Lasting Impressions

New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Lasting Impressions


Are those in the thick of the new Labour revolution too busy to read books? Not so. Here are some choices

Tony Wright, MP

Only one book? As a politician, surely I can cheat? So two. Both novels, both stumbled across this year, and both books I would die happy if I had written. So it's Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! (Penguin, [pounds]6.99) and Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong (Vintage, [pounds]5.99). Big books both - hugely ambitious, towering themes, passion galore, deeply human. Bit like Labour's draft manifesto really.

Tony Benn, MP

Hugh Gaitskell by Brian Brivati (Richard Cohen Books, [pounds]25)

Gaitskell died three years before Brian Brivati was born and in this brilliant first biography Brivati describes and tries to understand the personality and the political career that provoked such extremes of feeling in his own lifetime and beyond. Gaitskell, publicly as dry as dust, is privately charming and vivacious. More surprisingly, the man often remembered as the hammer of the left emerges as a traditional socialist by the standards of the centrist philosophy of new Labour

Frank Field, MP

Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter (Hodder & Stoughton, [pounds]20)

The "victim" gets the last laugh. Runcie believed he was being interviewed for a biography to appear after his death. Carpenter, known to Runcie since boyhood, let the Archbishop babble on into his tape recorder. The result is a brilliant portrait of Runcie and his wife. Carpenter is left wondering whether he's understood what's hit him.

Chris Smith shadow health spokesman

Italian Neighbours by Tim Parks (Mandarin, [pounds]7.99)

A book describing a year on the outskirts of Verona, and I read it in Verona - wandering the streets, squares and churches, and seeing Nabucco under the stars. The book is full of the funny, irritating, fascinating, lovable life of the Italians. It knocks Peter Mayle into a cocked hat.

Clare Short, shadow overseas aid minister

The Rwanda Crisis: History of Genocide by Gerard Prunier (Hurst & Co, [pounds]13.50)

My best book of the year sounds worthy but has moved me deeply. It makes recent events comprehensible: the divide and rule under colonisation, massive over-population, the terrible poverty inflicted by the IMF and World Bank, and then the mad genocidal extremists who took control while the UN withdrew. It shows that the major powers failed in their obligations, evil triumphed and we went on to supply humanitarian aid to those who organised the genocide.

David Miliband, head of policy for Tony Blair

I finally got my teeth into John Keane's Tom Paine (Bloomsbury, [pounds]8.99) on a ferry to Spain. Paine reached amass audience through clear and powerful prose, and Keane does him justice. Paine's life was a kaleidoscope: from unemployment in Thetford to revolution in France. We need more people like him!

Sally Morgan, works on party relations for Tony Blair

Independence Day by Richard Ford (Harvill Press, [pounds]5.99)

Bought by my husband as one of a batch for our holiday reading, this is a novel that stayed with me. Its main character, Frank Bascombe, immediately took a grip. He is battling to invest meaning in his life after the death of his child and a painful divorce. If you like Updike you will like this. It's plainly but beautifully written and, as in Updike's Rabbit trilogy, its hero transcends his hopelessness with an affecting humanity.

Lord Irvine of Lairg, QC

Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (Minerva, [pounds]6.99)

Captain Corelli is the senior Italian officer in a village on an occupied Greek Island. His humanity reaches beyond indigenous hostility. Through the captain and his Greek fiancee, it is a finely expressed affirmation of the human spirit. The moving reunion in old age is certainly for the lachrymose.

Ed Balls, economic adviser to Gordon Brown

The most enjoyable and revealing nonfiction book of the year was Philip Stephens' Politics and the Pound (Macmillan, [pounds]20), a history of Conservative macroeconomic policy since 1979, which brilliantly traces the history of the early eighties monetarist experiment and the collapse of Lawson's hubris to the ignominy of sterling's exit from the ERM in 1992. …

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