So, what books should you take to the beach this summer? Let’s start with those you can safely leave at home. Sometimes you wonder why people bother to write books, and Hillary Clinton’s memoirs (Living History, Hodder, £20) certainly fall into this category. The book is so clearly written by a ghost writer that it leaves you cold after the first few pages. While I struggled to the end I now wish I hadn’t bothered. Vapid, vacuous, and boring are the three adjectives which spring to mind to describe this turgid prose. While it has been a bestseller in the States it will have done nothing to help Clinton’s undoubted presidential ambitions. Use it as a doorstop.
Similarly, Peter Stothard’s Blair’s War (HarperCollins, £7.99) is disappointing. The former editor of The Times was given unique access to Blair and his entourage during the Iraq war, yet while reading what is in effect a diary, the reader gets the feeling that all the interesting stuff has been doctored by Mr Alastair Campbell. Surely not. If you want to know what colour socks the PM wears or what kind of toys he buys Leo this is the book for you, but it is clear that the access Stothard enjoyed was selective at best – and the trouble is, the selector was Alastair Campbell. This book falls into the category of ‘opportunity missed’.
2003 has so far been rather a barren year for good political novels. However, Ann Widdecombe’s Act of Teachery (Orion, £6.99) has just come out in paperback. I’m not normally someone who enjoys slushy second world war love stories but this one’s different. It really is a book that grabs you and makes you want to read it in one sitting. You might think that Widdecombe on love is rather like Hannibal Lector on the art of childcare, but as she herself says, if it is a prerequisite for an novelist to be an expert on the main theme of their books, then Ruth Rendell must have committed an awful lot of murders!
Two political memoirs which are worth a look concern the Wilson governments. Joe Haines’ Glimmers of Twilight (Politico’s, £20) and Bernard Donoughue’s Heat of the kItchen (Politico’s, £25) have been well reviewed and both shed new light on the court of Harold Wilson. In particular they vent their spleens against Marcia Falklender and her malign influence on Wilson and his administration. But this is only a small part of Donoughue’s memoirs. I often skip the childhood chapters of memoirs but in this book this would be a mistake. Donoughue grew up in rural Northamptonshire and the trials and tribulations he experienced as a child have to be read to be believed. Imagine the effect on you as a seven year old if you had to hide under the kitchen table while your mother received a good – how shall I put this – “seeing to” up against the kitchen door from someone who was not your father. Not nice. His description of life as a Blair Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture is also a gem. Suffice to say that he didn’t get on with Nick Brown at all.
Anne Perkins’ authorised biography of Barbara Castle (Red Queen, Macmillan, £20) is one I shall be taking away with me. From what I know of the book and what Anne has told me she ended up liking Barbara Castle a little less at the end of the book than she did at the beginning. No bad thing for an authorised biographer I guess.
Another biography of a left wing female firebrand is Kristin Mason-O’Connor’s life of Joan Maynard (Politico’s, £20). Stalin’s Granny as she was affectionately (and sometimes not so affectionately) known was a formidable figure on the left of British politics and at times made Tony Benn seem moderate.
Andrew Sparrows history of Parliamentary Journalism, Obscure Scribblers (Politico’s, £20) marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Parliamentary Press Gallery and examines the characters who have made the institution such a lively one.
There are a whole host of books around at the moment on the world of espionage. Corinne Souza’s Baghdad Spy (Mainstream, £15.99) tells the story of her life as a spy’s daughter. Her father was an Iraqi/British businessman who was on the books of British intelligence. It’s a gripping and very human tale. Michael Smith, bestselling author of Station X has a new book out in paperback called The Spying Game (Politico’s, £9.99). It’s a complete history of spying through the ages and if it’s a subject you’ve never tackled before this book will certainly encourage you to become more interested.
For the more intellectual reader The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home & Abroad by Fareed Zakaria (W W Norton, £18.95) has been a steady seller recently and looks at the conflicts between our desire for more democracy and the limits that it brings. It asks the question if democracy and freedom are incompatible.
Bernard Ingham’s history of spin Wages of Spin (John Murray, £18.99) is characteristically caustic but hugely entertaining. Ingham has rapidly become a national treasure, so much so that I am republishing his memoirs, Kill the Messenger in the autumn. Needless to say, Wages of Spin does not make happy reading for Alastiar Campbell, who he accuses of misuing his position to further the political ambitions of New Labour. Fancy.
If you want to understand what makes George W Bush tick – and there are plenty that do – you should read Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove made George W Bush Presidential (Wiley, £18.50). Rove is a White House back room boy but is to Bush what Campbell is to Blair.
Continuing on the American theme, the third volume of Robert Caro’s exhaustive biography of Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate (Vintage, £19.95) is now out in paperback. The third volume brings the series up to 1960 and leads one to wonder if Caro will ever be able to finish the set before he gets too old. Labour whip Fraser Kemp raves about this book, but I am slightly put off the thought of taking goodness knows how many hours to read about a President who would not exactly make the Top Ten List of Great US Presidents. Maybe I’ll give this one a go though, despite the weight it will add to my suitcase.
Another hefty American tome is Sidney Blumenthal’s Clinton Wars (Penguin, £25) which bills itself as an insider’s account of the White House years. Those I know who have read it say it is exhaustive and compelling, not quite in the Dick Morris league, but not far off.
I’m a sucker for political diaries and I shall certainly be dipping into the Macmillan Diaries (Macmillan, £20). Edited by Peter Catterall they cover the years 1950-57. The second volume covering the years of his primeministership appear later in the year. Macmillan was an enigma and I don’t think any of his biographers have really got to the bottom of his very complex character. I suspect these diaries may help us to do just that.
Iain Dale is the owner of Politico’s Bookstore www.politicos.co.uk