BOOK REVIEW / The lady of Hell Corner Farm: Andrew Marr on Barbara Castle's memoirs, full of rough and tough struggles, battling speeches and confrontations: 'Fighting All The Way' - Barbara Castle: Macmillan, 20 pounds
Saturday 10 July 1993
Thus Lady Castle, the Yorkshire Terrier, angry still in old age, in the closing pages of her autobiography, itself packed with anger, with confrontations, explosions, outbursts of irritation and frustration, with 'rough and tough' struggles, 'battling' speeches and unreconciled vendettas. At one point, she describes gardening and we are unsurprised to learn that, 'to me it was pure therapy to battle with the bindweed and nettles which encroached insidiously . . .' Her home in the Chilterns is called Hell Corner Farm (and seems to have been called that even before she arrived there). Her book's title, Fighting all the Way, is the sort of cliche politicians feel is appropriate for their memoirs. This time, it has the merit of accuracy.
Barbara Castle is famous for being herself, not for her particular socialist analysis, her decisions in government or even her excellent Diaries. She is famous for her personality, for being the passionate, quivering, self- dramatising and always dramatic woman without whom British politics from the Fifties to the present day would have been duller.
Could she have been Britain's first female Prime Minister? She had many of the talents and given the break, was a big enough politician to try the job. But the question, which will always haunt her, is meaningless. She did not get the breaks. And no one can tell how she would have performed if she had.
Otherwise, performance has been at the centre of her career. She makes excellent television and was a good Commons speaker. But she was really made for the platform, either at Labour conferences or during election campaigns. There, her wit, self-confidence and theatricality were (and sometimes, rarely, still are) displayed. A good Castle speech is unforgettable. For the back jacket of this book, she, or her publisher, has chosen a comment by Lord Longford about her 'very vivid personality'. Vivid is the word, and, in a political world grown notorious for its greyness, what a good word it is.
Unfortunately, the vivid politician has not written a particularly vivid book. A political autobiography can score on several counts. It can be, like Lord Healey's, exceptionally well- written. This one isn't. Or it can be interestingly self-critical, reflecting the sadder, maturer judgement of an old mind on a younger self. Lady Castle has not been crippled by remorse. Indeed, she probably is unaware of the word. It can be a work of political philosophy. Lady Castle's philosophy is straightforward, emerging from her childhood and young adulthood in the Depression, and is rarely discussed at length.
If not those things, then a memoir can still break new ground, opening up part of the political story that has hitherto been closed. Lady Castle suffers from the problem that her central political career, from the Attlee government through Bevanism to high office under Lord Wilson, includes the most written about and memoir- encrusted episodes in modern British politics.
So although she writes from the inside about many famous confrontations, and is still hot on the controversies of In Place of Strife, Labour's acceptance of monetarism and her own sacking, there is nothing here that will surprise the reader of Wilson, Healey, Callaghan, Crossman, Benn, Jenkins, Owen . . . or, indeed, of her own Diaries.
Part of this problem of over-tilled soil is beyond Lady Castle's remedying. But it is a pity that she seems to rely so much on bland resumes of political history. Alan Watkins has noted in his review of the book in the Spectator that 'if we want to read this kind of thing we had much better to turn to something like Keesing's Contemporary Archives, which have the merit of being relatively unbiased'. The problem could not be put better. We could have done with more recollection, and more sketches of other personalities (Barbara Castle seems to be relatively uninterested in other politicians in themselves).
All that said, there are good new things here, from her account of her early days, her father, the disappointment of Oxford and her long affair with the married socialist leader William Mellor, through her journeys in Africa and the Middle East, to her account of the last general election and her conversations with Neil Kinnock.
There are also plenty of echoes of earlier struggles which throw unexpected sidelights on today's stories. I cringed at being reminded about the brutal behaviour of the right-wing trade unions towards the Bevanites. Lady Castle writes: 'What interested me was how calmly the press took this naked display of trade union power.' That is embarrassingly true. She reckons it was only after the big unions swung left (Frank Cousins became leader of the Transport and General Workers Union in 1956 and then Hugh Scanlon became president of the engineering workers in 1967) that the anti-block vote editorials started.
The message for today's Labour Party is that activists, inconvenient and turbulent as they sometimes are, cannot be replaced without losing something - something essential to a party of the left. These are grim days for left-wingers, sensible or otherwise. But then they were throughout Lady Castle's early career, too. Battle, she would say. Fight. Be angry. Many of her solutions and preconceptions are hopelessly outdated for today's politics. But her passion isn't. These reviews are meant to end: read the book. I cannot honestly issue that imperative. Much better, I think, to remember the lady.
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