Thursday, 26 April 2012

Nick Cohen

In the new edition of Standpoint magazine, Nick Cohen spends most of what is ostensibly a television column writing about Things Can Only Get Bitter. And, happily for me, he's very flattering: 'the most interesting essay on British culture I have read since George Walden's New Elites.'

He also, I'm glad to see, credits Dan Atkinson's blog entry that originally inspired the piece.

There's the bit where Cohen says my 'grasp of politics is feeble', of course, but obviously I think he's wrong. It's not really true that I'm 'interested solely in the left' - hell, I've just spent the last two months writing about the John Major government for my forthcoming book on the 1990s. But this essay is about the left-inclined section of a particular generation, and is therefore necessarily partial.

He is right, however, that my interests are parochial. Britain fascinates me, and British culture is what I write about. I don't really feel qualified to comment on international subjects.

This is the bit I really like: 'Yet for all his parochialism, his description of how we moved from the harsh and confrontational world of Thatcher to the soft and mendacious world of Blair remains superb.'

As someone who's enjoyed Cohen's own books, I'm rather pleased with that.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Camden New Journal

I just got my copy of this week's Camden New Journal - always a fine publication - to find that there's a full-page review/feature on Things Can Only Get Bitter. Many thanks to Dan Carrier for such splendid treatment.

I'm slightly surprised to be described as an 'Islington author', though, since I live in Camden and I'm not sure I entirely approve of Islington. But apart from that, it's grand stuff.

I also bought today a copy of The Spectator with Lloyd Evans's hysterical attack on the same essay. Apart from decrying my 'wrist-slashing pessimism', his main complaint seems to be that this e-book business is a rip-off, since the recommended price is £2.99 for a 72-page essay.

It is, however, available from Amazon for only £1.64, which I think is pretty fair. Certainly when compared to, say, a 64-page magazine that retails at £3.50 and isn't available anywhere at a discounted price.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Voices from the Blank Generation

I'm a few weeks behind the pace here, but I've just been reading Paul Anderson's piece from Tribune, marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of White Riot, the first single by the Clash.

The Clash were never as big for me as were the Ramones, but apart from that, Anderson's reflections strike a chord. Only two more and I'll be able to form a band.

An excellent column, I was thinking, as I nodded along in agreement. And that was before I had the pleasant shock of seeing my New Statesman piece being quoted.

And while I'm on the subject of my contemporaries: my thanks to Dan Atkinson for the mention in his blog.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Spectator Speaks

Having never had a review in The Spectator before, I'm tremendously excited by Lloyd Evans giving Things Can Only Get Bitter a very thorough kicking. I can't really do his piece justice here, but these are some of the highlights:

'It’s a pity he can’t write terribly well, although it helps to explain the book’s extreme brevity.'

'Turner, a lifelong gloom addict, approaches even the most innocent and joyful developments in a mood of sulky intellectualism.'

'[The publishers] asked a lazy editor to commission a lazy author to propose a lazy idea and turn it into a lazy book.'

'The flimsiest and most banal 72-page tome in history.'

That's terrific stuff. If I'm reading this correctly, he doesn't like the essay very much.

I regret to say that, not being a regular reader of The Spectator, I'm unfamiliar with Lloyd Evans's work. I only knew him previously from Just Boris, Sonia Purnell's excellent biography of Boris Johnson, as an investigative journalist conducting 'an inquiry into Swedish lavatorial habits'.

But he's clearly a man of some taste and discernment, and I thank him for his kind words.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Seasons in the Sun

It's nice to see Dominic Sandbrook's new book, Seasons in the Sun, on the Wilson-Callaghan years of the 1970s, getting such positive reviews, including this fine Book of the Week piece in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph:

But hold, what's that down in the corner, in the Read On section? Excellent - it's a plug for my own Crisis? What Crisis? Still available in paperback.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Top Ten: Lost Labour Leaders

The post-War history of the Labour Party is littered with the best leaders it never had. Apart from these ten (listed in chronological order), cases could also be made for the likes of Barbara Castle, David Owen and Peter Hain. But not for Roy Hattersley.

