T.S. Eliot: a Short Biography by John Worthen

This odd book about an odd man employed an eccentric technique to generate a thought-provoking biography. John Worthen leaned heavily on the diaries of Virginia Woolf to defend the reputation of her celebrated friend. Her antipathy to the wife of T.S. Eliot means that the great poet has a really sympathetic portrayal.

Relying too much on the brilliant Woolf as a witness has its risks. Her own instability means that she may not have been the most consistent judge of character. And her literary elitism could have led her to a bias towards the conservative American. Further, she might well have been afraid, jealous or resentful of others who occupied the sick role she shared.

Fortunately, Worthen was aware of the limitations of his effort. Like Eliot, he knew that “No one can be understood.” As a result, those who appreciate poetry can turn back to fragments of the poems:

“And I…must borrow every changing shape

To find expression- dance dance

Dance like a dancing bear,

Whistle like a parrot, chatter like an ape;

Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Some writers are their stories. They have witnessed remarkable things. They have overcome massive obstacles. Nevertheless, it is their personal literary style which separates them from ordinary survivors of trauma, poverty or discrimination. Maya Angelou is an inspirational author and teacher of this type.

Many readers will be familiar with her personal tale of suffering and abandonment. They will know her description of the terrifying American South during the Depression. However, they might not have read Mom & Me & Mom. This illuminating text revisits the complex dynamics of her tough family.

However, the later work does in part reveal that writers can find it hard to let go of their best material. Jeanette Winterson is another superb author who has kept raiding her early life for content when her most famous effort has been completed. However, Angelou developed a brilliant honesty which distinguished her from many of her contemporaries. Perhaps she inherited or copied this trait from her mother:

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: They will come back to you.”

David Lloyd George. The Great Outsider. by Roy Hattersley

This biography was not written by a fan of the Prime Minister who tore up the rules of the political game. The pragmatism, cynicism and occasional unpleasantness of the Liberal orator are viewed through quite a censorious lens. Nonetheless, the achievements of Lloyd George as a pioneering Chancellor are not forgotten. The result is a complex text which is marked by the envy that a politician can harbour for a statesman.

Ideologically Roy Hattersley has few issues with the centrist Lloyd George. They both wanted to help the poor without bringing about a genuine social transformation. However, the admiration Lloyd George had for Keynesian economics and his contempt for the aristocracy meant that the Liberal did have a radical content. It was his antipathy to the socialism of the Labour Party which meant that some of his egalitarian rhetoric was deceptive.

As a biographer, Hattersley has the advantage of knowing some political realities. For example, he showed that he was aware that the electorate will not be told what an election is about. Theresa May should have consulted this text before losing her majority unnecessarily in the ‘Brexit’ general election. As a social historian, Hattersley is much less acute. This is evidenced by the sections on Irish Home Rule. Hattersley provocatively wrote:

“A negotiated peace might still have been possible if the Republicans- some of whom clearly killed for killing’s sake- had not been afraid that the leadership would settle for too little.”

Blair Inc. by Francis Beckett et al.

This fascinating text reveals what Tony Blair has got up to since he ceased being Prime Minister. He has become fabulously wealthy, overtly religious and embroiled in the politics of many countries. At the same time, his acolytes have fought bitter battles against Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, greatly damaging the electoral prospects of the Labour Party.

The researchers were shocked by how secretive Blair has become. His staff were often reluctant to divulge information that was already in the public domain. Blair apologist Charles Clarke was abrasive when asked reasonable questions about the man who took the UK into the Iraq War before assuming a role as a peace envoy.

Clarke had wanted to stop Gordon Brown from replacing Blair as Prime Minister. When this proved impossible because of the momentum of Brown, his ideological colleagues worked through the opaque Progress group to prevent the Labour left from prospering. Miliband was always looking over his shoulder instead of being able to take the fight to David Cameron:

“As often happens, the Blairites said the things Blair only implied. Charles Clarke says that ‘some people find Ed Miliband weird and geeky’ and that he has failed to express clear policies. It’s code for ‘He’s not a proper Blairite’.”

Citizen Clem by John Bew

Revisionist history is not always as patriotic as this recent biography. The greatest ever Labour Prime Minister is painted vividly in red, white and blue. The text focuses on foreign policy, war and anti-communism. One cannot escape from the troubling idea that history is being raided in an attempt to influence current politics. Indeed, the prologue is dismissive of modern Labour leaders like Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

John Bew is critical of the economic knowledge of Clement Attlee. However, Bew spends relatively little time on economic questions. Instead of helping the reader get to grips with Keynes or Marx, Bew prefers to make a host of literary references. The result is a colourful work that does not explain in sufficient detail how the welfare state was created. The massive contributions of Aneurin Bevan and William Beveridge are mentioned but they are explored in a  cursory fashion.

The internal politics of the Labour Party do get plenty of space. However, the struggles of similar European parties are somewhat neglected in favour of a concentration on the special relationship with the United States. Clearly, the Marshall Plan is worthy of considerable attention, but the late lecture tours of Attlee are not of huge significance. It is perhaps possible that Attlee would have preferred an understated account of his life. After all, the modest autobiography of Attlee:

“…was painstakingly guarded and inoffensive. There were no revelations or character assassinations.”

John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeves

This readable biography of the liberal philosopher has an interesting perspective on his evolving thought. Famously, On Liberty illustrates that the thinker was committed to individual freedom in advanced capitalist countries. However, the other work of Mill highlights that he was a feminist and an ecologist who was not necessarily antagonistic to socialism. While Marx and Mill can be clumsily portrayed as opposites, they were both optimists who believed in progress and in certain circumstances urged radical social change.   

However, the author attacks Marx for Utopianism. This seems unfair given the care Marx took to avoid making detailed blueprints for the future. The philosopher never followed in the footsteps of Charles Fourier. Reeves also reveals that Mill had a Utopian streak of his own. This can be seen in Mill’s endorsement of a steady state economy. While such a vision may not be impractical, the contradiction in his liberalism was that it did not really show how such a radical transformation could be arrived at.

Like any great philosopher, Mill was not entirely consistent. He was keener on revolutions in France than social transformation in England. Further, he arguably took insufficient interest in precisely how the struggle between capital and labour was likely to be resolved:

“In the long run, Mill hoped that cooperatively  run companies would supersede the conflict between labour and capital.”

Roy Jenkins by John Campbell

This excellent biography is the result of ample research into the life of a divisive politician. Jenkins steered vital liberal legislation through Parliament as a Labour Home Secretary. He was perceptive about the decline of the UK as an international power. However, he did participate in the disastrous splitting of the Labour Party during the 1980s. Further, he succumbed to the courtesy of Tony Blair and failed to achieve domestic constitutional reform.

At one time, the social legacy of Jenkins seemed assured. His reforms ushered in a tolerant era. In addition, his role in the European project appeared to have tied the UK into a prosperous club. It was therefore possible for some commentators to overlook the negative impact of his personal ambition on the progress of the British labour movement.

Unfortunately, the difficulties of the Eurozone, the ill-advised Brexit vote, and the disastrous election of Donald Trump have all thrown the values of Jenkins up in the air. The truth is that social liberalism requires an economic foundation to thrive. Without understanding solidarity, the left will always be too weak to fight the forces of reaction. Perhaps the late Tony Benn was best at summing up Jenkins after all:

“a man who had great talent, a great capacity for friendship, wildly ambitious, and who believed in maintaining the Establishment and the power of the Establishment, first in Britain and then in Europe.”