Adam Somerset takes a dive into the world of literary festival appearances, with a look at, Didn’t You Use to be Chris Mullin? Diaries 2010 – 2022, the collected diaries of Labour MP Chris Mullin.
‘The political meeting isn’t dead. It’s just transferred to literary festivals.’ The line, spoken by Chris Mullin at the Durning Library in Kennington on 15th May, is repeated in his fourth volume of his diaries. Kennington featured in the previous volumes, it being his location in London for his 23 years as a parliamentarian and his 4 years in government.
Mullin has not counted the number of his appearances at literary festivals. With locations spanning Lerwick to Fowey he estimates the total in his retirement from Parliament to have exceeded 200. Audiences at Edinburgh run to 550, paying £8 or £10 a head with a good number of books to be signed and sold.
His favourite is the small annual festival at Melrose. He confides to his diary ‘hey, I treat them as mini-breaks, a chance to stay in a hotel I wouldn’t normally be able to afford, look up old friends, visit a part of the country I wouldn’t get to see.’
The sponsor of the Melrose Festival is the Duke of Buccleuch. Mullin had his 1982 novel A Very British Coup refilmed in 2012. The film allowed him to become a modest land-owner in rural Northumberland. The delight, and the labour, in the garden is a thread that runs through the years of the diary.
Northumberland is a small community and he often finds himself in the slightly incongruous company of the old dynasties of the county. He attends a sumptuous birthday celebration for Matt Ridley. He has close friends at Chillingham Castle who are revealed late in the narrative to be the parents-in-law of Dominic Cummings.
Travels from his beloved home are regular. He is on committees: the heritage lottery funds and the Northumberland national park authority. He lectures widely, the Universities in Newcastle and Sunderland are regulars. His earlier diaries are dramatised at Newcastle and the production transfers to London’s Soho Theatre. He is a member of the Man Booker Prize committee one year. The choice of Julian Barnes’ ‘the Sense of an Ending’ has, he says, not been his preference. He says of these years ‘this last decade has seen some of the best years of my life.’
For all the warmth and eloquence of these varied episodes of a life in its third chapter readers will come to Didn’t You Use to Be Chris Mullin? for its politics. He lets slip that the first volume is on its fourteenth reprint. The tone for the fourth volume is unchanged. The sharpness of observation, the economy of the entries, the self-deprecation continue. ‘I have never been much more than a flea-bite on the body politic’ he concludes in his preface.
He may no longer be a direct participant in the body politic but he has the access of an insider. He takes lunch with the Chief of the Armed Forces, the result of a chance remark on radio. The location is described in detail, the content of the conversation not revealed. At a dinner in the home of Andrew Mitchell, Jeremy Hunt is a fellow guest. So surprisingly is Bob Geldof. The effect of Mitchell’s ‘plebgate’ has meant not a proper night’s sleep in two years.
Mullin is not a close-up observer of the Conservative Party. He observes with horror the turbulence of the years unleashed by the 2016 Referendum. Boris Johnson receives a summation that is unsurprising: ‘as with much of what he says one can never be sure how much is windy rhetoric and how much has a basis in reality.’ Many of the entries filter the latest press coverage although there is a prescient comment about the USA. On July 3rd 2020 he wonders about the 45th President and the November election to come: ‘complaining about how he was robbed…defeat is the one thing he couldn’t cope with.’
Attention will turn most to the Labour Party in its time of turbulence. A swathe of new names are forecast for the Cabinet from 2024 to hold the headlines, attend summits, negotiate Britain’s strained external and internal relationships. When Labour reforms after the 2019 cataclysm he sees ‘a new shadow front bench-, apart from Lisa Nandy most of the rest I have never heard of, which probably says more about me than it does about them.’
The diaries are a roll-call of a former Labour generation. The last figures from the Callaghan leave the stage: Gerald Kauffman, Shirley Williams (‘I much admired her’), Healey (‘that old flamethrower… an uncouth bully who…never owed up to mistakes.’) He visits Tony Benn in hospital. ‘As I left his eyes followed me to the door and he smiled. I doubt I shall see him again.’
Two weeks later Benn dies. The media choose Dianne Abbot who scarcely knew him and mouths inaccuracies about him. Michael Heseltine is the only Conservative to be seen at the funeral, along with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness
As for the period since the Blair step-down the judgements are crisp. Gordon Brown: ‘the volcanic rages, the chronic indecision, the desperate, backfiring gimmicks.’ ‘There is a very small clique around Ed and it is getting smaller’ he is told. From Nick Brown: ‘Ed Milliband is a nice chap and would probably make a good university lecturer.’ Of a Milliband speech in 2014 ‘a disaster, full of populist nonsense…ludicrous and impractical…on top of which he entirely forgot to mention the deficit .’
As for the period to December 2019 Mullin is guest speaker at Blyth Labour party. ‘The audience was solidly working-class. Labour may have lost the working-class vote in Rochester but not in Blyth.’ At the public event in May this year Lambeth Mullin answered the question about Jeremy Corbyn with three points. He had known him for 40 years, he used the adjective ‘saintly’, and said he would have been lost in power, being without experience.
Mullin is ever the journalist over the advocate. On winning the leadership Corbyn’s speech is called ‘inept entirely directed towards the party rather than the nation.’ By mid-2016 Mullin has taken to micro-blogging. He records an exchange. ‘Much as I respect Jeremy I shall not be voting for him. To do so risks annihilation./ Annihilation by whom?/ The electorate. Remember them?’
He concludes in June 2018 ‘history tells us that Labour usually needs to lose three or four elections before a little light comes on.’
As a diarist Chris Mullin is the observer of the world that he encounters. He does not do inner states or introspection. He muses at one point on the likely number of years he has left. He is unabashed to leave a public record of his medical troubles. Scans are recorded along with the fears they engender. While in Italy he has a crisis with kidney stones. The pain, the discomfort and the social difficulty with stents are related dispassionately.
On occasion private emotions intrude. The Times gives the best part of a page to his review of the Blair memoirs. ‘It is good to feel relevant again, however fleetingly.’ In the days of Covid-19 he is an Everyman. The first lockdown had shock, novelty and spring weather to it. When it comes to the third his entry for 5th February 2021 reads ‘long empty days this is the most miserable winter I can remember.’ Eventually in London after a two-year absence he is irked by the unchanged ‘see it, say it, sorted’ public address.
The diary format has a great virtue to it. It can mingle high and low, public and private, the important and the fleeting. These juxtapositions are its lifeblood. John Major makes an intervention in Scotland’s 2014 referendum, ‘A much more substantial figure than he was ever given credit for’ is the verdict. In the next paragraph Mullin and his wife are chased by a herd of bullocks. ‘Scary’ he writes.
He observes the rightward tugging of the Conservatives in the Cameron era. One day he is writing ‘scarcely a week goes by without some new sop to the UKIP wing of the Tory party.’ The next day he offers a long description of the behaviours of Bruce, ‘the bedraggled old cat’, which indicate dementia.
Mullin provides his own assessment of good writing. He reads Barack Obama and observes ‘like all the best memoirs, it is the incidental details, the small observations, the light and shade which bring his…story to life.’ The same qualities animate this volume, a fine summation to its three predecessors. They run to two thousand pages; they are the best of guides to how it was, how we were.
Didn’t You Use to be Chris Mullin? is available now from Biteback Publishing.