I don’t know how it is where you live but over here, everyone who is anyone conducts interviews or media broadcasts in front of bookshelves. One or two come over as very poor excuses for a bookshelf especially for a politician. Others have those floor to ceiling type bookcases.
I’m not sure why everyone has to be seen in front of their books above say a collection of fine bone china or a collection of Old Master paintings or even a collection of Star Trek DVDs.
One thing I’ve noticed is that almost everyone has very tidy bookshelves, the sort that to me say they are not really actively used. Some like the Duchess of Cambridge have rows of beautifully bound literary classics in a manner that almost suggests they want to imply that she reads or is an intellectual but perhaps isn’t. That’s ok, not everyone likes books, not everyone is clever but why the pretence? I don’t watch any reality shows or music shows or anything like Love Island, but maybe in future I should write my blog beneath posters of naked, tanned bodies to make me a bit more hip!
Some like Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab sometimes talk in front of an informal shelf of books but these are usually ones related to his field, Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan etc. Nothing like Grim’s Fairy Tales or a collection of ancient Greek stories as you might find in Boris Johnson’s bookcases. It’s almost as if Dominic needs to add a bit of gravitas and be seen to be worthy of his post whilst Boris either feels he has nothing to prove or isn’t quite so desperate to be taken seriously.
New Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer had a very underwhelming shelf whilst the Chancellor Rishi Sunak had a very modern but seemingly untouched collection on his shelves.
In fact the only people who seem to have messy bookcases are historians such as Simon Sharma as they actually use their books. They consult, they insert bits of papers and notes, they squeeze in books horizontally because they don’t fit any other way. My book cases are like that, every inch of space used and most shelves two deep, if not three.
Last week the politician Michael Gove made the news on a photo that his wife uploaded of their presumably jointly used bookcases. It made the news because there was a book or two that weren’t particularly politically correct. I often say on my blog that I don’t much care what side of the debate people are on and one thing I have always liked about him is his politeness. Besides myself, I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone so polite. Whether it is on television, interviews or in the House of Commons, he is unfailingly polite to friends and foe alike. I often wonder how much of the politeness is real and how much is an act, even an act that long ago became ingrained into his personality. He can be very entertaining if you’re into watching politeness. I’m sure that when he knifed Boris in the back a few years ago it must have been with such good grace and diction! He’s also quite bookish and something of a journalist. Not bookish in a Duchess of Cambridge sort of way either.
Last week however Michael Gove was being compared to mass murderers and Nazis on the basis of what is on his bookshelf, almost certainly by many who hadn’t actually read the books themselves . How many people actually know what Nazism is about, how many have read Mein Kampf? Yet they are so quick to abuse the term.
It makes me feel perhaps we’re only a little way from an Index Librorum Prohibitorum as The Vatican put it 500 years ago or to make it a little more contemporary a Nazi book burning ceremony or a Chinese website censor.
There are so many ridiculous, and even quite worrying, aspects to this. The first is this: do people really think you should only read books you agree with? Someone once said that the energy of human intellect comes from the opposition of ideas.
In my time, reading everything was what we called a ’rounded education’, now students are asking for books to be banned and for warnings to be given in case course material might upset or challenge their worldview. I thought that was what university was all about. In my class I had and have good friends related to all sorts of famous and terribly infamous figures. I remember having a fascinating chat one afternoon with a fellow Masters student who was following a slightly different course. He wore an eye-patch and though then long since retired, at one time made rockets out of bicycle tubes as a freedom fighter. It wasn’t offensive, it was fascinating.
I think it is the same people who can’t be friends with those holding different opinions who tend to get offended the most. I can’t really think of anything that would offend me. I don’t consider myself important enough for my view on anything to be taken into consideration beyond basic human rights. Why should I be offended because someone else thinks or acts differently than myself? I also can’t really think of anyone I hate except the odd murderer, terrorist or dictator. I certainly don’t hate any politician. The one I dislike the most is the current London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. I don’t hate him, I just think he doesn’t do much, is generally useless and is often wrong but that’s ok… I didn’t vote for him as he was too oily and sleazy looking. Whereas I didn’t mind Red Ken or Boris, both opposite of each other in every way and both bonkers too.
Aside from my very eclectic taste in books as in life, if one were to judge me by my books then I don’t know what result you’d get. I have and have read The Holy Bible, The Quran, the sacred texts of Buddhism and other religions. Surely I can’t follow all of them… or maybe none of them? Perhaps I have read them all and thought they all to be useless but the only way to tell is to read them.
One of favourite historic period is of the Mongols. I have an ancient copy of The Secret Life of the Mongols but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’d agree with killing millions of people to make room for my horses to graze.
I have books by Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. I have autographs of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Pretty much the first year in my politics class was spent reading the classics from Plato up through the great minds of French and British theory in the 19th century but then also The Communist Manifesto (very small and can be read in one go), Mein Kampf, and quotations from Chairman Mao.
It’s so sad that so many people only stick within their safety zone and even when they don’t, they can’t quite bring themselves to admit others can have a very different but equally valid point of view. I remember last summer being lectured on how I should vote because I came from the north of England.. lectured by a rather rich businessman I suspect from the London way. He just couldn’t get his head around what I was saying and all but called me a lunatic only then for the election in December to see millions of people from that area vote in a way I had long said they would.
