BOOK REVIEW / Honourable Bolshie goes back in time: Years of hope: 1940-1962 - Tony Benn: Hutchinson, pounds 25

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SHORTLY after the son and heir of the First Viscount Stansgate entered the Commons in a sensational by- election in 1950, the young man submitted his entry to Who's Who. He described himself as the Hon Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn and stated that he had been educated at Westminster School and New College, Oxford. The entry concluded with a joke. Benn's hobby was, he said, 'staying at home' - presumably the family's Edwardian pile, Stansgate.

In this year's Who's Who, Mr Benn - who fought a heroic battle in the early Sixties to be allowed to disclaim his title - describes himself as Tony. The details of his upper middle-class education have long since disappeared along with his upper middle- class names. The joke has sunk without trace.

The downwardly mobile Mr Benn appears to be a humourless creature in public. But privately he has always had a nice line in mischief and bawdy, as numerous entries in this informative and entertaining volume make clear. He is, for example, hilarious about lecturing the horrified 'debate squad' of the University of Illinois back in 1947 on the need to 'keep one's pecker up' - only to discover later what peckers were to Americans.

For reasons that have never been convincingly explained, the earnest, but relentlessly cheerful, young Benn reinvented himself over the decades as a far-left demagogue. As he moved from whiz-kid technocrat minister under Wilson and Callaghan to bolshie backbencher, Mr Benn kept an elaborate taped diary which has served as the basis for five volumes of published diaries running from 1963 to 1990.

Now comes a fascinating and often moving collection of Benn's early diaries, letters and personal papers which take him from Westminster School and Oxford to the Wartime RAF, the BBC and his early years in Parliament. To his credit he has made no attempt to remove comments which he would now regard as naive, ideologically suspect or simply embarrassing.

Early on, Benn quotes his housemaster at Westminster as writing: 'He (Benn) has high and rather grown-up ideals but in carrying them out, especially if this entails hard and perhaps dull work, he often fails. This gives the impression . . . that he is not really sincere. He is a strange mixture of a grown up and quite a young boy.' A mixture of sophistication and naivety remains Benn's hallmark.

His other great hallmark has been a benign battiness. For example, Benn records that during his National Service in Rhodesia in 1944, he was called upon to lecture the erks. He spoke about 'the question of parallel development within the existing framework'. This eye-glazing phrase reminds me of the moment 25 years ago when Benn, then Minister of Technology, collared me at a reception and delivered a lecture about the need to reconstruct Parliament 'on a modular basis'.

There has also always has been an earnest, puritanical streak to Mr Benn and it is reflected here in his musing after 'a whale of a time' at US embassy parties in the late Fifties. He records his belief that 'Western civilisation had peaked' and was about to be replaced by 'more serious societies'. Like what? Citizen Benn speculated that we would be 'better off . . . when we get the full blast from Russia and China'.

All in all, a gripping account of a lost world. Together with the later diaries, this volume provides

the most complete, the most edifying and the most (unconsciously) entertaining record of life among the social elite of the Labour Party in the second half of this century.