Boyd Tonkin: The not so secret life of Her Indoors

The week in books

Good, bad and downright ugly, books by politicians and their spinners and bag-carriers now waymark not just the end of the electoral road but every episode along it. Although the circle of Westminster blabbermouths has long grown to embrace back-office bottle-washers and desk-tidiers, until now the memoir game has been a choice of volunteers, not enlisted men – or women. That has changed with Sarah Brown's diary of her three years as First Spouse at 10 Downing Street, Behind the Black Door (Ebury, £20). In 2004, Cherie Booth surveyed post-war prime-minsterial wives (and Denis Thatcher) in The Goldfish Bowl, but said little about her life upstairs with Tony Blair. That book drew on the mid-1950s diaries of Clarissa Eden, who later incorporated them into a full-dress memoir of her times.

Lady Eden waited half a century before publication. Mrs Brown, herself a PR professional, has waited ten months. For all her self-deprecation, she evidently wants to make a mark, and make it fast. Her entries often fret about the vague brief of a non-job with no "exact status" or "formal guidebook". But this record of finding virtue in necessity also discloses a steely need to transform a destiny into a choice. Determined "to create for myself a role that contributed to the causes that matter to me", she packs the pages with enough gala dinners and celebrity receptions for her favourite charities – which combat maternal mortality, and give support to vulnerable kids – to last for several lifetimes.

We grasp through the many invocations of the Browns' late daughter Jennifer ("I often cry to think of her") why such causes matter. More of a surprise is the depth of her commitment to gay rights, with a landmark lunch at Number 10, a hero's reception on the Pride march and even – amid last year's doomed campaign – a raffle-drawer's gig at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern's Duckie club. How odd, then, that this paragon of pro-gay solidarity should come over all giggly Seventies sitcom and chuckle when Peter Mandelson (a bit of a pantomime villain here) mounts the stage at a conference in Brazil to the strains of "The Girl from Ipanema". "Gordon is up next and the music changes to something less flamboyant." You said it, dear.

Mrs B lays out with steamroller earnestness her high-level charity confabs with important women, from Graça Machel to Wendi Deng [Murdoch], Michelle Obama ("At last, a normal size person!" exclaims the First Lady) to Naomi Campbell. Read this diary as a soap opera (its closest genre relative) and the moody supermodel takes on the role of volatile neighbour whom her pals always expect to flare up like chip-pan fire. She never quite does.

Mrs B also illuminates a host of hidden details from the routines of office - from the logistics of renting designer frocks to the wipe-out exhaustion of the political round. One night she leaves little Fraser's bottles to sterilise on a lit stove and they reduce to "a pungent grey glue" – a real meltdown. And how do you spirit the magician Mr Marvel's rabbit past Number 10 security for a birthday party? Take the kitchen-supplies route - but rescue it in time. As the bank storm strikes, we glimpse scary snapshots of the state in a panic. On 8 October 2008, with the rescue package ready, Gordon wakes her at 5am to say that she "should be prepared to leave Downing Street" that day if it failed.

Yet these journals also expose the boundaries of her bubble. Sarah is flanked at every starry turn by celebs who endorse her praise for the government's – and her husband's - record, from JK Rowling to Piers Morgan to Alan Sugar. It turns her head, and lends her a Marie Antoinette-like view of the vicious press and cynical populace. One is left wishing for a slimmer, slower book that had dumped the catalogue of Amanda Wakeley dresses and focused on her inner journey through the shocks and shifts of those three curious years. But that would take another kind of political – and publishing – culture. As it is, nothing that she writes quite matches the introspective poise of a line she quotes from another stalwart of the spouses' club, her French counterpart Carla Bruni: "The only thing I miss is my loneliness".

An Independent route to success

What's the best way to win major prizes, and sales, for intelligent popular fiction? I recommend a period spent working for The Independent or Independent on Sunday. Earlier this year, one bestselling alumna, Maggie O'Farrell, took the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine. Now another, Jojo Moyes (right), has won Romantic Novel of the Year for The Last Letter from Your Lover – another flashback plot, by the way. Katie Fforde, chair of the Romantic Novelists Association, praised "exquisite writing, a truly romantic yet original theme and a blissfully satisfying ending". Future chart-toppers and prize-scoopers – you know where to apply.

Get mad, get even – go French

At the end of 2010, one topic dominated the French book scene. Stéphane Hessel, 93-year-old Resistance hero and survivor of two Nazi camps, had published a slim pamphlet, Indignez-Vous!. In the name of the Resistance spirit, he stirringly called for a similar uprising against the forces of exploitation at home and abroad. Hessel's broad-brush rhetoric of liberation proved music to innumerable ears. Indignez-Vous! sold 600,000 copies between October and December: a stocking-filler that urged you to burn the house down. Now we can read it in English: Time for Outrage!, translated by Damion Searls with Alba Arrikha, and published by journalist and historian Charles Glass for Quartet Books. Our bones of contention may differ (in France, they don't have folk quite like Rich Ricci, the Barclays banker who pocketed a £44m. bonus deal this week) but the message ought to carry well across the Channel. Even Mervyn King is amazed that we're not more furious with spivs in suits who stole the future.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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