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A Journey: Book review


Reviewed by tvnz.co.nz's Chris Hooper

For a politician who embraced, and arguably embodied, the age of celebrity, it seems appropriate that Tony Blair has dutifully released a book that is more autobiography than political memoir (by his own admission), to sit alongside the scores of hardbacks by sport-stars, glamour models and reality TV contestants.

What follows is a personal account of the changes he went through as a world leader, and how it felt to be at the eye of the storm. It also forms a manifesto for the New Labour project - a desire to define the philosophy as a third-way, centrist and progressive system of government, far from the marketing tool for election success for which it is was subsequently derided.

It can be an odd read, to say the least. That's not to say it isn't fascinating; having an insider's view of a significant period in Britain's history was always going to be interesting, but the manner of its execution occasionally raises an eyebrow.

Passages throughout the 691-page tome veer from having too much information ("I like to have time and comfort in the loo"), to unexpected moments of high camp ("[Bill Clinton and I] threw away the script and worked the crowd like two old music hall queens."

This week, Blair became the recipient of a spurious honour as the first non-fiction author to receive a nomination for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award - an annual prize that celebrates poorly written erotic passages.

The paragraph in question, from the fateful night in 1994 when he took over as Labour leader after the untimely death of John Smith, describes a tender moment with his wife: 

"That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me ... I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct."

It's an example of one of the book's occasional bursts of truly heinous writing. There's a propensity to use exclamation marks like a teenage girl (with enthusiasm and great abundance) and the text is also peppered with anecdotal non-sequiturs; when he's outlining the roles of his inner political team he breaks off to talk about the time he did 29 headers with Kevin Keagan.

Of the two most anticipated subjects, Iraq and his relationship with PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown, he was never going to fully satisfy the appetites of our collective expectation. On Iraq, he devotes three chapters to the unfolding nightmare and his political reasoning behind it.

He asserts that in an age of increasing globalisation the fate of nations are more entwined than ever before; therefore, post-9/11 the need to eradicate rogue states, and protect global security, increased. He recognises it's an argument that can be disputed (and most people, as he points out, do), but he makes a clearly constructed case nonetheless. It's also one he roots in the interventionist policy of the Kosovo and Sierra Leone operations, which were not met with the same level of angry protestation.  

On his relationship with Gordon Brown, he's candid but steers away from outright hostility. You get a sense of disappointment about the inability of the two camps within the government to come together. Of the supposed 'deal' to hand over power to Brown, he admits there was one - but in the 2005 election, not 1997; and he only delayed his exit to further embed the policies he felt a Brown administration would drop.

It's a book that was badly in need of editing - the frequency of the phrase "As I say," being the key indicator that he's saying the same thing far too often. And, like the dust-jacket image that is inexplicably ever so slightly out of focus, you can't help feeling the prose inside is similarly blurred - as a first-person analysis of a period of history is always going to be.

Bizarrely, Blair has been accused of plagiarising from a fictional account of his life, when he writes that the Queen remarked, "You are my tenth prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born." It's a line which Peter Morgan (the screenwriter of The Queen) says he made up. Whether that casts doubt on the truthfulness of the book is up to the reader.

What you're left with is a portrait of a man who truly believes he acted in the best interests of the electorate, and a politician who genuinely wanted to change the way government operated.

Whether you applaud his achievements in the Northern Irish peace process, the introduction of legislation that made Britain a more egalitarian society; or, dismiss his 10 years in power as a failed promise or, worse, an abuse of power - to hear it from the horse's mouth is compelling. 

7/10

A Journey
Publisher: Random House
RRP: $75.00
Available: Now


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