Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins (Pan Books 1995)

Other than Queen Victoria herself, William Ewart Gladstone is probably the persons who defines the Victorian period. Four times Prime Minister (a record so far unmatched and very unlikely to be matched in the years to come) in a career spanning 1832-1895.

After the typical Prime Ministerial education of Eton and Oxford, Gladstone first made his mark on the world in a fiercely conservative tome 'The State in its Relationship with the Church' in which he argued that membership in the Church of England should be prerequisite for anyone who wished to serve in public life and that the aim of the nation should be to uphold the principles of the Church (it is something of an irony that Gladstone was the man to bring about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and argued for the same in Scotland and Wales). Lord Attlee described Gladstone as being a 'frightful old prig' for his religiosity particularly in relationship to his proposal to his wife. 'Fancy' he said 'writing a letter proposing marriage including a sentence of 140 words all about the Almighty. He was a dreadful person'.

Gladstone was first elected as MP for Newark in a semi-rotten borough and supported by a local duke, hardly a democratic start. His first major oration in the House of Commons was rather surprisingly pro-slavery with a defence of the negro apprentice schemes on the West Indian plantations, talking for over two hours (a pretty standard length for a Gladstone oration). Gladstone had a pretty amazing career prior to taking the highest office serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in successive governments effectively he was the man who made the job what it is today. Jenkins argues that 'Churchill would have been little more than a footnote to history had he died on the threshold of his premiership. This would certainly have been true of Salisbury had he gone in 1886, or of Macmillan had he done so in 1956...but such obscurity would not have been the fate of Gladstone had he died instead of becoming Prime Minister in 1868.

On being told that the Queen had requested Gladstone to form his first government he uttered the immortal phrase 'my mission is to pacify Ireland' and his Irish policy was to dominate all four of his premierships. In his first premiership Gladstone managed to enact legislation disestablishing the Church of Ireland, reforming land rights and access to the Irish universities however it was the decisive issue of Home Rule which thwarted his attempt to bring peace to that land and caused somewhat irreparable divisions within the Liberal party (which were later blown apart in the power struggle between Asquith and Lloyd George) as the Whigs deferred to the Conservatives in large numbers.

Gladstone was such a strange man. In his earlier years his passion was to rescue prostitutes, a pursuit to which he devoted a large amount of his time and energy spending many hours talking to these women about religion, even when he was in high office. Whilst these activities no doubt expressed some sexual repression for which Gladstone punished himself (an act his diary either noted as 'the scourge' or was annotated with mark that looked rather like a little whip) there is no reason to believe that his actions were nothing short of moral and charitable although one cannot imagine a politician today being able to act like this and rather speaks to a certain naivity of Gladstone's as well as a firm belief in his own moral rectitude. In later life the rescuing of prostitutes was replaced by an equally bizarre hobby of chopping down trees, a pursuit he encouraged his children to take part in.

Gladstone was a voracious reader and is said to have read some 40,000 volumes throughout his life although his favourites were always the Latin and Ancient Greek classics, Homer, Dante and Horace (his speeches were littered with untranslated Latin and Greek quotations). The sheer volume of books despite having worked the highest offices in Britain shows one of the key Gladstone characteristics which is that he believed himself at war with time and it was his duty to fit as much into a day as he possibly could.

The book is well written from a man who has had his own time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also his own turn at dividing political parties (as when he fractured the Labour Party to create the short lived Social Democrat Party which eventually merged with the Gladstone's old Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrat Party). He rather glosses over a lot of the nitty gritty of the different Gladstone premierships however to go into that detail would probably require a book of some number of volumes that I most certainly would not have bought. The book also lacks a summary chapter which would have been nice to tie things up and not end upon the sad note of the Grand Old Man's death.

If you're interested in the politics of Victorian Britain then this book is a must buy.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

On Snooker by Mordecai Richler

On Snooker: The Game and the Characters who Play it by Mordecai Richler (Knopf Canada 2001)

This is a weird book, weird in the sense that two parts of life I always considered separate somehow manifest themselves into this one volume and I found it very hard reconciling my visions of Mordecai Richler as a working class Jewish, smoked meat sandwich eating hustler from St. Urbain Street in Montreal with the waistcoats, bow ties and bottled water that is the professional snooker circuit in Britain.

Richler's book details the origins of the game and the word itself and goes into the lives of some of the characters of the game. Alex Higgins man seemingly wrought on self-destruction, Jimmy White who seems to have done pretty well for himself despite his perennial loser tag, the successful but largely ignored Canadian Cliff Thorburn, the less successful but much more of a cause célèbre in Kirk Stevens. He, however, does not place his loyalty where the drama lies as it seems most fans do, he pins all his hopes on Stephen Hendry winning that one more world championship.

What is more interesting is why Richler is a fan himself. Richler tells us that 'North American literary men in general, and the Jewish writers among them in particular, have always been obsessed by sports. We acquire the enthusiasm as kids and carry it with us into middle age and beyond, adjudging it far more enjoyable than lots of other baggage we still lug around. Arguably we settled for writing, a sissy's game, because we couldn't "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," pitch a curveball, catch, deke, score a touchdown.'

I want Richler's life. He spent half his year wintering in England living in an apartment in Chelsea (an was hence able to follow the snooker) and the other half in Canada spending his summers on Lake Memphremagog. I feel that we would have gotten on very well, Hendry was my favourite player, I also have an irrational dislike towards Stephen Lee. If you know snooker then this book won't tell you too much that you didn't already know but my image of Richler is now radically altered. I particularly like his reasons for why Snooker gave him hope and I shall end on that:

"Look at it this way: if Higgins could make a maximum, or David Cone pitch a perfect baseball game, then just maybe, against all odds, a flawless novel was possible. I can't speak for other writers, but I always start out pledged to a dream of perfection, a novel that will be free of clunky sentences or passages forced in the hothouse, but it's never the case. Each novel is a failure of sorts. No matter how many drafts I go through, there will always be compromises here and there, pages that will make me wince when I read them years later. But if Higgins could achieve perfection, maybe, next time out, I could too."


Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory by David Plouffe (Viking 2009)

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 looked to be the most amazing upset. As a young and vibrant black senator with negligible experience who would not only have to go in and carry all the states won by John Kerry back in the 2004 election but make inroads into traditionally red states Obama did not seem to have an obvious path to victory. This book shows how the impossible was achieved, not just defeating McCain but triumphing over the other must beat candidate, Hilary Clinton.

Beating Clinton was quite an achievement and nearly the first half of the book is dedicated to the first year spent almost entirely in Iowa building up a phenomenal grass roots base and putting Obama on the map. Winning Iowa would mean building up the momentum that, a long way down the line, finally brought him the nomination. His path to victory was built upon expanding the electorate, registering new voters, appealing to moderate republicans and campaigning in the counties and areas of the states which would maximise his delegate count and thus secure him the nomination.

The book shows Obama to be better organised, better prepared, better disciplined, better financed and running to a better strategy than either Clinton or McCain. There is a lot to admire in the way they fought these campaigns, the grass roots organisations they built up rather than relying on in-state old party king-makers, the use of new media to communicate with members and supporters and often to break news directly to the party first is all commendable. One cannot help but feel that they these are people who know the system and played to the system. Against Clinton the focus of the campaigning was winning the delegates and against McCain it was about playing the board making the best electoral college arithmetic and arrive at the magical number 270. At no point do you feel that winning the popular vote was a real concern and I guess that just means that they were smart but one cannot help but consider the efficacy of an electoral system that would allow the popular vote to be a secondary concern.

A very interesting dose of insight!