Book review: Memoirs by Michele Obama and Ken Clarke

A Political Memoir?

Having just finished reading the best selling book of 2018, Michelle Obama's Becoming, I can report that I couldn't put it down and that I'm not at all surprised it became a best seller so quickly.

She writes extremely well, as you'd expect from someone educated at Ivy League universities (Princeton and Harvard).

Interesting though the latter parts the book are (en route for the White House and eight years as First Lady), I didn't find it as fascinating as the story of her childhood and early life in in a tiny apartment on the South Side of Chicago.

This is the story of how a bright daughter (with a bright older brother) was brought up by Fraser and Marian Robinson respectable working-class parents who devoted their lives to making sure their children had the best opportunities possible for African-American kids in a deprived area of Chicago.

Craig Robinson was a brilliant basketball player who got into Princeton, and was followed there two years later by his younger sister Michelle. After graduating, she did a law degree at Harvard and was recruited to a highly paid job with good prospects at a law firm back in her home town - where she eventually met her husband.

She's candid about her experience of being an African-American-Woman, who shouldn't really have been be at a posh university like Princeton:
' was impossible to be a black kid at a mostly white school and not feel the shadow of affirmative action. You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even some professors,  as if they wanted to say, "I know why you're here.".... Was I here merely as part of a social experiment?' (pp. 78-9).
It may not be officially categorised as a political memoir, but there are quite a lot of similarities with another excellent memoir that was published two years earlier and definitely is.

Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir

Image result for ken clarke kinda blue  royalty free picture
Like Mrs Obama, Ken Clarke also read law (at Cambridge, England). Unlike her, he'd become interested in politics fat an early age and one of the reasons he decided to do a degree in law was that his long-term ambition was to become a Conservative member of parliament. 

Working as a barrister was well known as a good training ground for anyone wanting to become a professional politician - with the added bonus of learning effective public speaking and making a comfortable living - essential in Clarke's case as, unlike many Tory MPs, he couldn't rely on any family money to support him.

In the book and on its cover, there's refreshing honesty about his humble origins and upward social mobility:
'I never thought very much of politicians who make a great deal of their poor-boy origins. Nevertheless, I was bon on 2 July, 1940, impeccably working class' (p. 1). 
' In Kind of Blue, Clarke charts his remarkable progress from working-class scholarship boy in Nottinghamshire to high political office and the upper echelons of both his party and of government... His position on the left of the party often led Margaret Thatcher to question his true blue credentials, and his passionate commitment to the European project has led many follow Conservatives to regard him with suspicion and cost him the leadership on no less than three occasions' (dust-cover blurb).
So, as in Becoming, the author of Kind of Blue makes no attempt to conceal his working class origins' 
or his own success in making the most of the opportunities available to him. Like Mrs Obama, Mr Clarke is a good writer with a good story to tell.  It's another memoir I couldn't put down when I reading it.  Although I've never voted Conservative, I've always had - and in these crazy days of anti-Europeanism - continue to have a lot of respect for him.

I also share and/or approve of some of his alleged 'eccentricities': he's a keen cricket fan who still smokes, likes drinking Scotch and wears suede shoes. I'm not as avid a jazz fan as he is, but, as an author, I do admire the neat way in which the book's title and chapter-headings are all famous jazz tunes.

Skiing with Paddy Ashdown: fond, if sometimes exhausting, memories



These pictures of Paddy and me were taken ten years ago on the last of many ski-holidays we'd spent together since 1988, when he'd become leader of the LibDems. 

It was also by far the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday - on which more after the history of the Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours below.

Ashdown-Atkinson ski-tours (pre-internet)
Very early in our friendship, we'd discovered that we both had children of a similar age, that all of us liked skiing and that our families tried to go skiing every every year. For them, the Ashdowns, weekend family skiing had been a pleasant perk of life in Geneva (between his lives in the Royal Marines marines and in politics).

After Paddy became party leader, I'd book apartments for the Ashdown and Atkinson families and he'd tell friends and colleagues (including MPs, party members, officials, activists, etc.) where and when we were going that year. Some would make their own travel and accommodation arrangements, others would phone me to ask about this year's available options.
Flaine: one of the first
Ashdown-Atkinson resorts

During the eleven years of his leadership, many people came on these haphazardly packaged holidays. Usually there'd be 15-20 skiers (+ partners and younger children who might or might not be old enough/good enough skiers to follow the leader).

"Follow me to the first lift - no matter how cold it is!"
Those wanting to ski with the group in the morning knew that they'd have to be at the first lift as soon as it opened at 9.00 am.

Anyone in or near the Ashdown apartment also knew that they'd have been woken up at 'sparrows' fart' (Ashdown family jargon for 'crack of dawn') by the sound of our leader's loud imitation of the military reveille WAKE UP! bugle call - after which there'd be no chance of ever missing the first lift.

Once on the slopes, there was no need to think any more, as it was a matter of 'follow my leader' -  who allowed for the fact that it was often a mixed ability group that he was leading. So the route he selected would be reasonably gentle and reasonably free from other skiers. After a few hundred yards, he'd stop and wait for everyone to catch up in as safe a place as possible.

More follow my leader down the slope and however many more catch up/rest/gossip interludes were deemed necessary before reaching the next lift queue, followed by a longer and more relaxing rest on a chair-lift.  

