GUEST POST BY KEITH SIMPSON MP
As we approach the season of good will, which may, of course by pass Parliament, the FCO embassies and high commissions prepare for the panto and nativity as well as catching up on some reading beyond the official diptels. For parliamentary colleagues it is a chance to stretch the little grey cells and do some thinking as well as relaxing.
This has been a bumper year for books on history, politics, military history and literature. The outstanding political biography has been Charles Moore’s first volume Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography: Not for Turning (Allen Lane £30). It is in the same class as Robert Caro’s multi volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Jonathan Aitken journalist, politician and someone who has served at Her Majesty’s pleasure but not in the armed forces, knew Margaret Thatcher and her family and has written perceptively about her in Margaret Thatcher Power and Personality (Bloomsbury £25).
What more can be written about Benjamin Disraeli after biographies such as that written by Robert Blake? Actually quite a lot, and Douglas Hurd and Edward Young have written a wonderful reassessment of the great politician and showman in Disraeli or The Two Lives (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) in which they explore the paradoxes at the centre of his character, and how his exotic personality and ability to dazzle his contemporaries overcame his lack of principles, indebtedness and disloyalty. Wickedly, they suggest the only contemporary British politician who can be compared to Disraeli for making politics interesting is Boris Johnson. Their account of myths surrounding Disraeli’s “One Nation” politics should make this a stocking filler for Ed Miliband.
Simon Heffer combines being a prolific journalist and an author, and amongst other publications is his magisterial biography of Enoch Powell. High Minds The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (Random House Books £30) is a polemic, but the author ranges widely over politics, religion, art and personalities and the great Victorian institutions.
T E Lawrence still divides opinion between those who believe he was a romantic fraudster and those who believe he combined the aesthete with the man of action. Amongst other things he played his part in helping to shape the modern Middle East, and it is this that Scott Anderson concentrates on in Lawrence in Arabia Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Doubleday Books £16).
John Julius Norwich is the only son of Diana and Duff Cooper and a distinguished author in his own right. Diana Cooper was considered the most beautiful woman of her age and her husband Duff had a long diplomatic and political career. John Julius was apart from his parents for long periods during and after the war and Diana wrote him the most entertaining and chatty letters about great events as well as astute observations. Darling Monster The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to Her Son John Julius Norwich 1939-52 (Chatto and Windus £25) reveal the true art of letter writing which now may well be lost in the age of texting and twitter.
Francois Mitterrand, the French Fifth Republic’s first socialist President has long fascinated those interested in French political history and political leadership. As a young man during the war he managed, in the space of a few months, to move seamlessly from being a “Petainist” to being a “Gaullist”. A great survivor, he once observed that the most important attribute for any statesman was “indifference”. Philip Short, a former BBC Paris correspondent, has written a revealing biography in Mitterrand A Study in Ambiguity (The Bodley Head £30).
John Biffen served in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet as Chief Secretary, Secretary of State for Trade and Leader of the House. A charming, intelligent, thoughtful politician who increasingly questioned some of the policies of the Thatcher Government. Bernard Ingham once notoriously called him “semi-detached”. John Biffen decided to use that phrase as the title of this memoir – Semi-Detached (Biteback Publishing £30). A very honest memoir and Biffen recounts his recurring struggle against bouts of depression.
We are now in the prelude to five years of commemorating the centenary of what my grandparents called “The Great War”. The literary offensive has begun already and I have selected a few which have been published this autumn – a more comprehensive survey will be found in the January edition of Total Politics magazine.
Max Hastings’ Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War in 1914 (Williams Collins £30) is a robust, no nonsense patriotic view of the origins of the war and lays the blame largely with the Germans. Allen Mallinson’s 1914 Fight the Good Fight (Bantam £25) gives a solid British perspective with a traditional account of the role of the British Army.
Margaret Macmillan is a distinguished academic and author of the highly acclaimed Peacemakers The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempts to End the War, and in The War That Ended Peace How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile £25) concentrates on the diplomatic system and the series of crises which preceded the one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in 1914. More subtle than Max Hastings.
