My reading recently has been pretty sporadic, usually done while awaiting to go into an interview. In a week's time I will be on my tenth in seven weeks. I managed to read one book this month. Non-fiction books always take me longer than fiction ones, which helps explain it.
'Clem Attlee' by Francis Beckett
I am sure that I met Francis Beckett once, perhaps at a conference I attended in 1995 to mark fifty years since the end of the Second World War. Anyway, he is a journalist as well as a historian. This is a reasonably good book. It challenges a great deal that has been written about Attlee particularly from Labourites and the left-wing. Beckett counters the view that Attlee had no personality, showing that his reserved demeanour was very carefully cultivated. He also shows how the man who did so much for poor people lived the life of the privileged but never let that get in the way of considering those less fortunate and ensuring he avoided doing this in a patronising way, hence National Insurance rather than charity. Beckett highlights areas of Attlee's character often neglected, his love of the Italian Renaissance; the fact that he translated Italian texts and spoke the language fluently and his lifelong enjoyment of writing poetry. Above all, Beckett reminds us how important Attlee was to Britian and that without the efforts that he led 1945-51, millions of people in Britain would have had tougher and less pleasant lives than was even the case in the post-war era.
The key flaw of Beckett's book and this may come from him being a journalist is that he cannot detach himself from his own time. He keeps on drawing parallels and lessons from the Attlee era and then going off at length about what was wrong with British politics around the time this book was published in 1997. Not only does this break up the points he is making about Attlee and his time, not only in chronology but particularly in tone, it now makes the book, 15 years on, itself seem very dated. A good biography should take us into the time of the life of the person featured so that we can better understand the pressures and perceptions that influenced how they thought and behaved. By linking it to any time period, that is broken. Away from those sections the book is good and interesting, but an editor should have come through and cut out Beckett's attempts to link Attlee's time to his own; perhaps he should have had a separate essay at the end encompassing these elements if he felt they were so necessary. Somewhere in storage I have 'Hugh Gaitskell' by Brian Brivati, produced by the same publishers at around the same time, I will have to see if I can dig it out for comparison.