell [who] made ‘Blairism’ synonymous with deviousness and spin.” “Blair is not exactly lying,” argued Stephen Robinson in the Telegraph. “It is more that he has created around him a little zone of subjective reality.” As for Mandelson and Campbell, they were “driven by a zealous self-righteousness and indifference to truth which they thought was justified by the higher need to defend the Project.” In the Sunday Telegraph, Gordon Brown’s former press secretary Charlie Whelan accused Oborne of being “obsessed with New Labour . . . Did you know that, according to Oborne, Margaret Thatcher only ever lied once?”


“Christopher Meyer’s DC Confidential reveals no state secrets,” announced Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times, and he was not alone in wondering what all the fuss was about. “This book is the story of Blair,” he said, and how “Blair’s total susceptibility to American flattery . . . turned his head and induced in him a rhetorical crescendo of unconditional support.” “The book does provide some valuable insights into British-American relations,” noted Cal McCrystal in the Independent on Sunday. “The chapters on 9/11 and on the Iraq War are totally absorbing and often quite moving. The account of Blair’s bonding with Bush after 9/11 is wonderfully – if a trifle gushingly – laid out.” “The book falls short as an ambassador’s memoir, because it fails to address properly how our diplomatic service has been so degraded since 1997,” argued Stephen Robinson in the Telegraph. “And it fails as a piece of political gossip because Meyer is not indiscreet enough . . . We do not need to be told that Jack Straw is second-rate or that John Prescott cannot speak in sentences.” “Meyer’s observations are important for a single reason,” observed Steve Richards in the Independent. “They explain vividly how Blair became trapped. He records how Blair and his entourage were intoxicated by their closeness to Bush [and] after reading this book, no Prime Minister will seek to be so uncritically close to the United States again.”


“There is enough in these diaries to convince me that they will become one of the classic records of our times,” said Steve Richards in the Independent of The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries. “This is a riveting, compelling and genuinely revelatory book,” agreed Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times. “The remarkable thing, though, is that he thinks that what remains isn’t damaging to Labour. It is, very.” “Although Campbell excised many of the most sensitive episodes, he paints a picture of men who are self-absorbed obsessives, who combine doses of narcissism, aggression, self-loathing, laddism and homoeroticism,” wrote John Kampfner in the New Statesman. “The psychological flaws famously ascribed to Brown are evident in Campbell throughout this narrative – solipsistic but lacking in self-knowledge, the bully who sees himself as a victim.” “The awkward truth is that Campbell comes across as a thug,” noted Anthony Howard in the Sunday Telegraph, “and Blair as something of a weakling.” “Unwittingly perhaps, this is a brilliant, absorbing account,” said Matthew Parris in the Times. “Vivid, direct, immediate, and honest in its way, the diary draws you into a world for which ‘evil’ is hardly too strong a word . . . If Bill Sykes’s bull terrier had written an autobiography it would read like this: a snarling, compelling, gut-wrenching splicing of loyalty with faithfulness . . . This is the diary of a dog, a sort of devil-dog.”


“One feels like a not-so innocent bystander asking Robert Harris if he really ought to put the boot in quite so venomously, while one’s inner self is cheering him on,” said Nicholas Blincoe in the Telegraph, reviewing The Ghost, an unflattering portrait of a fictional ex-prime minister not unlike Tony Blair. “The setting up of the first New Labour leader for a war crimes trial (‘aided, abetted and facilitated’ torture) is a singular plot, even faintly believable,” noted Cal McCrystal in the Independent on Sunday. “It is a commentary on the Blair era,” wrote James Naughtie in the Sunday Telegraph, written by “a New Labour supporter for whom it has all gone sour . . . The bitterness is unmistakable.” “This is not the novel about the Blair years many had hoped he would write,” said a disappointed Denis MacShane in the Financial Times. “In fact, there is as yet no adequate fiction on the Blair years . . . Harris still has within him a big novel about the British politics of his generation. One day he will write it.”


“Martin Amis’s verve as a writer is such that in many places this book certainly provides enjoyment and moments of illumination,” said Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Telegraph, reviewing The Second Plane. “What it does not do, given its patchiness in argument, is command any consistent intellectual respect.” “Buy the book,” urged Philip Hensher in the Spectator, who was fascinated by Amis’s interview with Tony Blair in his final days as PM. “It reads almost like a dream of wish-fulfilment, so exactly realised is the character of Blair. Somehow, too, Amis’s own political positions, which can often be described as those of a clever undergraduate, don’t diminish the allure of the portrait but enhance it . . . What the author of Dead Babies is, rather unexpectedly, turning into, is an old-fashioned defender of truth, beauty and the values of literature against the massing dark. There is something noble about this book, and even when it is wrong it is never deplorable.”

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