The gripes of Roth (or: how MPs moaned about their Parliamentary profiles)
An obscure archive sheds fascinating light on politicians' self-regard
Saturday 29 October 2011
For years, they cluttered his north London home, but this week the private archives of the great political profile writer, Andrew Roth, have been made publicly available, revealing the absurdities – and vanity – of some of Westminster's most charismatic personalities.
Roth researched and kept files on every MP, Member of European Parliament and Peer from 1950 until his death in August last year, aged 91. He used them to inform his satirical Parliamentary Profiles series, as well as books and obituaries. The archive also became a treasure trove for political journalists and biographers.
But not all of his subjects, to whom Roth showed drafts, appreciated his wry style or some of the snippets of gossip and press clippings he gathered in their name. Included in the Roth archives, which are now available at the Bishopsgate Institute in London, are several letters of objection.
Ed Miliband, now the Labour leader, took issue with a description of his nose (see right), which Roth then agreed to remove. But the archivist refused to take out the words "Bollinger Bolshevik" as a description of George Galloway, who said he had "never tasted the stuff".
Setting up home in Cricklewood in 1950, after being driven out of his native New York by McCarthyism, Roth bolstered an outsider's view of British politics with a refreshing irreverence.
"He punched through the wall of deference that MPs used to be surrounded by," says academic and author Byron Criddle, who worked with Roth on his Parliamentary Profiles from 1995 to 2005. "He was an American idealist who respected the craft of politics, whilst having a nose for the craftiness of politicians."
But while he revelled in gossip, Roth was mostly concerned with accuracy. He worked "meticulously, non-stop from 9am to 10pm", says his third wife and widow, Antoinette Putnam. "He was one of the first people to look into the issue of MPs increasing their business interests, controversially calling for a register of activities in 1961. And he got his first big scoop in his weekly subscription magazine, Westminster Confidential, which was the first publication to print details of the Profumo affair."
In a letter, dated 1998, in which he promised "not to sue", the former Chancellor objected to the suggestion he "outshone" Gordon [Brown] and that he was forced to shave. But Roth's final draft read: "remains loyal to Brown while outshining him...to the extent that often he was offered to the media in [his] place... ". It continues: "Was said to have come under pressure from Charles Whelan in Gordon Brown's office to shave his allegedly voter-irritating beard."
"Is it fair to call me a 'Bollinger Bolshevik' when I have never tasted the stuff?" asked the former Labour and later Respect MP in a list of 20 corrections, dated 2003. Roth decided to keep the phrase. Other corrections include: "Dr Chris Mason is a man"; "My ex-wife... does not live in Blackheath"; and "My eyes are blue". Roth's 7,000-word profile of Galloway ends: "London house in Streatham; pied-a-terre in Glasgow; villa in Algarve."
"One thing I haven't corrected is 'camel nose'," wrote the now leader of the Labour party in 2005 of an earlier draft of his profile which described him: "Tall, large head on narrow shoulders, sallow complexion, dark hair, camel nose, staring look, effortlessly fluent, supremely confident, eager, boyish manner." "I leave it up to you," he added, "but it struck me as slightly odd. What kind of noses do camels have anyway?!" Roth agreed, and the offending metaphor was removed.
In six pages of corrections sent in 2003 the now House of Commons Speaker claimed, among other things, that his hair was "no longer centrally-parted or spikey!". Roth instead documented how Bercow had progressed from aggressive right-winger to Portillo-style social liberal "with only his hair formerly parted in the centre". Bercow also rejected the accusation that he had "a talent for abandoning sinking ships in favour of others floating in his desired direction".
Fox's brief letter of 2004 refers to a scandal that engulfed the former Defence Secretary long before Adam Werritty came along. "I would like you to make an amendment to remove the word 'racist' which referred to a joke I made at a private occasion." In 2000, Fox was forced by Tory leader William Hague to apologise for a joke he made at a Commons Christmas party: "What do you call three dogs and a blackbird? The Spice Girls."
The Newcastle MP and, later, chief whip under Gordon Brown, wrote pages of corrections in 2003 to a profile he described as "pretty hopeless". He objected to the use of the term "vendetta man" and the accounts of his rift with Peter Mandelson, who was "certainly no worse than anyone else in political life... I don't see why you've singled me out for disliking him more than the rest of the Parliamentary Party dislike him".
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