I’ve voted for all 3 main stream parties, I know lots of people do but for some reason its seen as bad so they do not admit to it. My opinions have barely changed at all, certainly my morals haven’t but the parties change and thats when in turn I wave them goodbye.
It seems to be a certain type of zealot who can’t seem to accept differences, especially if it goes against what they think. Some have such a strong need to convince others to follow their points of view. I would totally hate it if everyone agreed with me and if they did then I’d make it my mission to mix with a wider scope of people (if that were possible).
In the last year from various countries I have given tours to Deputy Prime Ministers, city Mayors, Middle-Eastern Royalty and American political figures of both sides and I have to say I have enjoyed my time with each of them, including those I would disagree with. I’m always very glad when people have to ask me after 3 or 5 hours who I’d voted for or about Brexit as it means I’ve given accounts of both sides of the argument and a neutral idea of how the system is meant to work.
When people get so crazed with divergences in thought it often reminds me of what Winston Churchill once said about the best argument against Democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter!
Tony Blair made very salient point to this post when he was putting the finishing touches on the Northern Ireland peace agreements when he said that individually he found the political leaders to be nice people to him and he couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t be so to each other.
There was a well known statement last year of a Labour MP who said she could never be friends with a Conservative MP and it struck me as really sad. Most politicians and indeed people are those who are respected for being well-rounded people or at least able to see outside their own team, so why can’t more politicians aspire to be that way and why not more people?
Two of the most prominent and valued politicians in Britain are Sir Nicholas Soames and Frank Fields. They could hardly be more chalk and cheese: Sir Nicholas being an old Etonian and grandson of Winston Churchill whilst Frank Fields is a factory labourer’s son representing a deprived part of Merseyside. One was a passionate Tory Remainer, while the latter Labour figure backed Leave and where the exuberant Soames is all booming bonhomie, Fields is much more reserved.
It is obvious though they share a great friendship. “I adore Frank, I’m very fond of him,” cries Soames. “But I’m never going to join the Labour party. He’s never going to join the Tories. But it doesn’t affect the price of eggs.”
One thing that unites them as friends and I think is something that I deeply share is a dislike of knee-jerk tribalism. Their mutual common sense and wisdom often see them reaching similar conclusions despite very different starting points and life experiences.
In the USA, Bill Clinton became good friends with both the Bush that preceded him in the Whitehouse and the one who followed him and more recently Republican Speaker John Boehner and Democratic President Obama have spoken about their relationship.
There can be no greater example though than Sir Winston Churchill. Lot’s of people think I must love Churchill and to an extent I do but he isn’t my favourite politician, that honour belongs to David Lloyd George who politically was 100% different. They are the twin giants of 20th-century British history though. Since war is still the ultimate test of leadership, the two architects of victory in 1918 and 1945 regularly leave admirable peacetime prime ministers such as Asquith, Attlee, Thatcher in their wake and thats before non entities such as John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May.
These days Sir Winston is always heralded as the greatest orator, the greatest politician maybe in the world but at least here. It wasn’t always the case though and those who have actually read books and don’t rely on recent popularity and Hitler tend to have a different point of view.
Both were far more than just war leaders though their careers were defined by war. Lloyd George was such a radical and loathed war and one of his juniors in WW1 was none other than Churchill ; but their lives were defined by the two wars. Lloyd George was hijacked by 1914-18 out of his proper course. As Chancellor before 1914 he had proved himself the most constructive radical politician of the century – with Churchill his no less radical disciple. He hated war and entered into it with deep reluctance but once engaged he had such brilliance and energy he won the war despite forever ruining his political party and then was promptly dumped from power. Churchill of course liked a bit of war but was in disgrace in the 1920’s and 30’s until he grabbed his destiny in WW2 and even after somewhat saving the world, was dumped out of office too.
In Parliament Square their statues are almost next to each other and in real life, despite belonging to different parties and with different beliefs, they were good friends and actually Churchill was always deferential to his elder statesman even when the roles were reversed.
If two (of the three) greatest British leaders of the 20th Century could be friends despite being in disagreement and through the stresses of world wars, it seems a bit petty that every day people today can’t.
A year ago I actually did a little piece for a foreign TV news channel as one of the prominent politicians who lost the election in December had his knickers in a twist about Churchill in WW1. He couldn’t say enough bad things about him which is totally fine as Churchill himself knew he was the most imperfect of people. What the politician forgot however was that when Churchill died, one of those who carried his coffin was Clement Atlee; the great Labour leader whose lasting legacy was the NHS and who ousted Churchill from office immediately after the war.
I’m sure Michael Gove might think this is all complete nonsense but I’d know he’d be very polite about it and I’d know he’d had at least read the books to have his own valid opinion.
Please feel free to agree or disagree with me in the comments below 🙂 I got told to write something like this by a friend as she said most people have such a narrow point of view and the few that don’t have a duty to illuminate a different outlook on life and so now I have. Personally I think she may have been drunk.
Phew, now I’ve got that off my chest is that virus still going on?