Memoirs are made of this

I'm a self-confessed congenital collector. Amongst the symptoms of this expensive indulgence is the desire for completeness - the drive to possess the complete series, all the alternatives, each variety and every edition. For the bibliophile it requires the eternal search for every publication on a chosen topic. The only way to keep this addiction within manageable limits is to concentrate on specific subjects, otherwise bankruptcy hovers inexorably.

For me, in the context of biography and memoirs, it comes down to two wildly different areas: British political history from around 1880, and jazz! For a long time, with few exceptions, the jazz world did not produce high quality scholarship, either in its analysis or its biography, but Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz of 1968 and John Chilton's series of biographies, starting with his Who's Who in Jazz of 1972, sparked off an era of excellent writing and research. Before this most memoirs were of the "as told to" variety, famously epitomised in the opening line of Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues: "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three."

The world of politics is very different! It abounds with literary pretension. No political figure of note lacks a biography and few without note lack published memoirs. Curiously, despite the plethora of well produced tomes feeding a relatively large readership, dating at least from Gladstone era, there are still small local publishers which produce contemporary memoirs. One recent example was Geoffrey Lofthouse's excellent A Very Miner MP published by Yorkshire Art Circus.

Diaries are a very specialised genre, particularly since Richard Crossman's successful battle in the courts to publish his contemporary accounts of the processes of government. His example was followed by Barbara Castle and by Tony Benn and their chronological format and the relative lack of commentary makes them invaluable for all political historians and biographers.

Paradoxically the memoirs of minor political figures have a particular value in that they furnish a back bench view of great issues and occasions that is often shrewder and less self-seeking than the writings of the major players. Books on and by Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill proliferate but stumbling on Memories of Midland Politics 1885-1910 by Liberal backbencher Francis Allston Channing, or finding Leeds communist Ernie Benson's two volume To Struggle is to Live is much more interesting. By contrast, I've tried and failed a number of times to read John Morley's epic three volume Life of Gladstone, published in 1903. It remains an effective cure for insomnia.

Sometimes long awaited memoirs can be very disappointing. Jo Grimond's came into that category with a work that was all over the place and which shouted out for the services of a skilled - and tough - editor. There are flashes of the whimsical Grimond many of us knew well. He had been adopted as Liberal candidate for Orkney and Shetland following the withdrawal of the previous candidate early in the second world war. Jo recounts how that when the war ended he was in the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg. He writes in his memoirs:

While enjoying a suite in the Atlantic Hotel news came that I was to be returned to Britain as a political candidate. I had largely forgotten about this. ..... Even humble, well, fairly, humble Majors had their perks. I was driven to Calais, or it may have been Boulogne, in a Mercedes. A wheel flew off as far as I remember but otherwise nothing of moment happened. Who drove the Mercedes or what happened to it I don't remember.

Curiously the two recent biographies of Grimond, by Michael McManus and Peter Barberis, though worthy and useful, also somehow fail to capture the charismatic personality of the man. Incidentally, there are no photos extant of Grimond in contrived photo opportunities. He always refused to take part in "gimmicks" which he regarded as demeaning the importance of politics.

The best memoirs are those which pull the curtain aside and expose a whole new dimension of a particular period of political life. Paddy Ashdown's diaries are most remarkable for the many references to his almost obsessional pursuit of "the project" with Tony Blair. Ashdown's constant contact with Blair with a view to forging some long-term arrangement between the Lib Dems and new Labour was conducted entirely behind the back of his party and, at times, against its expressed strategy.

Occasionally memoirs also provide a valuable historical record. One recent such offering was Peter Kilfoyle's Left Behind. Published in 2000, it was advertised as the inside story of the struggle to defeat the Militant tendency in Liverpool, written by the Labour party's key official in Liverpool. It certainly fulfils that promise, and is worth the price of the book for Kilfoyle's vivid descriptions of Militant's tactics and the methods used to defeat them, but the bonus is that it is also a well written account of Liverpool's municipal politics from the early 1970s. Having been somewhat involved in Merseyside politics over the years some of the revelations about my then colleagues were fascinating - not least that Bill Smythe, the erstwhile Liberal leader of Liverpool City Council was at the same time also a member of the Labour party!

Beating all these into frazzle, however, in the revelation stakes are Joe Haines' two books on the Wilson governments: The Politics of Power published in 1977 and Glimmers of Twilight in 2003. Initially written to counter Marcia Williams' - later Lady Falkender - own memoirs, Inside Number 10, they are brilliantly written and portray a Prime Ministerial private office so massively dysfunctional, largely on account of Marcia's paranoia and her mysterious hold over Harold Wilson, that one marvels that Wilson's governments survived for eight days let alone eight years.

That the daily traumas so racily recounted by Joe Haines could be hidden from public view throughout Wilson's time in office is astonishing. So, if you want a blow by blow account of the reality of political life behind closed doors, read Joe Haines.

11 September 2005