Book review: Memoirs by Michele Obama and Ken Clarke



A Political Memoir?
(2018)


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:
'...it 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
(2016)

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.

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