Matthew Norman: Mandelson and the memoirs

The traditional adverb to descibe the haste with which the newly box-deprived are scrambling to burden bookshelves is 'unseemly'. It doesn't go far enough
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The Independent Online

Even in these desperately straitened times, there is one extra demand on the public purse the most determined of governmental cost-slashers might feel obliged to wave through. The idea, simply put, is this. Carve the requisite funding from other, more frivolous spending, and use it to pay everyone who ever served in a New Labour cabinet to not write their memoirs. Take the sum offered by the relevant publisher, add 15 per cent for non-serialisation, and make the buggers sign a legally binding pledge never to write a syllable about their time in power.

Although it wouldn't cost a fortune – I calculate this philanthropic breakthrough could be achieved for as little as £10-£15m – chiselling even relatively tiny sums from an impoverished Exchequer obviously wouldn't be easy. But government means taking tough decisions, and my personal preference – I hope this doesn't seem callous – is to remove the winter fuel allowance from about 100,000 pensioners, selected at random by Premium Bonds computer Ernie in The National Hypothermia Lottery.

If this winter turns out as cold as the last, neighbours of afflicted old folk would be encouraged to pop round with a giant roll of Bacofoil. Isn't that what The Big Society's all about?

I would raise this notion with Danny Alexander directly but, according to Treasury sources, our engagingly ursine Chief Treasury is too busy with the first draft of a 1,250-page memoir about his fortnight at the Scottish Office to consider suggestions regarding his present post. If so (and it might be mischievous rumour) he's in crowded company.

The traditional adverb to describe the haste with which the newly red-box-deprived are scrambling to burden innocent bookshelves is "unseemly". It doesn't go far enough. This is little less than a crime against humanity. Some of us, after all, actually have to read them. More of us, of course, must pretend to have read them, bluffing on the basis of a few pages in the Daily Mail and the odd review rather than wading morosely through vast, arid wastelands of of lies, half-truths, omissions and interpretations that tend toward the self-serving, the ensemble electrified by a prose style that makes the annual report to the Supreme Soviet on Uzbek cotton returns in the time of Mr Brezhnev read like Harold Robbins.

For every Chips Channon, there are two dozen Norman Fowlers, whose memoir drew from one reviewer the deliciously laconic verdict: "The book is consistent with the man". And for every Alan Clark, there are scores of David Blunketts, whose tour de force of self-piteous drivel was outsold, by a ratio of 29:1, by the simultaneously- published blockbuster Higher Mathematics and the Duckworth-Lewis Method: Using Calculus To Decide One Day Cricket Matches When It Hails In Hyderabad.

The news that Lord Adonis is rushing out his magnum opus on the failed Lab-Lib coalition talks in which he was involved for 11 minutes takes the biscuit. This is not the topic for a book, or even a pamphlet. It would, you'd have guessed, barely excite the commissioning editor at Back Of Postage Stamp Press. Someone's stumping up, though.

Perhaps he should wait awhile, and combine his effort with the memoir Alastair Darling will reportedly start writing when he stands down from the shadow cabinet. These two, likeably reticent chaps and honourable ministers (traitors, both, to the New Labour code of honour) but hardly natural-born scintillators, are peas in a pod. They'd do better to elide their musings if only for a hybrid authorial name, Darling Adonis, that brings to mind Andrew Neil cooing at his mirror.

With Alastair Campbell's allegedly unexpurgated diaries just out and Tony Blair's feast of delusional righteousness due in September, it falls to Peter Mandelson to play piggy in the middle. His lordship is said to be in seclusion, bashing the keyboard in a bold bid to beat Mr Tony to the punch.

With Mandy, there is a smidgeon of hope. As a stylist, the fact that he once relied on Mr Campbell to write his Sunday People column suggests he's no genius. But he has promised "to ruffle a few feathers", and if that's the official Mandelese for "kick everyone in the head until the ECG shows no flicker of brain activity", it might be worth a glance.

The odds, however, are firmly on the feathers ruffled belonging not to that plutocratic peacock Mr Blair, or even to that winged old buzzard, Mr Brown, but to ugly duckling Ed Balls, mother hen Harriet Harman and other flightless wonders (some from the press) who've displeased him.

The chances are that the best thing about Mandy's book will be the first half of its title, The Third Man, cunningly raising the memory of the great film noir in which a sinister figure taken for dead startlingly proves very much alive. The talking tape, read by Alan Rickman, will no doubt feature background zither music.

The peculiar thing about this plethora of memoirs is that, outside the political anorak community, I can't believe anyone is remotely interested. If Harry Lime was right about 500 years of Swiss serenity leading to nothing more than the cuckoo clock, 13 years of needless turmoil, factional strife, neo-colonial adventurism, corruption, avarice, incompetence and queeny melodramatics produced in the sane observer nothing more than the profound desire to forget all about it. Isn't this monstrous deficit memento mori enough?

Thrusting so monumentally dire a period in political history back in our faces, obliging us to debate Iraq yet again from the fixed positions we took so long ago and so on, is like forcing a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran to sit through Born On The Fourth of July on a loop, but without the 40- year recovery time.

Still, swings and roundabouts. Assuming Danny Alexander ignores my proposal, as perhaps he should, at least the bargain bins are in for a bumper Christmas. And if he and George Osborne renege on the promise not to cut the winter fuel allowance all the same, they'll have one obvious way to alleviate the suffering. The Treasury should round up every copy of every memoir available for 99p, and send every shivering old-timer a bundle with a mini-brazier, a phial of liquid paraffin and a box of Swan Vestas thrown in.

A bonfire of the vanities indeed.

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