During the days, there'd be occasional breaks for coffee or beer at mountain restaurants but we were then left to fend for ourselves from about 12.30 hrs to 14.00 hrs.
Paddy, Kate and Simon went back to their flat, where Jane would have cooked them a wholesome lunch.

In his skiing Paddy managed, as in all other aspects of his life, to be thoroughly focused, thoroughly considerate and thoroughly pleasant.


Q:  Why was this the most exhausting few days skiing I have ever done?
A:  Because Paddy and I were the only two skiers in a house-party of four: Jane and Joey had long since given up skiing and were quite happy relaxing in the chalet and wandering around the village.

My need for a very cunning plan 
Having skied many times with my son and family, mainly in Les Arcs, I'd discovered that there was much to be said for NOT getting to the first lift as soon as it opened at 9 o'clock.
Later on in the day, snow gets softer and less icy - and, if the sun comes out, it gets even easier to ski as the day wears on.  

In blizzard conditions and/or if it's too cold and icy, you can just mooch around bars and restaurants.

On this particular holiday, I obviously couldn't avoid Paddy's early morning bugle call and the first challenge of the day (for a leisure skier like me) was to delay our departure for as long as possible after breakfast - which I succeeded in doing on most days.

Help from the dreaded G word
Fit and healthy though he always looked, Paddy had suffered for many years from a painful condition he never talked about in public (gout in one of his legs), a condition that made the laborious business of getting a heavy ski-boot on even more laborious (and painful) than usual. So it was a real help having someone there who was willing and able to help.

Having spent a few minutes helping him with his wooly socks and cramming his foot into the boot,  I'd an excuse to take many more minutes pretending that there was something wrong with my own boots - which bought me enough time to delay our departure until 10 o'clock).

A heavy price to pay: hours of non-stop skiing
Once on the slopes, there was little chance to stop for a rest and I had to spend the whole day trying to keep up up with him with few chances to  stop for breaks. What made it worse was that the resort seemed to have more drag-lifts than chair-lifts, so I couldn't even sit down, have a chat and rest between the different pistes.

The pictures of us at the top of the blog were taken on one such day when (after much nagging from me) he agreed to stop for a coffee - not in a restaurant or bar with seats, but standing in the fresh air at a table poking out of the snow on a stick. A quick coffee each and we were off again. 

As on Ashdown Tours, he always selected the routes and led the way. But with only two to think about, he stopped far less frequently and for much shorter periods than when there was a big gang skiing behind him. Reaching him wasn't a cue for a short rest, but more like firing the starting gun for Mr Boundless-Energy to be off again.

Exhaustion, enjoyment and fitness
That's why these were the most exhausting few days I ever spent on a ski holiday. Though two years younger than Paddy, I knew him to be much fitter, stronger and a better skier than I was. Managing to keep up with him on these exhausting days therefore gave me a real sense of achievement. 

And, needless to say, apr├Ęs ski in the chalet with Paddy and Jane was, as always,  a pleasure...

Paddy Ashdown: personal & public reflections on a friend

The death of a spouse, father, mother, close relation or close friend is always an awful experience for those who survive them. And, having lost every one in this list, I think I may be a bit more expert on experiencing grief than a lot of people. 

My first wife died from sudden heart attack after supper one night in April 1992 when we were both quite young (48). But I was lucky that someone who came to her funeral in Oxford was also one of her best friends, whom we'd known in Lancaster 20 years earlier - when we'd all had small children. She and my wife had stayed in close touch and I knew that she was about to be divorced.

By the end of 1993, we had started living together and were married four years later. Since then, the number of deaths among our relations and friends (young and old, sudden and expected) grew dramatically. Now in our seventies, we find ourselves going to more and more funerals of close friends and neighbours.

Among the many other friends who came to my first wife's funeral were Paddy and Jane Ashdown, who (typically) had a practical and generous plan to  help me and my younger son in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death. Thrusting keys into my hand they said "These are keys to our house in Burgundy. We're going there at Easter. But you know where it is so you and Joe can go there whenever you like and we'll join you later." So that's exactly what we did.

I had written and organised every last detail of Moira's farewell at the Oxford crematorium.  And, although I'd worked with Paddy on loads of speeches, I was very flattered when he said (at the wake in our local pub) "I want a funeral like that" to which I replied that it was the first one I'd ever written and I hoped I wouldn't have to write his.

But, as you'll see in the ITN report below, it turned out that he did plan every last detail of his own funeral, which concluded with the blessing, read by his younger brother - and with which he'd ended his last speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats at the party conference in 1999:

May the road rise with you. 
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face. 
And the rain fall soft upon your fields. 
And until we meet again, 
may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.

We'd known that Paddy had bladder cancer since October last year and that he was being seen by specialists Southmead Hospital in Bristol. 

When he was eventually admitted there, he was his usual cheerful, bouncy, Tiggerish and optimistic self. A senior nurse who was going to be looking after him (and also happens to be the daughter of neighbours of ours) told us that, before actually meeting him, she was a bit nervous about meeting him - and what she should call such a famous peer of the realm. She needn't have worried. Before she'd time to tell him her name, he was on his feet holding out his hand to shake hers with the words: "I'm Paddy!" which immediately put her at her ease.

The operation was a success. But afterwards, he contracted 
pneumonia. He'd never looked like an elderly man, nor would he  have considered 77 to be on the outer fringes of fogeydom. 

But my medical relations (two GPs and two nurses) tell me that the older we get, the more vulnerable we become to illnesses from which younger people would recover more easily.

Saved from BeMcGrail ITV's post