1. Aneurin Bevan (1955)
After Clement Attlee led Labour to a second successive general election, he stepped down as leader. In a three-way poll, Hugh Gaitskell won an outright majority on the first ballot, defeating Peter Mandelson’s granddad, Herbert Morrison, and Nye Bevan. In terms of previous jobs, Bevan was the least experienced – Gaitskell had been chancellor, and Morrison had been both home and foreign secretary – but he had created the NHS, which gave him a certain weight. He’d also written In Place of Fear, one of the great works of British socialism and still a source of inspiration. But he was seen then, as leaders of the left so often are, as a divisive figure and his failure to carry his fellow MPs with him set a pattern that was repeated over the years.

2. Roy Jenkins (1971)
In the debate over British entry into the Common Market (as we used to call the future European Union), Jenkins led a dissident group of Labour rebels into the ‘yes’ lobby, defying a three-line whip even though he was the party’s deputy leader. Labour was then in opposition and its leader, Harold Wilson, was far from secure. The possibility existed for Jenkins to resign on the European issue and challenge directly for the leadership. He would have been good at it as well, and would have done far better at the subsequent election. Mind you, Britain would have been much more engaged in Europe, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your views.

3. Tony Crosland (1976)
What a field of candidates there was in the election to replace Wilson as leader and therefore as prime minister. Jim Callaghan won eventually, but first he had to see off Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Denis Healey. And the foreign secretary Tony Crosland, who got barely five per cent of the MPs’ votes. Given that he died less than a year later, it was probably not too catastrophic for Labour that Crosland didn’t make it, but he would have been a decent choice: a social democrat intellectual who was capable of adjusting and evolving his thought in the light of circumstance.

4. Denis Healey (1980)
The choice of who should replace Callaghan after the disastrous election defeat of 1979 was so obvious and so stark – Denis Healey versus Michael Foot – that only the Labour Party could screw it up. So they did, rejecting the most popular politician they had, the one man almost guaranteed to beat Margaret Thatcher. Choosing Healy as leader would have caused major problems in the party, but since those came anyway, it’s hard to see how much worse it could have been. Most importantly, the SDP would never have been born.

5. Tony Benn (1981)
Largely thanks to Benn’s efforts, the franchise was widened for the election of party leader, allowing affiliated trades unions and constituency parties a say. So Benn stood for the deputy leadership, to try out the new system, he said. It was a bit of a cop-out, and a straight fight for the leader’s job would have been more engaging. He would have lost, of course, but had he won, he might well have done better in the 1983 election than Foot managed – the press abuse could hardly have been more vitriolic, and Benn did genuinely inspire some of the people some of the time in a way that Foot simply didn’t.

6. Peter Shore (1983)
The inevitable defeat of Labour in 1983 saw the equally inevitable replacement of Foot by his protégé Neil Kinnock. Trailing a very poor fourth in the election (beaten even by Eric Heffer, embarrassingly enough) was Peter Shore, an intriguing figure who no one could ever quite place within the left-right spectrum. He campaigned against membership of the EEC, argued against restrictive practices in the trade unions and, as shadow chancellor, was one of the few successes during Foot’s doomed leadership. I always rather liked him as a politician: he was thoughtful, intelligent and courteous. He also had very messy hair, though it was nowhere near the state of...

7. Shirley Williams (1987)
This is pure fantasy time, since Our Shirl was already long gone from Labour, having left to co-found the SDP in 1981. But if she had still been around when Kinnock failed to win the 1987 general election, she would have made the perfect replacement. And a perfect foil for Margaret Thatcher. In the words of a Times leader: ‘Mrs Williams talks to the British people in their own accents, sometimes muddled, often courageous, always human and always kind.’

8. Bryan Gould (1992)
In a straight fight between John Smith and Bryan Gould to replace Neil Kinnock as leader, the Labour Party once again got it wrong. On the single most important issue of the day – British membership of the European exchange rate mechanism – Smith made the wrong call and, had there been any such thing as natural justice, would have been as discredited as John Major when Britain got kicked out of the ERM on Black Wednesday. Gould, on the other hand, had always stood against the tide, arguing for policies based on the real economy rather than monetarist dogma. He was a true moderniser with a sound grasp of economics that shamed the young turks Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And, of course, he didn’t die in 1994, as Smith did, so that Blair might have been kept in his box.

