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Bryan Gould is an outsider with a

taste for being at the centre of things.

But now, with the Labour Party he

helped modernise finally on the

threshold of real power, the former

bright young thing of British

socialism finds himself marooned in

the backwoods of New Zealand. Does

he feel left out? Or has he at last

found some kind of personal centre?

This Is how a dream can end. It's 2pm on a lazy afternoon, on the campus of New Zealand's University of Waikato, and hundreds are gathered to witness an open-air graduation ceremony. The radiance of the perfect day matches the mood of the onlookers: cheerful, balmy, sweet as a picnic. Here comes a conferral of bachelor's degrees, to be followed by the inevitable skyward launch of scores of black mortar-boards. Later there will be photos, hugs and hurrahs.

On any other day, this would be a convocation of scant significance. But this is not any other day. Today marks Bryan Gould's first public appearance of 1996, two years to the day after he stunned colleagues in Westminster by announcing his departure from British politics to take up a post as this university's vice-chancellor. Today also happens to be his 57th birthday. For visiting journalists, it's a day for checking on the public health of New Zealand's most famous political junkie. We already know of his career's terrible highs and fearful lows; what we don't know, finally and irrecoverably, is whether he's kicked the habit.

The university's chancellor, Gerald Bailey, stands behind the podium and clears his throat. It has fallen to him to be Gould's warm-up act. "We're a nation of knockers," he booms, "a nation with an international reputation for, ah, tilting at tall poppies." Puzzled glances are exchanged. "Such an attitude," he continues, "has recently been exemplified by certain sections of the news media which have tried to, ah, create a Waikato-style Watergate."

Laughter breaks. A hundred pairs of giggling eyes swing towards the diminutive man seated to the left of the speaker. But, no, Bryan Gould is too seasoned a pro to join in the public smirking at the reporters who hounded him over the $175,000 that the publicly-funded university spent upgrading his private residence on the leafy banks of the nearby Waikato River. He allows himself only a fleeting grin - conveying more than a whiff of self-approval - before rising from his place.

First he speaks in Maori, thanking God (even though he is an agnostic) for the day. Then in English, exhorting graduates to go forth and intellectually replenish the world. Just for a moment it's possible to imagine Gould forgetting where he is and launching into a well-practised House of Commons oration. "I would urge you to take what you have from this place of learning," he offers instead, all teeth and grins pinned from ear to ear. "Take it to your family, to your communities, to New Zealand itself ..." And on he goes. Curiously, he does not add the United Kingdom as a port of final intellectual call.

Inside his vice-chancellor's office, the strongest impression Bryan Gould gives is of being diminutive. He is a small man in a large room, overlooking an 11,000-strong campus whose buildings could almost be described, by local standards, as ancient. The university was founded in 1963, a year after Gould quit New Zealand in pursuit of his runaway British dream. Today, tacked to the wall of his office, there hangs an oil painting of an English chapel - a farewell gift from the Labour stalwarts of Dagenham, the constituency he represented for 11 years until 1994. The picture hangs behind Gould's desk, an appropriate place, or so it seems, for a man whose courtly face is now turned away from politics. But where precisely is Gould's heart?

For some reason, we find ourselves talking about Enoch Powell, a name with which, it is said, he often conjures. "Enoch Powell is someone I had a very curious relationship with, and not one that I'd readily own up to," he tells me. "He believed what he wanted to believe, and he had the capacity to intellectualise it. But his politics were from the gut. In a way, despite appearances, I'm a bit like that too. A lot of what Powell said was unattractive - on the race issue, of course, he was beyond the pale - but on a lot of other issues he was worth listening to." On what issues? Well, replies Gould eventually, "with almost complete accuracy, Enoch Powell once said that all political careers end in failure."

