September 26, 2015
Atlantic Books, out now
Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, this well written account of the Sri Lankan civil war does not take sides. Indian Tamil journalist Subramanian approaches a notoriously tangled and controversial subject through the stories of diverse individuals. These include former combatants from the Tamil Tigers and the army, refugees and other members of the diaspora, journalists, medics and other civilians. We learn some of the human cost of this awful conflict.
He finds that Sri Lanka lends itself to this style: “It never required much to begin a conversation in Sri Lanka. The very air was primed for it. In a country so full of uncertainty, all life, and all death, was rehearsed through conversation. It was a form of art, well honed and practiced with skill.”
No previous knowledge of Sri Lankan history is necessary and so it is a useful primer, but also very revealing for those who know more. The problems facing Sri Lankans at home and abroad now are shown. No easy answers present themselves. The author documents his own, sometimes conflicting, reactions to the stories he is told. This makes the book feel honest, current and engaging.
This Divided Island is a must-read for anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful but troubled place, as well as for those who want to know more about the civil war and its aftermath. In places his reporting is the best kind of travel writing, immediate and vivid in his descriptions of transport, food, and places. Despite the grimness of some of the content, the clarity of the writing and the writer’s affection for the place make this an engaging and swift read.
Review by Bethan
January 19, 2014
Thatcher and Benn were both born in 1925 into separate strata of the class system, and ended up on opposite sides of post-war politics. On the right and the left, they each achieved an enduring political legacy, which ensures these contrasting volumes should avoid the remainder shop of doom, where most politicians end up. Charles Moore’s official guide to the grocer’s daughter from Grantham is a masterpiece of biography; sympathetic yet revealing about her failures, foibles and triumphs. His account of the Falklands War is like a labyrinthine thriller: the US diplomatic manoeuvring, the hapless chicanery of the Argentinian junta and the internal cabinet divisions, all going on while British troops wanted to prosecute a war before winter arrived in the South Atlantic.
Her failings included a lack of strategic vision and abysmal man-management – it was always men – that ultimately led to her downfall. She also had no discernible sense of humour and needed the jokes in her speeches to be explained. Thatcher cut a lonely figure early on, surrounded by patrician Tory Wets, but was sustained by a coterie of admirers and the blimpish, boozy Denis Thatcher. This curious cast of true believers makes for a surprisingly funny biography, especially the footnote revealing the amorous efforts of one of the PM’s fans.
Following Thatcher’s death, Tony Benn writes with admiration from across the political divide in The Last Diaries, describing her as a “signpost not a weather vane”. The former Viscount Stansgate comes across as a steadfast figure himself: marching against war in his eighties, attending picket lines and railing against Tony Blair. As his health fails, his powers as a diarist wane a little: Hazel Blears didn’t actually go on TV with “a large mock-up of a cheque” to announce she was paying back her expenses, although it’s a pleasingly surreal image. Amidst the name-dropping (Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Natasha Kaplinsky) his curiosity about ordinary lives shines through. And while his arguments may have been defeated at the ballot box, Benn’s career is not the forgettable failure of so many politicians. His volumes of diaries will be read, studied and enjoyed for many years to come.
November 17, 2013
Updated paperback out now – £8.99
The BBC political editor is one of TV’s most familiar faces – and one of the most annoying if you accept Alastair Campbell’s assessment of Nick Robinson (“a jerk”). Well, I’d rather read Robinson’s engaging, witty history and insightful memoir than Campbell’s obsessive, late-night scribbling. It’s not an autobiography but it does begin – after a perfectly worthy, BBC-style introduction – with a revealing chapter on his youthful fascination with current affairs (Today presenter Brian Redhead was a neighbour) and his dogged research as BBC producer for a Dimbleby. Even when he switches to reporting, Robinson still seems to write a lot of memos and happily describes himself as a “pointy head” in contrast to BBC Rottweiler interviewers (Paxman, Humphrys, Neil).
Nevertheless, he’s a tenacious reporter who was bloodied early in the Blair years when, he claims, Mandelson tried to get him sacked, as well as being – for the most part – a staunch defender of his trade. While he acknowledges the soundbite culture’s gone too far, he reminds us of Draconian restrictions on reporting parliament from the 1600s to the 1950s. Politicians wouldn’t even deign to be interviewed. (In 1955, Clement Attlee was asked if there was “anything else you’d care to say about the coming election?” His answer in full: “No.”)
Robinson draws perfect sketches of the political pas de deux between each prime minister and the Beeb. Churchill loathed the BBC, which had (wrongly) denied him a platform in the 1930s; Wilson was a paranoiac who preferred ITV; Thatcher was positively hostile. He gets angry about propaganda during the Falklands War and regrets his failure to give Robin Cook’s opposition to the Iraq war airtime when employed by ITV (Robinson avoided the Blair-BBC death duel). Of course, this impartial correspondent’s candour becomes cloudier the closer he gets to the present but his profound questions about the future shape of British broadcasting make this essential reading for students of politics and the media.