Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Knives out at Durham Book Festival 2016

The Durham Book Festival is very dear to me, just as Durham is, and I have nothing but happy memories of appearances at the Festival in 2011 (with both The Possessions of Doctor Forrest and my pamphlet What's Left for the North East?) and 2014 (for my study of social housing, Our House, Your Home.) Coming up to the Town Hall this year to present The Knives was just as much of a pleasure; and I had the good fortune of sharing the bill with the poet Sean O'Brien, who was there with his recently published novel Once Assembled Here Again.

James Smith from Durham University was our considerate emcee. Sean read with great verve, and I did my best to follow him. There is, as it happens, some interesting thematic congruence between our two books.  A young writer named Eloise Pearson was at the session and wrote it up graciously afterward for the Cuckoo Review site, which you can read here

Knives 'extremely readable & thought-provoking'

Gladdened by this very interesting write-up of The Knives on the Nudge book site, from reviewer Cathy Boyle:
'An extremely readable and thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone with even the slightest interest in the workings of Westminster... it lays out many of the problems our country faces today... as well as showing us how honest and well-meaning people can be adversely affected by political life... there is plenty of tension as you find yourself gritting your teeth at the injustices of the world [David] Blaylock inhabits. The book is by no means an advert for the political classes but it may make you think a little differently about the people in power and what a thankless task they face'

Thursday, 6 October 2016

This NZ Life: The Knives "will have you hooked"

My new favourite magazine is the New Zealand-based This NZ Life, which ran a lovely write-up of The Knives the other week. I can only assume the reviewer, Miranda Spary, took the trouble to position, light and shoot the image of the product, seen right, that accompanies the text. Terrific, at any rate. These are the words I savoured, of course:
'The magic of this read is the richness of its characters – they’re all so alive, cleverly portrayed with an accuracy that calls to mind the drama enacted in real-life Britain lately. The book has been a massive hit in the UK, and whether you’re interested in politics or not, its mysteries will have you hooked and keep you guessing to the very last page – you won’t see the ending coming.'

Church-Going & Book-Talking in Dulwich

Look right and there's Alan Johnson talking to me about his latest memoir The Long and Winding Road, at All Saints Church in Dulwich on the night of Thursday September 29. Churches are grand places to hold literary talks: the acoustics are tremendous, of course, but there's a tenor as well as a timbre that the location loans to you. Larkin put it most finely on why even the non-believer feels some instinctual piety upon crossing the threshold:
'Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious / And gravitating with it to this ground / Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in.'
Johnson's new book is as engaging and well observed as the first two, the difference being that it finds him in the tangle of thorns that is professional politics rather than the worlds of childhood and workaday employment that were the grist of This Boy and then Please Mr Postman. But obviously he and I had plenty to talk about; and on the side he could not have been kinder on the subject of how he was getting on with The Knives.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Alan Johnson, MP and memoirist, in conversation with me in Dulwich on September 29 2016

Rated by certain wise heads as the Prime Minister we ought to have had circa 2009, Alan Johnson has won an alternative and arguably more gratifying distinction for himself as a bestselling and prize-winning memoirist. Following This Boy and Please, Mr Postman, he is poised to publish a third volume of life studies entitled The Long and Winding Road, this one carrying his story into the echelons of trade union leadership, election as a Labour MP and a number of stints as government minister. Johnson will be discussing his life and works with me in a special event organised by Dulwich Books at 7pm on September 29, at All Saints Church on Lovelace Road, West Dulwich.

There's a good piece in today's Financial Times by Robert Shrimley, in which Johnson is compared with the former Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin, who has also turned his hand to writing with distinction and who, like Johnson, manages the feat of being a politician who is a recognisable human being. Shrimsley credits Johnson with 'the common touch; an easy manner that belies his intelligence and his hard upbringing.' He goes on to argue:

'At a time when the public is increasingly alienated from the archetypal politician, especially those who seem to have spent their entire life in political activity, the need for able, moderate leaders with a demonstrable human touch has never been more pressing.'

I do take issue with the grounds of this so-called public 'alienation'; and I don't think politicians need to beg for their characters if they didn't happen to come from a tough and unpromising background. It's a fact, moreover, that people with the most obvious human qualities still might struggle with those aspects of political leadership that call for something of the devil's work. And it's quite clear that Alan Johnson, for his own perfectly good reasons, never really wanted to take a crack at the job of leading Labour. Still, however forlornly, I rather wish that he had - just because the road not taken might have been one of the several that could have steered us clear of our present wreckage.

Total Politics: The Knives explains life in government "better than anyone in recent times"

Total Politics in its print incarnation c. February 2012

I was delighted to note this very involving, detailed, personal piece on the Total Politics site by James Frayne, in which he describes The Knives as ‘a startlingly accurate glimpse into the life of a secretary of state’. Observing that ‘everything about life in government departments pressures politicians to behave in ways that are reactive and short-termist’, Frayne proceeds to assert that The Knives ‘explains this better than anyone in recent times’ and is kind enough to credit me for particular authenticity on a specific number of counts.

I take this as well-informed opinion because James Frayne was director of communications for the Department for Education between 2011 and 2012, working for then-minister Michael Gove, having come from employment at a number of lobbying and PR firms. One of these was Portland Communications, founded by Tim Allan, close colleague of Tony Blair while Blair was Labour leader. (Recently Portland had the amusing distinction of being accused by some halfwit cultists of Jeremy Corbyn of having ‘incited’ the latest formal challenge to Corbyn’s risible pseudo-Labour-'leadership'.) Anyhow: from the DoE Frayne moved on to the Policy Exchange think tank in 2014, and now runs his own consultancy, Public First.

The story of Gove's controversial tenure at Education was drafted and rehearsed continually even at the time: there will be a definitive account in due course, I'm sure. Meanwhile, in noting from his own Whitehall experience that ‘politicians make many decisions on the basis of competing pressures’, and must endlessly face ‘flak’ that ‘comes at short notice and demands an immediate response’, Frayne certainly gives a sketch of modern politics that I recognise from my researches.