Failure. In modern political ideology, you can't get any blacker than that. Yet, as every recovering political junkie knows, admitting to it is a first step in any decent recovery programme. Elsewhere, Gould has already passed judgement on his jilted ambitions for the Labour Party leadership. "I think a lot of people would say in retrospect that I threw it away by being too overt about what I thought was important," he boasted in an interview in 1994. "I think there's a truth in that if I'd shut up, been a sort of Tony Blair, if I can put it that way, and used whatever skills I have in terms of presentation, I would have probably succeeded to the leadership." Today, though, his reflections are tinged with a more civilised tone of acceptance.

"At some point in one's political career," he says, "one does think of reaching the top of the greasy pole. Now I didn't reach the top, so in that sense, yes, I failed. And I failed in a much wider sense in that I failed to get my views accepted on issues I considered to be very important. In the end, I don't think I was obsessive enough. If, in 1987, I had said to myself, 'OK, I'm going to dedicate my life to becoming leader of the Labour Party', then I think there was a fairly good chance that would have happened. Oddly enough, though, I began to see other things - not the least of them being New Zealand. From here, you know, it's not so evident that Westminster is the centre of the earth."

Failure or no, he certainly looks to be in pink health. His eyes, so bland at a distance, appear disarmingly warm close-up. A boyish overbite remains evident in the features. His demeanour is vigorous and youthful, except, perhaps, for a bald spot on the back of his head, which has continued to widen ominously with the passage of time. Three years ago, in London, Gould undertook an anti-baldness course wherein he suspended himself upside- down for 40 seconds twice a day on a contraption known as The Inverter. The stated aim of the exercise was to send blood rushing to the head and so induce regrowth of the follicles - and to raise pounds 500 for Oxfam. Were these bizarre daily turns motivated by exhibitionism or by an admirable indifference to notions of political propriety? Perhaps, one idly speculates, he did it to make room for a glittering brain that has been celebrated by many commentators, not least himself.

In any event, within a year of the treatment, Gould left his adopted homeland of more than 30 years. He moved from Eurosceptic to Anglosceptic; from the shadows of a shadow cabinet to... well, to what exactly?

To Something oddly familiar, as it happens. Bryan Gould knows what the man meant who said that life is not one damn thing after another, but the same damn thing over and over. Earlier this year, for instance, came the commotion in the local news media over his insistence that his official residence, its swimming-pool and fruit grove, be brought up to "a suitable standard" for him and his wife, Gillian. The strife evoked memories of the opprobrium he attracted when he bought a fancy house with a swimming- pool in Oxfordshire. Critics again muttered darkly about "champagne socialists", which was unfair. Bryan Gould's preference is for red wine.

"I suppose it was a legitimate, albeit misplaced, journalistic purpose to point out that x-amount of money was spent on this house," Gould says as we discuss this latest unpleasantness. "What I found surprising was the extent that it was thought to be of such abiding interest that the local paper ran with the story for, I think, 10 days in a row and dragged up all sorts of unrelated things. I just don't quite know what they were on about.

"I've discussed this with a couple of my colleagues," he adds, steering us away from the original criticism with the gentle skill of a Commons veteran. "One of them said, 'The trouble with you, Bryan, is you're too interesting!' " Oh, really? "Well, in a limited sense, I suppose I do have a reputation... I think that any other vice-chancellor wouldn't have attracted this sort of attention."

Nor, of course, would many other vice-chancellors so ardently court it. Bryan Gould is everywhere in New Zealand. The pundit-for-hire bounces from media spot to media spot, reflecting on the significance - if any - of an almost-brilliant career. In addition, he has recently assailed New Zealand readers for, of all things, paying too much attention to big- footed pundits from overseas. "Perhaps one day we'll have enough self- confidence and maturity to make our own judgements of ourselves," he wrote, "rather than hanging on every word that foreign commentators deign to offer us."

