Wednesday, December 05, 2007

T.B. Sheets

I'm getting into books about politics again. Having recently completed Jon Snow's memoirs, I'm now contentedly tackling the final volume of Tony Benn's diaries which covers his post-parliamentary years from 2001 to 2007 and are humorously subtitled 'More Time For Politics'. I'm struggling to recall which volumes of Benn's diaries I've already completed. I know I've read the earliest years from 1940 to the 1970s when it was refreshing to catch a vivid and candid glimpse at the Wilson governments. There seemed to be less 'spin' back then while cabinet proved more of a debating chamber than it appears nowadays. More recent diaries dealt with the illness and death of Benn's beloved wife, Caroline; those passages were incredibly poignant and moving.

This current volume sees our hero free of any parliamentary shackles and able to contend wholeheartedly and busily with a post 9/11 world and an Anglo-American alliance determined to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Beyond the anti-war arguments, accounts of telephone calls and meetings and briefings, it is the human side of Benn that commands most attention. Here is an elderly man approaching eighty, coping with deafness, the unreliability of modern appliances, no-smoking restrictions and missing his late wife terribly. He appears to break down and cry almost weekly at memories and sudden thoughts as well as at sad parts in films (he sobs unselfconsciously during the first Harry Potter feature film) and during memorial services for old colleagues. This is so endearing. The juxtaposition of hard-hitting former statesman and lachrymose and tender grandfather makes for compelling reading and all the background details (love of family, dearly treasured friendships, ordinary encounters and conversations with strangers) really do add so much to the overall picture of a hugely admired public figure that history will judge - and is beginning to judge - fondly and with knowing acceptance of great gravitas, wisdom and integrity.

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