In The Long Shadow The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster £25) David Reynolds looks at the war’s long term impact up until today and moves beyond individual experience and memorials. A must read.
Understandably, many of the new books concentrate on the military experience and a good corrective is Richard Roberts Saving the City The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 (OUP £20). This is a formidable piece of scholarship and should be in the Christmas stockings of George Osborne, Danny Alexander and Ed Balls.
Without the passion, ruthlessness and politiking of Fabian Ware the system for identifying and burying the dead and memorialising those with no known grave near the battlefields where they fell there would have been no War Graves Commission. This is a fascinating and moving story admirably researched and told by David Crane in Empires of the Dead How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves (William Collins £16.99).
David Lindsay, the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, volunteered at the age of forty-four and served as a Private in the RAMC on the Western Front 1915-16. Before succeeding his father in 1913 he had been a Conservative MP from 1895 and was Chief Whip in 1911. His political diaries, including his time serving in the Lloyd George Coalition government, was edited by John Vincent. Now Christopher Arnander, one of his grandson’s, has edited Private Lord Crawford’s Great War Diaries From Medical Orderly to Cabinet Minister (Pen & Sword £19.99). A view from the ranks as a hospital orderly, critical of female nurses and junior officers as well as many of his political contemporaries.
The Blackadder School of Great War History has seriously sent up the reputations of the Public School officers. Anthony Seldon, prolific political writer and now Master of Wellington College, has, along with David Walsh attempted to correct the caricature in Public Schools and The Great War The Generation Lost (Pen & Sword £25). This they admirably do in comprehensively researched book which is based on memoirs, archives and a contemporary literature.
Frequently, what has been missing in collections of letters of men who served on the Western front has been those received from family and friends to provide a comprehensive picture of life both civil and military. In Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front (Yale University Press £20) Anthony Fletcher has used the correspondence of 12 officers and five other ranks to give a full picture. A very powerful and moving book.
The First World War produced an extraordinary flowering of poetic talent beyond those who served at the front. Tim Kendall has selected poems from the usual suspects – Sassoon, Brooke, Gurney and Owen – as well as from civilians both men and women. Poetry of the First World War An Anthology (OUP £14.99) is an excellent stocking filler and I was pleased he included a section of “Music-Hall and Trench Songs”, including the marvellous one “The Shit Shute” not attributed, but written by A P Herbert, about his divisional commander.
Under Another Sky Journeys in Roman Britain (Jonathan Cape £20) is an unusual and successful attempt to discover Roman Britain and its legacy by Charlotte Higgins who travelled the length and breadth of our country in an old VW Camper van. Caroline Vout, a classics donette at Cambridge University is fascinated by how the ancient Greeks and Romans used images to present what we would call sex. Her Sex on Show Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome (The British Museum Press £25) is a work of scholarship, but its abundant illustrations might prove a by-election special unless handled with care!
Roger Knight is the author of a celebrated biography of Nelson and has immersed himself in the sources of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. His Britain Against Napoleon The Organisation of Victory 1793-1815 (Allen Lane £30) is not about military campaigns and battles, or the leadership of Nelson and Wellington. Rather, it is a fundamental analysis of the political financial, industrial, commercial, agricultural and technological organisation required to achieve victory. This is not a dull accountant’s book but a superb study of how Britain faced the challenge of twenty-one years of war. George Osborne on seeing it was much taken by the sub-title “The Organisation of Victory” which is much in his thoughts these days.
For those who are fascinated by the old Habsburg empire then a must read is Simon Winder Danubia A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Picador £18.99).
Doris Kearns Goodwin has written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Kennedys as well as her much acclaimed Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Now she has written about the friendship and then the breakdown of relations between Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft in The Bully Pit Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism (Viking £20). But it is not just about personal relationships, but the campaign against cartels and how Roosevelt used the Presidency –“The Bully Pit” – and his close links with journalists.
The strength of American isolationism and a desire not to become involved with Britain’s war effort is the theme throughout Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-41 (Random House £24). American public opinion was deeply divided over neutrality and aiding Britain and her account makes sober reading.