Goodbye To All That, his controversial autobiography, was belatedly published in New Zealand this year to generally warm notices. This was in contrast to the jurors from the British press, who positively bayed and hissed, and not without reason. The character that emerges is the proverbial self- made man who worships his creator: "There were many who ... saluted me as someone with the courage to try and rationalise criticism in terms of policy analysis. As always, though, however careful my explanations, the issues were regarded by most people as simply beyond them. They remained lost in a wilderness for which they had no map. They were, in the main, obliged to follow their leaders because they knew of no other route." Only in an isolated, forgiving country such as New Zealand, one suspects, could such lines be taken as the last word in trenchant self-analysis and political commentary. And, seated alone in his vice-chancellor's office, musing on his past life, Gould sometimes gives the impression that he is not finding the enthusiasm of his countrymen quite as satisfying as he once imagined he would.

But a prevalent gloominess in his office today also has something to do with the contrasting radiance of the outside sun. It hangs like a lemon in an ozone layer-less sky, high above a rural region best known for its rich brown earth, prize racehorses and psychologically well-adjusted cows. Twitters of activity can be heard from below as students and faculty members prepare for the afternoon's graduation ceremony, to be held - as the ethnically sensitive custom here would have it - at one of the campus's Maori meeting houses.

The style and substance of the convocation offer a useful template for considering today's Bryan Gould. The ceremony will be flush with aboriginal invocations, pantheistic plainsong and the exotic imagery of its tribal setting. This is ethnically contemporary New Zealand with a vengeance. When Gould last lived here, anxious young fellows puffed solemn pipes and discussed the affairs of the Empire, and the girls arose from their cinema seats and lustily sang God Save the Queen before every picture rolled.

"You're interviewing Bryan Gould?" a colleague said to me a few days before our interview. "Which one?" It was a good question. Was I meeting with the man who told Terry Wogan that he had "spent all my adult life in Britain. I returned here to my own family's roots. They come from Oxfordshire..."? Or was it the man who, in a peppy media release issued shortly after arriving back in New Zealand, exulted, "My forebears left Britain 150 years ago to seek a new life and new challenges in a new country. It is a particular pleasure for me - as a sixth-generation New Zealander - to be returning to this country." What japes! Could these two wandering eminences, by any chance, be related? "I think," Gould explains, "that as you get older you begin to sort out what's important to you in life." You might, he adds balefully, "discover this one day for yourself."

As we speak, however, another Bryan Gould hovers nearby. He is eight or 10 years old, the oldest of three lower-middle-class kids, standing alone an a scruffy local street, semi-silhouetted against the fading glow of a Commonwealth sun. The year is Nineteen Fifty-Something.

He was born into the tiny North Island farming community of Hawera, but the family moved on before he could develop an abiding feeling for it. They kept on moving, criss-crossing New Zealand until its towns and provincial centres became a soft grey blur, leading him years later to observe, "After I have lived in one house for about five years, I begin to get restless, even to this day."

But today the boy is standing still. His parents are out of sight. His father, Charles, a banker, is in the pub; the father is a man of quietude and, to some extent, emotional evasion. The boy's mother, Elsie, is running about, performing duties and dispensing favours amid the marshmallow gentility of what passes for New Zealand life. The child is thinking, "What am I doing here?"

By 1962, he had escaped, as a Rhodes Scholar to the UK. Oxford, with its torpor and vague aristocratic decadence, came as a shock. On his first night there, Gould sat alone in his Balliol room listening to the tweedy voices floating down the hall. He took their frabjous accents to be deliberate caricature. He was to discover that, rather, they were the unaffected sounds of a suave elite, flattered and paid for by their admiring seniors, and wholly dismissive - at least in his view - of municipal scholarship boys from the antipodes. Not for the last time, Gould found himself a cultural weakling in the face of conservative British culture. He began practising John Donne's advice: to doubt wisely.

A four-year stint from 1964-68 as second secretary in the British Embassy in Brussels reawakened the Anglophilia that Oxford had nearly destroyed. The Foreign Office offered him the job after he scored top marks in an entrance exam. Yet, padding about a two-bedroom flat in the avenue du Prince Heritier, he came to doubt the wisdom of his masters. "It began to dawn on me," he observed at the time, "that the Europe which was taking shape before my eyes was not necessarily one which would best serve British interests." He returned home to pursue politics.

