Climbing the Bookshelves … and the A team

My film and book obsession continues – off early today to see the first local showing of the A team. Why indulge in this remake of a perfectly respectable 80s tv series? Well, I thought it was funny back then, (I’ll admit to remembering the 80s and nothing else) the CGI was really impressive (I’m told that containers are really easy to fake) and the actor playing Face is gorgeous! (Which may explain the presence of some of the women in the cinema). As a contribution to cinema history, well, perhaps not great, but enjoyable nonetheless.  Best line? “You still use a PEN?!” Probably the best line – not easy to hear others above the explosions…

A book which was a bit of a disappointment? Climbing the Bookshelves – An Autobiography by Shirley Williams. I had looked forward to reading this book as I have been to talks by this lady when I lived in Suffolk, and have looked at at least one of her other books. I have always admired her as a politician with principles, who hasn’t always followed the party line, but has been realistic in her analysis of situations. Her other great selling point for me has been the fact that she is the daughter of Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth and other books probably inspired me to work that bit harder to get into Cambridge. Herself a flawed heroine, I’ve read many books about her and by her great friend, Wilfred Holtby, including “The Crowded Street” recently reprinted in their usual elegant fashion by Persephone books. So I was eager to read about the life of Shirley Williams.

However, this is very much a political biography. There is an account of Williams’ early life, including her evacuation to America, but it was quite distant and I felt cheated of detail in terms of her relationship with her parents, her journeys in wartime and her education. The information is there, but rather brief and not very sympathetically written given that it is her own life she is recalling, not that of a friend. Similarly, her nearest and dearest are also not fleshed out, beyond comments as to academic progress and a brief outline of  marriage and or illness. No one person stands out, not even Williams  herself, as someone with an emotional life. I can respect her privacy and the pain of some events she describes, including her mother’s decline and death, but Williams is not a writer of people.

So, a political autobiography? I would admit to not having a detailed knowledge of 20th century politics, but I like to think I have a bit of a grasp of who was whom. I can only think that I needed a better one before tackling this book. I got my Roys and Rogers hopelessly muddled, as well as the myriad of other males who Williams variously praises and discusses. I believe that  my main problem was  Williams straying from a linear narrative as to events and indeed the progress of the political parties. So she will leap, chronologically speaking, to descriptions of a particular person’s career and outlook on politics in the middle of a section on a particular event. I did get confused about which constituencies  she worked in, stood for and eventually won or lost in the digressions about whoever was leader of whichever party she was mentioning. She was good at describing the commitment of party workers, but not could at firmly stating what was achieved. She was good at attempting to explain the Kosovo situation, and the very last section of the book was more assured.

So this is a fair book, an interesting book, but not really what I was expecting. It probably was my lack of concentration and background knowledge that made wading through the bulk of political memoir difficult. There are some very interesting sections of this book, but overall it is not an easy read. If you are looking for an insider’s view of twentieth century politics it is probably a good read, but it does not really reveal Shirley Williams as a person. So, a good book but a bit disappointing.

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