When the opportunity arose to get a pre-publication copy of Tony Benn’s final diaries, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine my hand shot up quicker than my brain could actually process what I’d just done. I’ve long been an admirer of this controversial political giant, egged on no doubt by my grandfather who considered him some kind of living god, but was I really in the market for a politician’s diary? What if it turned out to be drier than dust and deadly dull? Didn’t I already have Alan Clarke’s diaries on my shelf, still unopened many years after his death? How on earth would I find something to write about in a review if all he did was bang on about politics? Silly me. Tony Benn couldn’t be boring if he tried to and his latest book – likely to be his last set of diaries – is witty, entertaining and always deeply human.
Benn is lauded as one of the great diarists of his era but most of the contents of this book were never actually written down by him. Instead he has for many years been recording his thoughts on audio tape and then trusting his friend and editor, Ruth Winstone, to pull them into a readable shape. Perhaps it’s this origin as spoken rather than written word which helps the reader to feel as if Tony Benn is speaking to them rather than writing at them. At the age of 88, he no longer has anything to prove to anyone and what we see is a man entirely at ease with who and what he is, who and what he has been, and still fighting for the underdogs and the downtrodden, even at a time when he’s barely able to get himself out of bed some mornings.
This is a book about reminiscing, about getting on and adding every day to his list of life’s achievements, but also about taking stock and recognising what he can’t do any more. The main diaries cover the period 2007 to 2009, a time when Benn and his old-style Labour politics were hard to find in Britain. He loathed Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’ and in the early chapters before Blair’s resignation, one of the most used phrases is “It’s an outrage!” Blair’s behaviour gave Benn plenty to get aerated about. He quite liked Gordon Brown but could see that his days were numbered. We live with Benn through the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan which he deeply and passionately opposed. We also accompany him through the economic meltdown of the global economy which he feared but at the same time seemed to have expected and to almost welcome for its ability to restart a new order. Repeatedly he wonders how it is that money can be found to rescue banks and wage wars but not to build hospitals or support British trade. We wonder how a man in his 80s can leap out of bed in the small hours of the morning, grab a taxi to the station, travel to the other end of the country for a protest march or to give a few speeches, then travel all the way back again, arriving after midnight. He often tells us he’s tired and it’s not surprising – men half his age would balk at his workload.
I enjoyed his stories about friends and family and his clear love and pride in the achievements of both. His son Hilary was a minister during the period of the diaries and despite being part of Tony Blair’s inner circle and part of the deplorable ‘New Labour’ ways, Tony Benn is always supportive of his boy. His granddaughter wants to stand as an MP despite still being in her teens and Tony only hints in passing that he has to be a little careful what he says as her political interpretations of Labour are rather different than his. He also knows anyone who’s anyone in the world of trade unions and civil rights, name dropping the great and the good from Nelson Mandela to Billy Bragg, via Shami Chakrabarti.
Benn’s support of old Labour ways comes through in his tireless campaigning and attendance at campaigns and meetings all over the country. He also goes to Glastonbury every year, musing that it makes little difference who the audience are, the reactions to his speeches seem to be pretty much the same. As one of the few people old enough to remember some of the great events of Trade Union history, he’s not one to ever pass up a chance to honour the dead of the labour movement. He’ll turn up for an interview with the BBC and a slew of international television and radio stations to comment on just about anything that happens in the world and he’ll churn out a speech at the drop of the hat. Often he’ll tell us that he thinks the interview or speech seemed to be well received but it never feels like arrogance.
Perhaps the saddest passages in the book are those where he reminisces about the loss of his wife, the woman he was married to for 6 decades and to whom he proposed on a park bench in Oxford – later buying the bench and moving it to his garden. He tells us often that he thinks he won’t live much longer, that nothing seems to work properly any more, that he’s up every few hours in the night with prostate troubles and having tests all the time for various health problems. He loves the National Health Service and praises it at every chance, also reminding readers that the NHS would not survive with the tireless work of the very immigrants that the BNP and UKIP would love to ‘send home’. Benn’s socialism is of a type I can relate to and I cannot help but like this man and think it might be time to track down his diaries from his younger years.
He’s bright, bubbly, always on the ball and always capturing the minutiae of life that we might otherwise miss. One moment he’s flying off to chat to ex-President Jimmy Carter, the next he’s mentioning that Michael Jackson’s death was all over the papers. I was so into the political vibe that my first thought was “General Sir Mike Jackson’s dead?” and then I realised he meant the OTHER Michael Jackson. He has lots of friends in the political and media worlds, flirts with Natasha Kaplinsky, Kate Silverton and Saffron Burrows, takes phone calls from Kofi Annan, and spends a lot of time in Pizza Express and Starbucks. Not so much as ‘champagne socialist’ as a ‘latte labourite’ and a ‘pizza pacifist’.
The diaries stop in 2009 when a hospital operation doesn’t go as expected and he’s bedridden for a period. He stops writing and when he’s well again, he’s lost the taste for keeping a diary. In his final chapter he brings us up to date on the changes of those intervening years, reflecting on the new Conservative government, the Coalition and even the death of Margaret Thatcher – a leader he seems to soften to a little after suffering years of Tony Blair’s leadership.
The main thing you’ll take away from A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will probably be the energy, the passion, and the warmth of this man. Whether the flavour of his particular brand of politics aligns with your own is not important – he’s a British institution, a political giant and has a personality that’s larger than life. He cannot live forever, nobody can, but I’m inspired by this book to want to go and buy his earlier diaries. I can think of no more pleasant way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of 20th Century political history.
A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine by Tony Benn
Published by Hutchinson, December 2013
With thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy.
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