Tony Blair’s Journey
Tony Blair’s political memoir has been pulled apart in Britain this week as though it were the palace of a fallen dictator, not so much reviewed as ransacked. Reporters have raced through its 700 pages as though each were some hitherto shuttered room hiding unused ammunition, looted antiquities, piles of purposeless propaganda, racks of vintage wines and extravagant wardrobes. With no prior newspaper serialization deal, there was a stampede for stories that matched the frenzy for Saddam’s Picassos or Mrs. Marcos’s shoes.
The title of Blair’s book, A Journey, was originally The Journey. The switch from ‘the’ to ‘a’ was made, it seems, on the grounds that the first choice was more appropriate to an eastern prophet and the second left open the very slight possibility—important for a certain section of potential purchasers—that the author’s direction of journeying was only one of the possible choices that successors, or even disciples, had to follow. The book is still, however, striking for Blair’s sense of his central significance, a confidence comfortingly undimmed by those parts of the past three years spent making money from motivational speeches. “This book is to be different from the traditional political memoir . . . because my aim was to write not as a historian but rather as a leader.” While many people, he explains, could write “the history of my ten years as Prime Minister . . . there is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history and that is me."
In fact, of all Blair’s predecessors, only Churchill ever thought of himself as writing as a historian. All others have written about themselves as “a leader.” Thus, as I argue in the TLS this week, the difference from the traditional political memoir lies elsewhere, in how the words “baby," “Brown," “bed," and “Bush” (to mention only the Bs) are intertwined in an extraordinary mingling of the political and the personal.
A Guide to the Pope
The unkinder critics (and there are many in the London press) have looked at Britain’s simultaneous preparations for Benedict XVI’s state visit and wondered whether Blair, new Catholic convert and would-be healer of religious rifts, has deliberately timed his book promotion to steal the papal thunder. The former prime minister would probably prefer to see himself in a John the Baptist role. TLS religion editor, Rupert Shortt, gives an unfavorable verdict on a study of the pope timed to help the uninitiated understand him. Why, he asks, has Benedict XVI so long been a prime exhibit in so many critics’ Chamber of Horrors? The short answer is that despite the many continuities in his thought across the decades, set out by Tracey Rowland in her Benedict XVI: A guide for the Perplexed, he changed some major spots remarkably in mid-career.
During the late 1960s, he decided that the church had opened up to the world at the wrong time, just as student unrest and revolution were demonstrating that Marxism posed a chronic threat to Western civilization and while inside the church, disagreement over official teaching on faith and morals was proving hugely divisive. His conclusion was that the liberal genie needed returning to the bottle. The faithful must pull together, shun the luxury of free thinking, and never forget that authentic Christianity is supposed to entail costly witness against what John’s Gospel terms the standards of “this world.” This volte-face was matched by what struck many observers as a shift in his character: "an earlier openness was supplanted by intolerance and gloom."
Graham and All the Greenes
Once upon a time there were two English brothers who, at the turn of the 20th century, settled in the small town of Berkhamsted, at the end of the commuter line in Hertfordshire. They each had six children and it is because of one of these children that the above sentence, writes Gabriel Josipovici, must immediately evoke in most readers over a certain age a sense of ungraspable melancholy, of secret childhood pleasures on a common, of bored and blighted lives redeemed or partially redeemed by a secret adherence to an ideology, Catholic or Communist.
Few writers have made more and better art out of their guilt and childhood unhappiness than Graham Greene, or conveyed more powerfully, in stories, novels and memoirs, the feel of the place where he grew up. Communism and Catholicism had as disputatious a claim on the Greene family of Berkhamsted as they did over the minds of 20th-century Europe as a whole—a story of Graham, Hugh, Barbara, Herbert and Felix which is not as well covered in Jeremy Lewis’ Shades of Greene as Josipovici would have liked.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.