Christopher Meyer was the Ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003, and had previously been both John Major and Geoffrey Howe's Press Secretary. This book was published in 2005 to much controversy for some of its revelations, which some unhappy that a former Ambassador should publish such a book. Meyer is now the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.
I've only recently read this book, and at first was a little reluctant to as I personally don't think that he should have written a book, given the trusted position that he had. However, despite that initial concern, I did persevere and read the book, and it was a disappointing read.
Overall, I found the style of the book very hard to read and monotonous, jumping around issues and subjects without really analysing the relevant bits. I'm personally not interested in the fact that when he was John Major's Press Secretary he saw Mr Major in various states of attire in the morning. It's irrelevant, insulting to the man who appointed him, and it also means that the important issues of the Major Government are missed out.
Indeed, despite Sir Christopher Meyer being Press Secretary to two very interesting politicians, John Major and Geoffrey Howe, and revealing more about the men and how they did their job, the coverage he gives to these subjects is minimal.
Instead, the base of the book is about his time as Ambassador to the United States, and especially the Iraq war. Although he left in 2003 when the Iraq War was really getting underway and the politicians seemed to be floundering, Meyer should have some really interesting comments to make. In my opinion, there is little of interest, just lots of irrelevant little bits of gossip about individuals, and observations which seem at best unnecssary to reveal, and at worst, plain spiteful.
The book actually gives the impression to me of being less a serious memoir, and more an opportunity for the author to insult particular individuals whom he might not have taken to, or later decided that maybe he should not have taken to. There are sentences such as this, "Rumour has it that Cherie Blair took the opportunity to berate the President over his support for capital punishment". I would like to know whether he believes this rumour to be true, where he heard the rumour from, not just filling the book with spurious comments.
Cherie Blair does seem to have come off rather unfavourably in this book, and John Major fares little better, more in the latter's case from what is not mentioned, rather than what is. Other individuals seem to be given much more credit, with no real explanation as to why.
The coverage of the twin towers disaster from September 2001 is also mentioned, but again, the book reveals very little. It is commented, by way of an ancedote, that Christopher Meyer was with John Major when they heard of the disaster, but Meyer makes no indication as to what this former Prime Minister thought of the situation.
The one point of note is that Meyer does make a political argument that maybe Britain could have done more to influence the American Government and President Bush into not rushing into a war with Iraq quite so quickly, and maybe delaying the whole war. That is of interest, it's interesting to me to know that Blair had the power and influence to delay the war, given his strong links with President George W Bush.
So overall, I found this book just a little too arrogant and self-serving. I'm not convinced that officials trusted in civil service roles should try to make money from their memoirs in this way, but to do so in a book which I personally found disjointed, dull and insulting to many people who were good to Meyer is especially disappointing. A poor read.
The controversial memoirs of Britains Ambassador to the U.S. at the time of 9/11 and the Iraq War said the dust jacket. Its perfectly true, too. They are controversial and he was there. Thats most of the praise out of the way.
I was in two minds about whether or not to buy this book for reasons Ill explain later. It was only when three other family members said that they wouldnt mind reading it that I succumbed and parted with my money to Amazon. Now I wish I hadnt.
Excerpts from the book were published in The Guardian and The Daily Mail in early November 2005 and it seemed that the book might offer a different perspective on the relationship between the UK and the USA in the period before the Iraq war a subject in which Im very interested. Certainly the serialisation suggested a new view of George W Bush and an insight into the relationships between various politicians. Unfortunately what I found was that the newspapers had cherry-picked the best bits and what was left was barely worth the read.
Christopher Meyer went to Bonn as Her Majestys Ambassador to Germany. Hed recently separated from his wife, or my then wife as her refers to her. We never know her name and she doesnt even get into the index, rather like Edwina Currie in John Majors memoirs. Meyer makes no secret of his enjoyment of his status as a single man and falls for the charms of a lady with whom the Embassy had a rather difficult relationship because of their inability to help her gain access to her children. Theyd been abducted by her German ex-husband. Having seen a picture of Miss Laylle, Meyer decides, against protocol, to see her on his own.
"She sensed my eyes boring into her calves like red-hot pokers".
Oh dear Id picked a book hoping for incisive political insight and bought the lustful thoughts of a middle-aged Lothario. Mind you, Id love to have been a fly on the Embassy wall when THAT gossip was doing the rounds. Meyer expected to stay in Germany for about four years and oversee the move of the Embassy from Bonn to Berlin. His relationship with Catherine Laylle could only have caused him problems in Germany so it was fortunate that he was transferred with little warning to Washington. They managed to marry on the eve of their departure for the United States.
The title of the book led me to believe that it would essentially be about Meyers time in Washington, but only about half the book is devoted to 9/11 and the period before the Iraq War. Of the rest theres a mishmash of reminiscence about Meyers career in the Foreign Office with the accent on what sells well in the tabloids briefing John Major of a morning as he dressed and the KGBs attempts to corrupt Meyer whilst he was in Moscow. Confusingly, its not presented in chronological order either.
"In the end it was my wife, Catherine, who saved the Scottish cashmere wool industry..."
Far too much of the book concentrates on Catherine. I know its irrational, but she was put forward to the point where I began to dislike her. Theres a whole chapter devoted to her child-abduction problems and numerous references to the charity she set up to help other parents in similar circumstances. (Interestingly, Meyer could not accept a fee from the newspapers for the serialisation of his memoirs as hes chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. The £250,000 fees went to three childrens charities, with one third going to his wifes charity from which she draws a salary of £34,000 a year.) I know that the Ambassadors spouse plays an important part in the life of any Embassy, but this book would really have been better entitled Memoirs of a Besotted Man.
The book is more interesting when it deals with 9/11 and the pre-war period, but only from a rather superficial point of view. Yes, it is amusing to hear about Tony Blair and his tight cord-trousers but Im doubtful about whether it adds greatly to the sum of our knowledge. He paints George W Bush as being a more commanding figure than public perception would allow and certainly as master of his administration. I was interested in this point, but I would have liked more supporting evidence. Meyer loves the trappings of power and hes a name-dropper par excellence. Theres also the whiney sound of old scores being settled.
The writing style is clunky a mixture of Civil Service formality (which will send you to sleep) and tabloid sensationalism. It felt too as if it had been written in a hurry and not read through to see if it made compelling reading. On one page (171) I found three consecutive sentences beginning with It is and thats just plain lazy writing.
The photographs are all good quality and the usual mixture of me with the great and the good with an added emphasis on Catherine. Theyre moderately interesting but probably more so to the Meyers than anyone else.
I know I shouldnt have bought this book. Im an ex-Civil Servant and in a quarter of a century in the job I leaned that discretion is of the utmost importance even in those areas not covered by the Official Secrets Act. I believe that politicians should feel able to be open and honest with Civil Servants, who are, after all, the people who implement their policies. They should feel able to trust the advice they are given. One man, in writing this book, will have put in jeopardy a trust thats been built up over many years. I wonder how many politicians have decided that you cant trust the Civil Service since its publication. I wonder too how this generation of diplomats feel, having to work in its shadow.
We now have the inglorious situation of the deputy prime minister being involved in a public spat with a former ambassador and knight of the realm over whether or not Meyer should resign as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. The reputation of diplomacy is at a very low ebb.
The books not recommended. If youre really interested in what he has to say about some of our politicians go and trawl through the newspaper archives and get the most titillating bits for free.
Hardcover 288 pages (November 10, 2005)
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price: £20 but available on Amazon for £12 in November 2005