Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams

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Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An autobiography by the former Labour cabinet minister and founding member of the Social Democratic Party, later Liberal Democrat Leader, House of Lords.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844084760

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Who could resist a title like that? And is this some lesser-known Shirley Williams, recalling a life spent in libraries? The answer to the latter is no.

Shirley Catlin, as she was born, tells us in the early pages of this memoir that during her childhood her father encouraged her to climb the bookshelves in their Chelsea house, right up to the ceiling. It was a secret between the two of them, as her mother, Testament of Youth Author Vera Brittain, would have immediately anticipated cracked skulls and broken arms.

With the exceptions of Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams was probably the best-known female politician in Britain of her generation. She recalls her early childhood in the years before the Second World War, and her evacuation to America – where she might have become a child star, courtesy of the leading role in the film National Velvet, had she not been beaten to it by Elizabeth Taylor.

Yet politics was always in her blood, and her father, even keen to try and help advance her career, introduced her as a teenager to Lady Astor, the first woman to take her seat at Westminster. Told that young Shirley wished to become an MP, the redoubtable former parliamentarian exclaimed witheringly, Not with that hair! She cheerfully admits to having been something of a tomboy, deciding at twelve that dancing was a sissy occupation.

Her first marriage, family life and travels abroad are described in some detail, but I suspect that most readers will find the account of her political career the most interesting part of the book. First elected to Westminster in 1964, she was at once struck by the sexist attitudes which then prevailed in the House of Commons. One elderly male MP given to pinching his female colleagues in the division lobbies was once seen to hobble angrily into the tea room, complaining of gout. In fact his foot had been deliberately stamped on by somebody who had had enough. One would like to think it had taught him a good lesson.

I was impressed by her sympathetic assessment of Harold Wilson, who is portrayed as a likeable, shrewd man who held a party together divided on deeply ideological lines, especially at a time when she shared the fears of a cabinet secretary of a possible collapse of constitutional government. James Callaghan also comes across as a decent man who likewise did a difficult job well under trying circumstances, although she considers his postponement of the election in 1978 a major blunder. She also writes with some insight of the elaborate minuet of British parliamentary politics and the finer qualities of one-nation Conservatives, with whom she often found disagreeing a little artificial. And she admits with hindsight that her failure to anticipate the general media reaction to her visit to the Grunwick Film Processing factory picket line in 1977 was a mistake.

In the 1979 general election she was the only outgoing cabinet minister to lose her seat. The Labour party, now in opposition, underwent an extraordinary few years of in-fighting, and as one of the 'Gang of Four', her description of the break with her old colleagues, the bitter divisions which surfaced at the 1980 conference, and the birth of the Social Democratic Party are essential reading for anyone interested in the whole remarkable saga. Her assessments of the major figures, from Michael Foot and Tony Benn to her fellow SDP leaders, are remarkably even-handed throughout. Roy Jenkins, she says, a brilliant fencer in a world of brutal rugby, did not enjoy being leader of the SDP. She also comments judiciously about the Major and Blair eras, offering her insights as an experienced politician of the previous generation while remaining non-judgemental throughout.

The closing chapters are divided between her description of another spell in America, the continuing world conflicts and the aftermath of 9/11, and above all her family life and second marriage. She ends with a few general thoughts on the future for the world, and on political life in general, admitting with gentle self-deprecation that she was disorganized and lacked a ruthless killer instinct. Perhaps it was partly these little flaws that made her one of the most genuinely likeable senior politicians of her time.

For further reading on the era, why not also try A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, or When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett, or for another volume of political memoirs, Prezza: My Story: Pulling No Punches by John Prescott.

Buy Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams by Shirley Williams at Amazon.com.

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