Thursday, 15 February 2018

a lecture

I went this evening to a talk about Clement Attlee.  It was organised by a local bookshop, and my mother asked if I was interested, and I thought, actually I am interested in Attlee.  It was to be given by somebody who had written a biography of Attlee, who turned out when we got there to be John Bew, Professor in History and Foreign Policy in the War Studies Department at King's College, London.  I had not heard of him, or his book, which was something of an achievement given that I found it had won three different prizes and received glowing reviews across the board.  When Daniel Finkelstein, Tom Watson, Tristram Hunt and Ferdinand Mount all say good things about a political biography you can be pretty sure the author has made a decent fist of it.

Rather than ask Professor Bew to stand there and talk about the book what he wrote for fifty minutes he had come with a co-presenter, so that they could have a conversation.  Some of the co-presenter's questions were so long they made James Naughtie's much-missed interviews on the Today Programme sound like incisive models of concision, but the format worked.  I had previously read a short and workmanlike biography of Attlee as part of a series on British Prime Ministers, but the Prof's book went into much more depth.  I had not known, for example, that in the early days of the second world war it was the Labour elements of the coalition that were squarely behind Churchill, and furiously against the notion of appeasement still favoured by some Conservatives.

I found myself liking Professor Bew and his book so much that in the interval I bought a copy, having gone there not intending to buy any more books since I already have several boxes of my late father's history books in the spare bedroom, waiting for me to get around to start reading them, and indeed buy a bookcase to put them in.  In the Q&A at the end somebody asked him why he chose Attlee, and he said partly because there hadn't been a major biography for thirty years, but also because he liked writing about the non-flamboyant people in history.  I cheered mentally.  Introverts of the world, unite.

The audience made interesting viewing in themselves.  I'm pretty sure quite a few were attached to the university, there was a significant contingent of under forties, and at least half were men.  Indeed, walking back to my mother's house afterwards she said she didn't think she had seen so many men for ages.  It goes to show, they do exist and they will turn out for lectures.  They just don't seem to want to come to talks on either gardening or art in anything like the same numbers as women.

The book is called Citizen Clem, and I recommend it, subject to the caveat that I haven't actually read it yet.  Don't buy the hardback, though.  The author himself admitted that after doing the research the writing stage was completed in only six to eight months in a panic-stricken rush, and there are a few nasty errors, corrected in the paperback edition.

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