The Diary: How jail can seriously improve politicians

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I write this squatting on the floor, surrounded by packing cases in an empty study with removal men coming in and out, feeling like a surrealist character in a Bunuel film.

It's a confusing time to be launching a book about Mandela, and trying to think about the future of South Africa after the elections. But perhaps the vanishing of possessions helps to concentrate the mind - as it concentrated Mandela's in prison. Certainly, after reading his reflective letters and essays I felt that many prime ministers could benefit from a spell in a cell to remind them about long-term problems.

I suspect that the British public is more interested in the long-term than daily newspapers or the Today programme give them credit for. With all the topical build-up about the South African elections and Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, I find that the British public is much more interested in the tension between Mandela and de Klerk, now both retired, but still representing fundamental arguments and issues.

When I was finishing my biography I asked Mandela what he thought about de Klerk's autobiography in which he accused him of deliberately humiliating him. Mandela replied that he was only just reading it in Afrikaans, and that he was still grateful to de Klerk for helping to avoid a bloody civil war.

But he added, with the touch of the master politician, that two of de Klerk's ex-cabinet colleagues, Pik Botha and Roelof Meyer, had just said that de Klerk's real problem was that he could not accept that he was no longer president. "That was a very devastating statement ... We hope that he will still remember that he is a Nobel peace prize-winner."

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The most traumatic ordeal of house-moving for any writer is, of course, disposing of hoarded books. "Books are not absolutely dead things," wrote Milton in 1644. You could have fooled me, I mutter as I get rid of much of 30 years' accumulation, with dead contents which once seemed so alive. The titles alone seem melancholy, especially about Africa: Africa's Future, New Hope for Africa, The New Ghana. Anything new sounds old, and nothing is as ephemeral as the future. It's the booksellers who remind you how ephemeral most books have become, as they suck their teeth. "These are really reading," they say. "It's a working library."

"These are what we call end-of-day books," the house-clearance man has just explained about the final roomful. What booksellers most liked were non-reading books - like the works of Walter Pater, whom surely no one now reads, but bound in vellum.

CDs and the internet, they explain, have undermined the market for once- treasured volumes like the DNB or the OED: there is now a huge divide between collectors' volumes and the rest, which are hardly worth transporting.

It's made worse by the doubling of new titles every 10 years: most quickly become as outdated as magazines and even their pages soon begin yellowing, like newspapers. It seems a discouraging background for bringing out yet another book. But suddenly even a shoddy paperback can stare out at you, reminding you that it was part of your life.

In my research I was moved to come across Mandela's lists of books he devoured in jail, where they were his life-blood - not just classics like Tolstoy and Dickens, but contemporary novels by Nadine Gordimer or Andre Brink, and even my own Anatomy of Britain. Perhaps after all they are not absolutely dead things, but organic matter like plants, which eventually provide compost for other plants.

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It's a confusing time, too, to be moving - temporarily at least - from Notting Hill, when it has just become world famous, attracting tourists eager to discover where Hugh Grant met Julia Roberts. But of course that's not the real Notting Hill. It's still hard to forgive the film-makers for leaving out the black population that has given the area so much of its character and vitality.

It's so common here to see black men and white women - or increasingly vice versa - walking hand in hand together in the street that no one looks twice. But attitudes in America, my black friends notice, are very different, even in New York where mixed couples still cause surprise or embarrassment. Was that why blacks were left out of the movie?

And the Notting Hill carnival remains a uniquely multiracial event which has overcome the past worries about crime, drugs and racial clashes. Anyone who has lived on the carnival route for 30 years has seen the remarkable transformation, with huge mixed crowds passing by with such enjoyment and so little danger, watched by friendly and unobtrusive police who do not spoil the fun. Whatever the prejudices of police elsewhere, can a police force that keeps the peace so tactfully really be guilty of "institutionalised racism"?

Anthony Sampson is the author of 'Mandela: the Authorised Biography', published last week by HarperCollins.

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