9. Robin Cook (1994)
After Smith’s death, there were just three candidates for the leadership: Tony Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Unsurprisingly Blair won at a canter, since the other runners were clearly so implausible. The man who didn’t stand was Labour’s strongest performer in the Commons, Robin Cook, a brilliant and principled politician with twenty years as an MP. He decided against going for the leadership on the grounds that he was ‘too ugly’ to be prime minister, but he was wrong: there was far too much character in his face for him to be unattractive. And anyway, given the state of the Tories by 1997, a monkey on a stick could have won that general election.

10. David Miliband (2007)
Why, oh why, were the Labour Party so stupid that they chose Gordon Brown to replace Tony Blair? More to the point, why were they so craven that they didn’t even have an election? Brown clearly stood no chance up against David Cameron, but his fatal flaw – his indecisiveness – was sadly echoed in the person of David Miliband, his most plausible challenger. By the time Miliband had screwed his courage to the sticking-plate, it was too late and Ed came through as the ‘Stop David’ candidate.

Monday, 9 April 2012

1992 - Twenty years on

Today is the 20th anniversary of the 1992 general election, when John Major confounded the polls and won a majority in Parliament, recording in the process the biggest vote ever achieved by a British political party.

That election victory is the starting point of my most recent book, Things Can Only Get Bitter, which looks at some aspects of the fallout from 1992. The central argument is that everything changed then, and that we are still living with the consequences today.

The Labour Party manifesto for that election was not one of the great historical documents of the movement, but it did open with a poem, Winter Ending, by Adrian Henri, and it seems appropriate to remember it now:

'A cold coming we had of it'
huddled together in cardboard cities,
crouched over shared books in leaking classrooms,
crammed into peeling waiting-rooms,
ice stamped into crazy-paving
round polluted streams.

Winter ending:
paintings, poems bud hesitantly,
tentative chords behind boarded facades;
factories open like daffodils,
trains flex frozen rheumatic joints,
computer-screens blink on
in the sudden daylight.

As the last cardboard boxes
are swept away beneath busy bridges,
the cold blue landscape of winter
suddenly alive with bright red roses.

Yet more bitterness

I've mentioned here before the excellent podcast series Tim Haigh Reads Books, which has previously featured Tim talking to me about Crisis? What Crisis? and The Man Who Invented the Daleks.

So now there's a new interview available, covering Things Will Only Get Bitter.

My thanks to Tim and to his producer, John Mindlin, for their continuing interest and support.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Things slightly less bitter...

The promotion for my e-book Things Can Only Get Bitter continues apace. Yesterday evening I was on LBC talking about it with Iain Dale, which was very agreeable, and this morning there's a review in the Guardian by John Harris - author of the excellent The Last Party, one of the best books about the 1990s.

'Fascinating stuff,' says Mr Harris, 'Turner's text contains plenty of astute observations.' Well, he says some other things as well, but that'll be the main bit I quote.

He does add: 'The story demands a telling that is more expansive (as in Turner's book about the 1980s, Rejoice, Rejoice!) and more methodical.'

That'll be coming next year. For now, Things Can Only Get Bitter is a taster for the big book, and is still available for the price of a Sunday newspaper.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Starting the Week

I've now had a chance to listen to some of Start the Week from Radio 4 this morning, and it sounds okay. Well, obviously it sounds okay - Andrew Marr is a very good presenter, and there's a fine production team on the programme, headed by Katy Hickman. What I really mean to say is that I sound okay on it, which is a relief. And indeed I rather enjoyed it.

Seems to have done sales some good as well. Last time I looked Things Can Only get Bitter was nestling outside the top 50,000 or so Amazon's chart of Kindle best-sellers; this afternoon it was in the top 200. I expect I've just put the mockers on that.