Ahead of Alan Johnson’s Durham Book Festival event, Antony Mullen examines the genre of the political memoir. Do literary depictions of history, he asks, complicate the traditional distinctions between “fact” and “fiction”?
As Christmas approaches each year, the shelves of book shops begin to fill up with the memoirs of former ministers. This year sees the publication of autobiographies by the Conservatives’ Malcolm Rifkind, Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems, and Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls. Former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s forthcoming memoir, Kind of Blue, has earned him more than any other British political autobiography, other than those written by an ex-Prime Minister.
Also competing to be this year’s stocking filler is Alan Johnson, the former Labour Home Secretary and Balls’ predecessor as Shadow Chancellor. The Long and Winding Road is the third volume of Johnson’s memoirs, following This Boy (2014) and Please, Mister Postman (2015), and it is the subject of An Evening with Alan Johnson (Gala Theatre, 13th October). In his most recent addition to the collection, Johnson charts his journey from the trade union negotiating table to the constituency of Hull West and Hessel, for which he has served as MP since 1997. Johnson held a number of cabinet positions under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, eventually becoming Home Secretary in 2009.
Johnson’s story of a working-class postman who rises to one of the Great Offices of State may be rare in British politics, but politicians writing their own account of history is not. Throughout the twentieth century, Rachael McLennan suggests in her recent piece for The Conversation, memoir writing was commonly (and almost exclusively) associated with white, male statesman. More recently, she says, “it’s widely accepted that the rules have relaxed […] Anyone – theoretically – can have a voice, a platform, a story worth telling”. But, money-making aside, what is the purpose of the memoir now? In 1948, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons to “leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself”. Churchill’s comments are often misquoted as “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”, but what both Churchill and the misquotation highlight is the significant relationship between history and narrative. Although grounded in fact, the memoir is nonetheless a particular perspective, given by a biased narrator seeking to give their version of events.
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith died before he was able to finish his history of literature, a treatise which was intended to sit alongside The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), The Wealth of Nations (1776) and a fourth (unfinished) thesis on the nature of civil society. All of the documents relating to Smith’s literary history project were destroyed, at his request, following his death. Nonetheless, as Maureen Harkin (2005) points out, we can establish from Smith’s notes about literature and narrative from his lectures on rhetoric what his major project was likely to say. Harkin outlines that, for Smith, writing an account of history was not a scientific or philosophical inquiry, but a literary one. Smith’s concept of history as a literary narrative suggests that historical accounts are not simply governed by a need to be grounded in truth, but also by questions of style, of narrators and, as Harkin puts it, “how best to affect and instruct the reader through shaping an effective story”.
Smith’s idea is an interesting one because it provides an alternative way of thinking about both literature and history. If history is a narrative construct, this would suggest that we should, as we do with fiction, question the reliability and motives of the narrator, the extent to which that narrator can claim to know the true course of history, and whether it is even possible to say that there is one single true account, rather than multiple, contradictory accounts. Equally, we might ask if the novel is more than simply a work of fiction, but instead a means of exploring political and ideological concepts in what was, at the time Smith was writing, a relatively new discourse. Certainly we can see that Smith was not alone in thinking about the relationship between literature and history in this way. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote fiction and non-fiction, including his own Confessions (1782) which is often credited as the first modern autobiography, in a way which blurred the distinction between factual and fictional accounts. As Mads Qvortrup points out in The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Impossibility of Reason (2003), Rousseau is largely credited as the first philosopher of the modern concept of nationalism. But Rousseau’s work on nationalism was not simply explored in non-fiction: Emile (1762) is an example of how Rousseau used the novel to explore how individual identities are constituted when subjects become members of a wider community. This was a theme which he had established, or subsequently developed, in other works of non-fiction, including The Social Contract (1750) and the later, more conservative essay Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772). That Rousseau moved between fiction and non-fiction underlines a shared commitment to Smith’s view of history as a literary undertaking.
We can also see the contemporary novel as performing a similar function when it blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), a typical example of fiction from the 1980s, the relationship between the individual and wider communities (this time the state) is once again up for debate. The novel is concerned with the social changes wrought by Thatcherism, but it is by no means critical of Margaret Thatcher as a person. Instead, it takes some of the key ideas at the heart of Thatcher’s political worldview (liberty and individual freedom from the state) and dramatizes the ways that gay men do not experience ‘freedom’ in the same way as straight men. The state, rather than being rolled back, finds itself taking an active, authoritarian role in persecuting gays. On the one hand this is a fictional account, but it is also an account informed by Hollinghurst’s experience as a gay man in London during the 1980s and a truthful (if personal) response to the Thatcherite idea of the free individual.
Regardless of whether the novel, the essay or the autobiography is chosen as the mode of delivery, it is useful (and necessary) for us to think about history as a narrative construct. In the same way that fictional accounts are put together, factual accounts are also selective and designed, as Adam Smith had it, to tell an effective story. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor, recently reported on Twitter that a close friend of David Cameron has said that his first priority is writing his memoirs. Amidst rumours that Cameron’s resignation as MP for Witney was partly due to Theresa May ‘undoing’ parts of his legacy, and with additional suggestions that Cameron will be remembered solely for Brexit, it will be interesting to see how the former PM uses his memoir to articulate his ‘true’ legacy.
Joining Alan Johnson in the act of reminiscing at the Durham Book festival is Labour MP and diarist Chris Mullin, who will be discussing his autobiography Hinterland on Saturday 8th October at 5.30pm. By contrast, Guardian columnist Owen Jones will be offering a forward-looking perspective in the Politics of Hope (Tuesday 11 October, Gala Theatre, 7.30-8.30pm).