There is an impression reflected in many books that the British Army by 1944 was worn out and no match for the Germans. In Monty’s Men The British Army and the Liberation of Europe (Yale University Press £20) John Buckley challenges this thesis in a provocative but convincing way.
Frank Dikotter has published nine books about the history of China, including Mao’s Great Famine. Now in The Tragedy of Liberation A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57 (Bloomsbury £25) he recounts the way in which Mao Zedong established a ruthless tyranny and killing machine. Uncomfortable reading for the current Chinese elite, not least because the author has had access to party archives and interviewed many participants and survivors.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is at the applied end of the academic war studies genre having written the official history of the Falklands War and as a member of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. Critics of Whitehall frequently suggest that minsters and civil servants don’t do “strategy”. Now Lawrence Freedman offers them his reader – Strategy A History (OUP £25) No ponderous theoretical work this which begins with a quote from Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth”. Something for members of our National Security Council.
David Howell served as a Cabinet minister under Thatcher, and more recently a Foreign Office Minister under Cameron. A thoughtful politician interested in how political relationships and networks are changing in the contemporary world which he develops in Old Links and New Ties Power and Persuasion in a Age of Networks (I B Tauris £20).
Civil Wars are often more passionate, brutal and degrading than other kinds of war. Ours was in the seventeenth century and yet still leaves a legacy. When Mussolini was overthrown by a coup d’etat in 1943 and Italy eventually joined the Allies the result was a vicious civil war. Claudio Pavone wrote a fine account in 1991 which has just been translated as A Civil War A History of the Italian Resistance (Verso £35).
Amongst many of Churchill’s attributes was a fascination with machines and inventions, especially if they related to war. He was not a scientist and had little grasp of the details but he did appreciate what science could achieve and hence had his own unofficial scientific adviser in the 1930s. Graham Farnello in Churchill’s Bomb A Hidden History of Science War and Politics (Faber &Faber £25) examines Churchill’s involvement with the development of what became the atomic bomb.
This autumn has seen the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy and there has been an outpouring of books about Kennedy and the assassination. I have accepted the advice of my old friend who is the doyen of the Kennedyistas in parliament, the Rt Hon Simon Burns MP (Chelmsford and Hyannis Port). He suggests three recently published books. Robert Dallek, who has published biographies of Lyndon Johnson and JFK, has written Camelot’s Court Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper £30). Probably the best – and the sanest – book on the assassination is a reprint of Reclaiming History Assassination of JFK by Vincent Bugliosi who forensically examines the evidence and comes to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald did assassinate JFK. Finally, Peter Savodnik has written The Interloper Leo Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union (Basic Books £16.99) which examines Oswald’s three years in the Soviet Union and attraction to communism.
Now for the stocking fillers. Jeremy Archer, a retired army officer has written something of a scissors and paste book in A Military Miscellany (Elliott and Thompson Ltd £11.99) which is made up of extracts from letters, diaries, memoirs and humorous military anecdotes. Something for the Whips office.
A wonderfully amusing book is Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience (Canongate £30). It is a sparklingly eclectic collection with almost all those letters selected being reproduced in facsimile from the good and the great to just ordinary people. My favourite is one that is well known to the FCO sent by Our Man in Moscow in 1943 concerning a new Turkish colleague – Mustapha Kunt.
Travel Books range from those written by people who have really “walked the course” and can write vivid descriptions with a feel for the country, its people and history, to those that read like travel brochures. Tim Cope is definitely in the former category with his On the Tail of Genghis Khan An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads (Bloomsbury £20). One for Rory Stewart Sahib our distinguished parliamentary nomad, and Owen Paterson, the badger culler, who quite recently rode across parts of Central Asia.
Finally, if only one volume of fiction appears on this list it has to be by Robert Harris, he of Enigma and Pompeii amongst others, and who has now written a powerful novel about the Dreyfus Affair in France, An Officer and a Spy (Hutchinson £16). This has recently been the bed time reading of our Prime Minister. Need I say more.