Our Guy

John Barnie

One aspect of Tony Blair’s memoir was under-celebrated when it was published last year: its remarkable handling of style.[*] For a 700-page book that was written in a hurry, A Journey’s register is very carefully judged. (Even the grammatical errors are impressively consistent: ‘The weeping and gnashing of teeth is pointless’; ‘The manifesto and the mandate was one for New Labour’; ‘I was reasonably settled in my mind that two terms was enough.’) Blair is concerned to show himself as an astute politician – a man of destiny – but also as an ordinary bloke, someone you might rub shoulders with in the pub as he bends your ear about politics over a game of ‘arrows’. He uses demotic conversational tags: ‘I kid you not’; ‘He was a lovely man, but really’; ‘Don’t get me wrong’; ‘Take my word for it’; ‘I said to Alastair, mark my words’; ‘didn’t matter a hoot to me’; ‘He conceded nothing, and I mean nothing’; ‘The whole business was barking.’ He uses the inclusive ‘your’: ‘what your Marxist would call …’, ‘your ordinary motorist’, ‘your average politico’. Anticipating the reader’s doubts, he emphasises sincerity with a verbal nudge of the elbow: ‘I felt genuinely sorry for him – no, I really did.’ Sympathy is expressed in the same pint-of-bitter-and-a-packet-of-crisps kind of way: ‘Jon Cunliffe … was doing his nut, poor bloke’; ‘I would have felt gutted in his place, really low – beyond low, actually.’

One of the lads, he has no problem with testicles. As soon as he met Alastair Campbell, he knew that he had ‘clanking great balls’. He admires Rupert Murdoch for the same reason: ‘He was an outsider, and he had balls.’ He also admires women who might be said to have balls, like Kate Garvey, his diary secretary: ‘She ran the diary with a grip of iron and was quite prepared to squeeze the balls … of anyone who interfered, but with a winning smile, of course.’ At times, he sounds like the barmaid in the Fast Show who ends every banal story with ‘Simple as that’: ‘Some are made for office, some aren’t. He wasn’t. Simple as that’; ‘His presence in any government is a huge asset. Simple as that’; ‘I wasn’t going to back down. Simple as that’; ‘Those who paid top dollar got the best. Simple as that’; ‘He was long divorced himself, his boys were grown up, he got lonely; simple as that.’ At other times P.G. Wodehouse takes over. George Mitchell is ‘an immensely shrewd and capable wise oldish bird’; Bill Clinton was ‘a total brick throughout’; Derry Irvine ‘has a brain the size of a melon’. People are ‘of that ilk’ and can be found with ‘their faces grimacing as if a thousand lemons had been forced down their throats’. The queen ‘was in a hellishly difficult situation’ but, for Blair, ‘a stiff pre-prandial drink at Balmoral hit the spot. It was true rocket fuel’; on another occasion, ‘I was proceeding in an upwardly direction to my bed,’ as Bertie Wooster might have explained to Jeeves the following morning. He even invokes the frightful apocryphal aunt: ‘Heaven knows what would be going on in that delegation room but if it were positive, my Great-Aunt Lizzie was a philanthropist.’

Americanisms are rare, which might seem surprising in the work of such a friend of the United States. The exception is his use of the word ‘guy’ for blokes of whom he approves. Bill Clinton is ‘a great guy’, as is the Taoiseach John Bruton. Andrew Smith is ‘a nice guy’, and so is Guy Verhofstadt; Andrew Adonis is ‘a thoroughly nice guy’. John Hutton is also ‘a thoroughly nice guy’, while the footmen at Balmoral are ‘very nice guys’. The president of Bulgaria is ‘a lovely guy’ and Jean Chrétien ‘a good guy’. Douglas Alexander is ‘a very clever guy’ and José María Aznar ‘a tough guy’ (a mark of approval). Only Gordon Brown – ominously for him – is ‘a strange guy’. Other character assessments are equally breezy. ‘She is a great person, Tessa [Jowell], just a gem.’ Mandela can be ‘fly as hell’. Princess Anne ‘does a huge amount of largely unnoticed charity work and is a tremendous ambassador for the country’. ‘Bono could have been a president or a prime minister standing on his head.’

