A SELECTION OF REVIEWS AND TRAVEL JOURNALISM BY JENNY DISKI
(Click on a title)
Author, author: Advice for young writers-to-be
Beatles to Bowie: beneath the surface of 60s photography
A voyage to world's end
Speaking for Myself: The Autobiography by Cherie Blair
The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness
From The Sunday Times
"This is not the place to go into the vastly problematic question of Kosovo". I admit to some relief on reading this on page 277 of Cherie Blair's book, though the fact that nothing had been much gone into on the previous pages made it no great surprise. But the statement did focus a question that had been niggling away since the first line. What is this book the place for? As if for a treasure hunt, Mrs Blair does scatter the odd clue. In a prefatory note she explains that her memory isn't infallible, and she isn't writing history. So, not a book about Kosovo, not reliable, not history. If we proceed by negatives we will, assuming the planet holds out, get there in the end. One positive lead: she was paid an alleged £1m to produce the book. Is this the crucial clue? There is very little point to Speaking for Myself other than to make money for its author. If you exclude the information that Leo Blair was conceived at Balmoral because his subsequent mother was too coy to let the servants see her "contraceptive equipment", it reveals nothing about Cherie Booth, Tony Blair, or the way the country has been run since 1997 that isn't known or spun already. She doesn't like Gordon Brown, who had more room than he needed in Downing Street, and who was uncooperative about Tony's pet "reforms". She doesn't like Alistair Campbell, but then who does? She doesn't like the press who pursued a "vendetta" against her. She didn't do any of the things the papers said she did, and if she did (such as being paid tens of thousands for giving speeches at charity dos) it was only what everyone else did, and why should she be picked on? "Pamper yourself" was one of the favourite phrases of her mentor, friend and frock-advisor Carole Caplin. Tony doesn't like being massaged by men (that's new information, I suppose). He "just wants to do what's right, and somehow or other we'll sort it out" (that's his attitude to money, though he also applied it to the invasion of Iraq). Cherie instructs us on realpolitik ("A British prime minister is never going to undermine an American president") and explains how her "left-of-centre" husband (Tony? Left of centre?) managed to deal with overseas politicians such as George*W Bush who are on the other side of the political spectrum -- no problem because foreign policy is concerned with mutual interest. And although she disagrees with Bush, she and her son once had a "completely and utterly good-hearted conversation" with him about the death penalty, which apparently proves the president has a sense of humour.
We hear a lot about her warm, emotional and caring side. There's no end of charity work, travelling and giving those paid speeches, on behalf of women and the disabled. She thinks the death of Diana was sad and thought "how full of life she had been" (that would be when she was still alive, I suppose). Also the bombing in Omagh was a bad thing, and talking to the families of the bereaved brought tears to her eyes. She was upset, too, when she went to Rwanda with Laura Bush. Her "heart bled" for Hillary over Bill Clinton's capers with Monica Lewinsky ("Oh Bill, how could you?"). And here she does have something new to say. "Not for a second" does she believe "that men are inflamed by the slightest glimpse of an available body .*.*.*Uncontrollable sexual urges are nothing of the sort" (not uncontrollable? not sexual? or not urges?). We move on to her informed discussion on the effects of cultural differences: "Each culture brings its problems. In countries where sexual activity is rife, you have HIV/Aids." And in countries where sexual activity is not rife, the human race comes to an end, though, at this point in my reading, I can't say I would have minded much.
But to return to money, as she continually does. There is a lot of talk about Cherie's humble origins, her woman of the peopledom, but how does the down-to-earth Scouser she portrays get to be all-atremble because instead of the £80,000 (about £275,000 now) Tony brought in before he became an MP in 1983, his new earnings would be £20,000 plus expenses a year (about £69,000 now) as well as whatever she earned as a barrister? The family couldn't possibly live on it. The word she uses is "struggle". This is just offensive. In 2003, in spite of owning two flats in Bristol, she was terrified, when Blair considered resigning over Iraq, that they would be "cast out into the wilderness with nowhere to live", even though they must have saved a bit on free holidays and rent by then. So, as Tony wanted to "be near the Heathrow Express" (you can't help wondering why), she needed to get to her chambers, and Leo had to go to the same school, she was obliged to buy a house in Connaught Square for around £3.5m, thus requiring the paid speaking engagements. I have a cheaper solution: get a house in Hounslow and take the Tube, or even a minicab, to Leo's school and Gray's Inn.
The whine of self-regard goes on and on. She's scraping by, working her fingers to the bone, and what thanks does she get? It's very difficult being the PM's wife, living in No 10, having to get her hair done all the time, spending the weekend on Berlusconi's yacht. And nobody will take her seriously in Downing Street or let her speak in her own voice as an intelligent and independent woman. On this last point she almost gains my sympathy -- and then, faced with the objections by Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell's wife, to the invasion of Iraq, she tells her: "Listen, Fiona. I don't see the papers. I don't see what he and Alastair see, and if Tony tells me, as he does, that if we don't stop Saddam Hussein the world will be a more dangerous place, then I believe him. And in my view, you and I should be supporting our men in these difficult decisions, not making it worse by nagging them." Speaking for myself, eh? But it was stupid to hope for anything original or interesting from Cherie's book when Tony's memoir has yet to come out, and, by all accounts, will bring in between £5m and £8m. So expect nothing here but banality and warmed-over phrases. What do you want for one solitary million quid?*