Throughout this time, Gould worked alongside his English wife Gillian, whom he had met in Brussels and who acted nominally as his personal secretary. They have been together for 29 talkative years. She enjoys New Zealand with the same feeling her husband once reserved for Britain. They have two adult children, one of whom, Helen, 25, in a curious reversal of her father's early wanderlust, recently quit Britain for a new life in the New Zealand capital of Wellington. (Charles, her 29-year-old brother, remains in England.) It seems clear that the Gould household serves, as the Tories were once said to do, the cause of family values - and it's probably to Bryan's credit that he never exploited this during his years on various campaign trails.

His political rise, which appeared inexorable, has been well chronicled. After half-a-dozen years back as an Oxford don, he was elected MP for the marginal seat of Southampton Test in 1974. By most accounts, he was a hard-working representative. But he was also something else, an instance of something rare in politics anywhere: an intellectual who lived as though the political world really were shaped by ideas. His own brand of socialism circled around the notion that only a benevolently managed economy could deliver real freedom, in place of the whims and fancies of marketeers. "I met him a few years later," Gould's friend and former colleague Austin Mitchell told me. "Bryan was a backbencher then, sharpening his teeth on Denis Healey. Denis, of course, was a thug, but Bryan just kept right on at him. That made people like me interested in him."

Losing the seat in 1978, Gould skilfully raised his profile during the following four years by becoming a television reporter and presenter with TV Eye. In 1983, he became MP for Dagenham. This time he speedily ascended the Labour Party ladder. He was elected to the shadow cabinet.

A typical editorial leader of the time hailed Gould as "the country's most articulate and able man on the Left". There seems little doubt that many - including Gould - believed the clippings. And why not? Here, surely, was living evidence that good education and the bettering of oneself are what contemporary socialism is all about. And his views on modernisation - accepting, for instance, that most "workers" want lighter taxes rather than more government bureaucracies - are credited by many with awakening the Labour Party from its dreamless post-war sleep. "I would say during this period that he was absolutely central to saving Labour from total electoral oblivion," says trade unionist Nigel Stanley, who worked as Gould's parliamentary researcher. "He deserves a great deal of the credit for the modernisation of the party which occurred under Neil Kinnock."

But credit for Gould became - and remains - a scarce commodity. Finding someone from the Labour Party prepared to speak on the record about Gould is about as easy as striking up a conversation on the Tube. I approached six of Labour's highest-ranking MPs for a comment on their former colleague. All declined. They feel, as one aide snootily put it, that "There is nothing more to be said about Bryan Gould." Peter Mandelson, someone Gould loathes like a brother, didn't even return my telephone messages.

Once they were very close: it was Mandelson, after all, who, as the party's director of communications, identified Gould as one of Labour's winning assets and promoted his image, making the shadow trade and industry spokesman a household figure. "Mandelson hates Bryan," sniffed Austin Mitchell, the only Labour MP I approached who would publicly acknowledge a connection with Gould. "What one has to understand about the British Labour Party is that when one is right, one is wrong. It's better to be wrong in the company of the majority rather than right and on your own. Bryan was an outsider in the Labour Party, which is no respecter of academic qualifications or indeed of intelligence itself. That's why he became an exile on the back bench when he should have been playing a central part in things."

"I believe," says Gould glumly, "that my broad range of opinions and approaches will eventually come back into fashion. So, in some ways, coming back to New Zealand was a bad political move." He smiles thinly. "People will come to say that they can see the sense in what I did. But it will be too late for me. I'm gone."

