BOOK REVIEW / Paddy down your way: Beyond Westminster by Paddy Ashdown: Simon & Schuster pounds 9.99

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PADDY ASHDOWN is the only party leader who can claim to be inspirational, unorthodox or even interesting. He served for 13 years as a Royal Marine Commando, six of them in the Special Boat Section, which is where you go if you are too tough for the SAS. He learnt Mandarin, was given a Commando command in Belfast, spent four good years in the Foreign Office, five in industry and many months on the dole. He entered Parliament in 1983 after almost a decade beavering away for the Liberal cause.

During the 1992 election campaign, Ashdown came to the conclusion that, like most other politicians, he knew next to nothing about Britain. 'I travelled, I am told, the equivalent of once around the world . . . But I saw almost nothing of the country whose support I was asking for. My tour usually consisted of flying into an airport from London, being whisked by car to a selected target audience, spending 15 minutes with them and then being whisked on after conferring my 'Westminster blessing' upon them.'

Ashdown set out to do something about this. On 22 occasions last year he left Westminster, for two and a half days at a time, unaccompanied by aides and the hack pack, to visit different communities and get a feel for the national mood. This is an account of his travels - ending with the statutory set of policy recommendations.

Ashdown is a crisp, curious and unassuming sort of cove, genuinely anxious to learn, so this should have been a gripping account of a nation ill at ease with itself, and often contemptuous of authority, at a time of great social strain. Instead it is an uneven work whose worst chapters show signs of haste and careless editing, and of political correctness. Visiting a gay club in Oxford, for instance, he meets Kevin, a cliche-addicted gay who is allowed to whinge on for more than a page about how society subjects young homosexuals to 'anti-gay propaganda'. Ashdown concludes: 'I left Oxford with my prejudices severely unseated.' Is the leader of the Liberal Democrats really saying that he went on this day-trip a homophobe and came back converted?

In an otherwise impressive description of the violence and degradation of life on an appalling council estate in Peckham, south London, Ashdown claims that when the place was being planned in the Sixties an architect with experience of similar schemes in America warned that the design would prove a disaster, but was ignored. Who was this prescient fellow? We are

not told.

Ashdown is at his best when describing places and situations that have shocked him or captured his imagination. In a shopping mall in Moss Side in Manchester, a 15-year-old drug dealer pulls back his bomber jacket to reveal the butt of a sub- machine gun and tells Ashdown to 'Fuck off'. A day spent underground at Monktonhall Colliery, in Scotland, with miners who, in the teeth of obstructiveness by the Government, British Coal and bank managers, had formed a cooperative to buy their 'hitlist' pit, prompts genuine, sympathetic anger and some of the best and fiercest writing on the subject that I have read anywhere.

Paddy Ashdown has devoted much time and energy to researching this book. If only he had taken as much trouble with its writing, he might have produced a small masterpiece. As it is, he has written a sometimes original and disturbing, but sadly patchy study.