Monday 23 September 2019

Review: Behind The Black Door by Sarah Brown

Ebury Press, €14.99, Paperback

By George: Sarah with
Hollywood actor George
Clooney at Downing Street
By George: Sarah with Hollywood actor George Clooney at Downing Street

England is a foreign country; they do things differently there. On this side of the Irish Sea, Celia Larkin notwithstanding, first ladies have tended to blend seamlessly into the background, not so much speaking when spoken to as not speaking at all.

At Westminster, the leader's wife has always been more to the fore. Long before the frightful Cherie Blair, even Harold Wilson's poetry-publishing wife was a well-known personality in her own right.

Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon, the most recent Labour prime minister, was quiet enough when her husband was in power but has now broken her silence with the publication of Behind The Black Door, "a personal memoir about life at 10 Downing Street", though whether it really is "personal" remains a matter of opinion. It is, insofar as the book concerns itself overwhelmingly with the minutiae of domesticity chez Brown.

The book, written in a rather disturbingly giddy, schoolgirlish, exclamation mark-littered diary form, is crammed with meals and childminding and wardrobe decisions -- but there's nothing in the slightest bit revelatory about it. This is a book so tiptoeingly discreet it's practically taken a vow of silence.

There's certainly no hint here of the volatile, object-throwing prime minister unpeeled in weightier memoirs of his premiership. Instead, Gordon is loyally sketched throughout as a loving, touchy-feely Honey Monster of a man, watching CBeebies with his young sons "as I put my feet up with a cup of tea". Other leaders get the same softly, softly treatment. The couple have dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has an election coming up and "very much wants to win again". You don't say?

While a disappointing read for that reason, Sarah Brown does manage to sprinkle the narrative with enough gossipy details to satisfy star-hungry readers. Meeting George Clooney while wearing a "comfy" lime green M&S "cardie" makes for an enjoyable vignette; and being taken aside by France's President Sarkozy at Downing Street to be told in a whisper that he's just married Carla Bruni, but the paparazzi don't know yet, does seem to sum up something about the little Parisian love muffin. Likewise, Sarkozy's trick of being "famously late for pretty much everything, especially if the cameras are lined up to notice..."

Buried in a time capsule, the book will offer future generations a telling insight into a time when politics and showbiz began to merge. Weeks are an endless round of meetings and campaigns and crises, but celebrities are never far away.

Her list of "close friends" in the acknowledgments runs to nearly a whole page, and include Mariella Frostrup, 'Jo' (JK) Rowling, Davina McCall, Eddie Izzard, Annie Lennox, Kim Cattrall, David (Dr Who) Tennant. . . it all becomes a bit much after a while, particularly when Sarah jets off to America to give an address on female empowerment in the developing world, and "as I am leaving, I recognise a very famous face sitting near the back quietly listening to all the speeches: Barbra Streisand, with her husband, James Brolin".

She's "too shy to go and say hello", but still squeezes twice as many words out of the incident as she devotes to the meeting itself. Gordon, meanwhile, is somewhere in Manhattan -- along with Bono, naturally -- where both are being presented with a "humanitarian award".

After that, it's off to the UN for an amusing anecdote about Colonel Gaddafi giving a 90-minute speech when he was only allotted nine (oh, he's a card, isn't he?), before heading back to London for the Pride of Britain awards, where "we say hello to Cheryl Cole, who is a good Labour supporter". It's not even as crude as simple namedropping; that's just the life modern politicians lead. Somehow that almost makes it worse. Even when a guest at dinner leans over and tells Piers Morgan he's 'FOS' ("Full Of Shit"), Mrs Brown is keen to point out that the Britain's Got Talent judge has a good sense of humour and is not offended.

Sarah Brown comes across in these pages as a decent and likeable woman, but then this is her own story and it's a rare diarist who lets a less than flattering self-portrait emerge. She's no Alan Clark, let's put it that way.

Which isn't to say that Behind The Black Door is a bad book; just not a very necessary one. Meanwhile, here's hoping Enda's other half isn't sharpening her pencil as we speak.

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