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Who could resist a title like that? And is this a former librarian or someone like that? The answer is no.
So why the title? Shirley Catlin, as she was born in 1930, tells us in the early pages of this memoir that during her childhood her father encouraged her to climb the bookshelves in their Chelsea house, right up to the ceiling. It was a secret between the two of them, as her mother, 'Testament of Youth' author Vera Brittain, would have immediately anticipated cracked skulls and broken arms.
Apart from Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle, she was probably the best-known female politician in Britain of her generation. In the early chapters she recalls her early childhood in the years before the Second World War, and her evacuation to America, where she might have become a child star, in the running for the leading role in the film 'National Velvet', had she not been beaten to it by Elizabeth Taylor.
Yet politics was always in her blood. Her father, who was ever keen to try and help advance her career, introduced her as a teenager to Lady Astor, the first woman ever to take her seat at Westminster. Told that young Shirley wished to become an MP, the redoubtable former parliamentarian exclaimed witheringly, 'Not with that hair!' She cheerfully admits to having been something of a tomboy, deciding at twelve that dancing was a sissy occupation.
Her first marriage, family life and travels abroad are described in some detail, but I suspect that most readers will find the account of her political career the most interesting part of the book. First elected to Westminster in 1964, she was at once struck by the sexist attitudes which then prevailed in the House of Commons. One elderly male MP given to pinching his female colleagues in the division lobbies was once seen to hobble angrily into the tea room, complaining of gout. In fact his foot had been deliberately stamped on by somebody who had had enough. One would like to think it had taught him a good lesson.
I was impressed by her sympathetic assessment of Harold Wilson, who is portrayed as a likeable, shrewd man who held a party together divided on deeply ideological lines, especially at a time when she shared the fears of a cabinet secretary that a collapse of constitutional government was not impossible. James Callaghan also comes across as a decent man, totally free from pomposity, who likewise did a difficult job well under trying circumstances, although she considers his postponement of the election in 1978 a major blunder. She also writes with some insight of the elaborate minuet of British parliamentary politics and the finer qualities of one-nation Conservatives, with whom she often found disagreeing a little artificial. And she admits with hindsight that her failure to anticipate the general media reaction to her visit to the Grunwick Film Processing factory picket line in 1977 was a mistake.
In the 1979 general election she was the only outgoing cabinet minister to lose her seat, at Hertford and Stevenage. The Labour party, now in opposition, underwent an extraordinary few years of in-fighting, and as one of the 'Gang of Four', her description of the break with her old colleagues, the bitter divisions which surfaced at the 1980 Labour conference, and the birth of the Social Democratic Party are essential reading for anyone interested in the whole remarkable saga. Her assessments of the major figures, from Michael Foot and Tony Benn to her fellow SDP leaders, are remarkably even-handed throughout. Roy Jenkins, she says, 'a brilliant fencer in a world of brutal rugby', did not enjoy being leader of the SDP.
She also comments judiciously about the Major and Blair eras, offering her insights as an experienced politician of the previous generation while remaining non-judgmental throughout. Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election because he was perceived as an honest man at the time. As for Thatcher, Blair and Brown, she considers them all Prime Ministers of remarkable courage, ability and ambition for themselves and the country, though they all belittled themselves by their behaviour towards colleagues, friends and rivals.
The closing chapters are divided between her description of another spell in America, the continuing world conflicts and the aftermath of 9/11, parallels between the economic crisis of the 1930s when she was born and that which we are living through now, and above all her family life and happy second marriage. She ends with a few general thoughts on the future for the world, and on political life in general, admitting that she was disorganized and lacked a ruthless killer instinct. Perhaps it was partly these little flaws that made her one of the most genuinely likeable senior politicians of her time.
I have read several political memoirs, but I would say I have found this one among the most appealing of them all. It is written with good humour, gentle self-deprecation, and generous judgements of political friends and foes alike, yet she does not shrink from the occasional fairly sharp point. However, if you are looking for any nasty revelations, the kind of thing the tabloids love, you will be disappointed. She is not one to wield the knife.
This is a modified version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao
Now in her 80s, a British politician looks back over her long political career.
Shirley Williams is perhaps most famous for being one of the Gang of Four, a group of MPs who broke away from the Labour Party in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They were dismayed that what they saw as a hard left was wrecking the party. The SDP later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democratic Party, so this provides some history of the junior partner in our new government coalition.
My own political sympathies are with that hard left, but I was drawn to reading this book for a number of reasons. Williams' mother was Vera Brittain, a writer and socialist and feminist political activist best known for her memoir of the First World War, Testament of Youth, and I was interested in reading more about the family. I heard some of this serialised on the radio when it first came out last year. I liked the title - Williams' father allowed her to climb up his shelves as a child - and I think she uses it to convey her enthusiasm and willingness to take on a challenge, rather than being a fanatical bookworm, but it's still a great title for a book.
Shirley Williams was brought up in a political atmosphere and was active from student days at Oxford onwards. She worked as a journalist for a while but entered Parliament quite early, when there were far fewer female MPs than now. There are lots of references to her conversations with other female MPs from all parties - one significant contemporary was Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Minister from 1979 to 1991. There are some amusing anecdotes such about cross party collaboration to take action against sexual harassment.
I don't really agree with her views about the 1970s, trade unions and so on, but I found it really useful to read this account of how her political thinking developed and was influenced. I also wanted to know about the founding of the SDP from the viewpoint of someone involved. I found her memoir an interesting read, with an anecdotal, accessible style. Williams is apparently quite candid about her various political decisions, and about her views on other members of the SDP and the Alliance, not always flattering. In particular, there are some quite critical remarks about the late Roy Jenkins and about David Owen, although a young Charles Kennedy is praised for his perceptiveness and charm.
At the same time, I found the book frustrating at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps because there is so much that is interesting to write about, some of the things that I was most looking forward to learning about seem almost hurried over. My literary heroine Vera Brittain seems to have been a rather distant mother, although Williams says they became friends later. I would have liked to know if they discussed (and argued over) Shirley's developing political career and the political developments of the time. I suppose I'll have to read a biography of Brittain for that, though. Of course there were lots of remarks I disagreed with, but I rather expected that. Williams' style is perhaps drier and deliberately distanced from emotions than some of my favourite memoirs.
One thing I did enjoy in the hardback book (borrowed from the library) is the inclusion of 3 sets of photographic plates, comprising 24 pages and over 40 photos in all, including politicians, friends, her two husbands (her first marriage ended in divorce, the second with his death) and family of all generations. There isn't much about some of the family in the pictures other than the photos and captions themselves - and I don't know if all of these will make it into the paperback edition. I know it's a political memoir but clearly family is very important to Shirley Williams, and it would have been nice to read a bit about, for example, becoming/being a grandmother. (I don't suppose we expect or look for such content in politcal memoirs by men, but it would be nice to see it there too).
Williams is thought to be one of the Liberal Democrats who is uneasy about the new coalition, and I will be interested to see if there is any update in the paperback edition of this book this autumn.
If the option to rate between 3 and 4 stars existed here I would probably rate this about 3.5.