But Gould's exit - first from the scene, then from the country - did take place in another context: the moving of the Labour Party to the Right, and the shipment of dissenters into what Paul Routledge has described in this newspaper as the party's new gulag. Current examples abound. Shadow transport secretary Clare Short says paying more taxes is fine by her. The Blair people scream. Short gets carpeted. Apologies are tendered. And the message again goes out: beware of passion, drive or the development of an individual opinion; it could be interpreted as obsession or, worse, leftism. In such a context, the historical airbrushing of Gould was, if not exactly certain, pretty well assured. He forsook Labour's conceit of seamless unity (and displayed spectacularly bad political judgement) by challenging John Smith for the party leadership in 1992 at the same time as standing for the deputy leadership. Subsequently, in what was generally seen to be a fit of pique tinged with the humiliation of publicly thwarted ambition (although Gould credits his "Eurosceptic and devaluationist ideas"), he left the shadow cabinet. Two years later, he left politics at just the wrong time. He could not have foreseen it, but John Smith's sudden death might have offered Gould the best chance he could ever have had of realising his political dream. Finally, came last year's Goodbye To All That, in which Gould sweetly - plink, plonk, plink - crucified a number of his former colleagues while exposing some of the party's darkest internal divisions. The bare knuckles came out in printed response: Roy Hattersley led the attack; Donald Dewar got in a few blows; Gerald Kaufman suggested that an alternative title for the book could have been Diary Of An Almost Somebody.

"Yes, well, in many ways it confirmed the rightness of my decision to leave," Gould says, perhaps a touch too quickly, when asked about the reviews. "Politics is a hard and unpleasant business. You sit around the shadow cabinet table for years working with people that you get on perfectly well with on a professional level, but the whole thing is riven with personal jealousies. I was well aware that my rising so rapidly was... very sickening to my colleagues. But there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't say, 'Turn off that rocket - I'd rather stay where I am!' But that's what some in the party wanted me to do. Nobody said anything when we worked together, but I knew damn well that there were people grinding their teeth and sharpening their knives." How did he know? "Because that's the nature of politics, you know. And even though some of those strains had become much more apparent by the time I left, being a senior colleague meant they couldn't say anything. But as soon as I left ..."

Shortly after Gould arrived back in New Zealand, Austin Mitchell and his New Zealand-born wife Linda went over for a visit. They arrived clutching the latest political magazines and bursting with London gossip. Gould was surprised to find that he was barely interested. "It was salutary to realise that Britain's internal politics are of no great consequence to anyone outside," he says.

Such remarkable indifference was partly explained in an article which Gould wrote for the London Evening Standard last year - the real one, not the teenage scribblings of junior Tory Nick Howard which the paper so notoriously published in its stead - which took issue with what he saw as Labour's safety-first policy. It argued, in effect, that a Blair- led government looked likely to give a jaded electorate little more than a new style of management rather than a new direction. Labour, he is fond of pointing out, long ago bought into what he laments as the monetarist consensus: "Labour has always been extremely susceptible to arguments advanced by bankers ... and we always say, 'Yes, yes - we'll do what we're told.' " Today the attitude persists, which may explain why an involvement in New Zealand politics, where Labour plays by the same rules, doesn't interest Gould either. A late-life political career in a country with a population the size of Birmingham's could hardly be attractive to a man of Gould's cut.

His view on the British Labour Party right now is that "it is now reaping the benefits - if that's the right word - of having been out of power for nearly 20 years." Otherwise, nothing. His lack of enthusiasm for the regime of Tony Blair (whom he likened in his memoir to an Oxford fresher who joins every political club that'll take him as a member) and John Prescott ("He's crude, gets things wrong, but he makes an appeal to working- class voters that I could not or would not," he tells me) is undisguised.

Scarcely better disguised, I think, is the face of the discontented boy who scuffed these New Zealand streets 40 summers ago. Here he walks again, semi-silhouetted against a fading Commonwealth sun, amid the loneliest geography on earth. In the intervening decades he became, remarkably, a man who might easily have been leading Labour to a near-certain victory in the next election. Instead, he'll probably be leading another convocation on the campus of an insignificant post-secondary institution in a country he once fled. "I'm not embittered," Gould tells me in a still voice. "This is something which makes it difficult for people to understand who I am, but I think I made a good, self-interested decision to leave, and I'm delighted with it. In that sense, I don't see myself as having been a failure." !

Gould left Britain and politics for 'good, self-interested' reasons, he says