In this context, his attempt to build up an alliance before the invasion of Iraq should not be thought of as the action of a ‘wuss’: ‘This wasn’t some namby-pamby peacenikery.’ Rather, ‘I was going flat out to see if there was any juice left in the diplomatic tank.’ But what could you do? ‘Iraq was a total basket case.’ That may seem a sweeping assessment, but Blair has probably travelled further, and to more countries, than anyone among his contemporaries. ‘I completely fell in love with Córdoba,’ he records, ‘a beautiful place.’ The Vatican is ‘grand beyond grand’. ‘St Petersburg was clearly European,’ he muses, ‘but Moscow was to itself, unplaceable in a broader context, even unfathomable, but impressive in a somewhat intimidating way.’ China? You may not know this, but China has ‘more than 50 different ethnic varieties within it’. And the US, which is the country he must know, and certainly loves, best of all? ‘For all its faults and limitations natural to any entity containing humanity, America is a great and free country.’

He also has an extraordinary way with metaphor and extended simile. On his admiration for Anji Hunter: ‘The great thing about Anji was her indestructible and occasionally incredible optimism. She perked up when others perked down. She saw the silver lining long before the cloud. She was a positive life force, bashing down whole fields of negativity, basking the environs around her with beams of light, joy and hope amid the darkness.’ On the hounding of John Prescott by the media: ‘Now, and pretty much until the day he left, they kept up a barrage, sometimes with the bazooka of outrage, sometimes with the blowpipe of ridicule, but always with a merciless delight in destruction.’ The media, in fact, draw from Blair some of his most imaginative martial imagery: ‘They were lashing the chariots of fury’; ‘Any sense of either complacency or caution and I knew the lead would melt under the hot sun of scrutiny.’ There aren’t many extended passages of high style in A Journey, but those there are make a lasting impression. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, he says, made a formidable political team. ‘Peter would slip into the castle through a secret passageway and, by nimble footwork and sharp and incisive thrusts of the rapier, cleave his way through to the throne room. Meanwhile, Alastair would be a very large oak battering ram destroying the castle gates, and neither boiling pitch nor reinforced doors would keep him out. With the two of them in harness, the battle would be fought with a boldness just short of madness; but it would be won, and, what’s more, won in style.’

If a poet lurks behind this farrago of creaking allegory, mixed metaphor, bathos and ill-judged comic effect, it is William McGonagall. It comes almost as a relief, therefore, to return to the cliché-ridden chat of the bloke at the bar: ‘like the proverbial dog with a bone’; ‘Woe betide you’; ‘I made a reasonable fist of sounding angry’; ‘All this is happening to some poor sod’s private life’; ‘We got on immediately like the proverbial house on fire’; ‘if truth be told’; ‘if you get my meaning’; ‘with young kids to boot’; ‘still far and away the best’; ‘It is the proverbial accident waiting to happen’; ‘back in the mists of time’; ‘plain as a pikestaff’; ‘We can’t rest on our laurels.’ ‘Anyway,’ he says at one point, ‘I could bore you to tears with my side of the issue,’ as if he has caught you surreptitiously looking at your watch. And indeed, as you read A Journey, time passes slowly.

The end, when it comes, is presented in hyperbolic terms. Blair’s last two years in office tested him to the limit: ‘In this time,’ he writes, ‘I was trying to wear what was effectively a kind of psychological armour which the arrows simply bounced off, and to achieve a kind of weightlessness that allowed me, somehow, to float above the demonic rabble tearing at my limbs.’ This image of floating above and apart from the populace occurs again: ‘In my eyrie high in the trees, with my soulmates, we could replenish mind and body before venturing back out into the undergrowth below.’ Even here, though, he has something of the street about him: ‘I remember years ago,’ he recalls, ‘a friend of mine in the constituency, who was used to rough neighbourhoods, told me: if you ever get in a street fight, stay upright, never go down … They’ll rearrange your face, but you’ll live.’ Blair heeded that warning. ‘While my face was certainly rearranged, I stayed on my feet and,’ he ends rather lamely, ‘got a lot done.’

Armour and arrows, weightlessness, floating with soulmates, a demonic rabble waiting in the undergrowth to tear him apart: how far away is all this from Hitler in his bunker, as he raged in his last days that the German people were unworthy of him? Suddenly it all seems more than a little chimerical. ‘The future, once so firmly in our grip,’ Blair reflects with, as ever, a wobbly sense of metaphor, ‘seems to have broken loose in search of new masters.’ So it is with the rise and fall of kings.

[*] David Runciman reviewed Tony Blair’s A Journey in the LRB of 7 October 2010.