Monday 21 October 2019

Cherie's tell-all memoirs: they just couldn't happen here

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It certainly couldn't happen in Ireland. I don't think we will shortly be reading Mrs Brian Cowen's memoirs of what form of family planning, precisely, she uses to regulate her fertility.

I don't believe Mrs Brian Lenihan will, any time soon, be induced into explaining why she can't stand the new Tanaiste, Mary Coughlan -- they may be best buddies for all we know.

And I don't think that Mary Harney will ever really spill the beans in memoir about the real meaning of her relationship with Bertie. Tell-all political memoirs just don't happen in Ireland. The nearest anyone got was Gemma Hussey once saying that maybe Garret Fitzgerald's cabinet meetings did go on and on a weeny bit.

But in London, Cherie Blair's new autobiography, Speaking for Myself, certainly does wander into the territory of personal and intimate conduct, personal likes and dislikes and what went on behind the green baize doors of Downing Street.

Mrs Blair has revealed just how little Leo was conceived -- on a visit to stay with the Queen at Balmoral, she failed to pack her "contraceptive equipment" -- and soon her youngest infant was on the way. (Her revelation has had her critics asking "Exactly what kind of Catholic is Cherie?", since she describes herself as a "good Catholic girl". Orthodox Catholics have suggested that Cherie's "contraceptive equipment" may have been a Vatican-approved cycle monitor, which tells a woman when ovulation is due.)

Cherie revisits the rivalry between Tony and Gordon Brown, and how Gordon was forever "rattling the keys to No 10" in a bid to displace Blair as PM. She tells how Alastair Campbell, Tony's spin-doctor "was completely obsessed by the idea that Princess Diana fancied him".

As for the royals -- Cherie got along fine with the Queen, but not with either Princess Margaret (who died in 2002) or Anne. Margaret was introduced to the former Culture Minister for the Arts, the gay Chris Smith -- and his partner. "Partner in what?" queried HRH. "In sex," Cherie explained.

The no-nonsense Princess Anne was also awkward. Cherie encouraged Anne to call her by her Christian name: but the Princess Royal replied rather stuffily that she'd prefer to stick to formalities.

Of Cherie's confessions it has been said that she "out-Wagged the WAGS". Her disclosures about her conjugal life "makes Coleen McLoughlin look like Clarissa Eden" (the very staid wife of 50s' PM Anthony Eden).

Cherie, however, is not alone. Tony Blair himself once allowed The Sun newspaper to report that he was capable of making love five times a night, which struck some as something of an adolescent boast.

Others associated with the Blair regime have been writing their personal memoirs too -- John Prescott going into confessional mode about his apparent Bulimia compulsions. Lord Levy, Labour's former fundraiser and Sir Christopher Meyer, former Ambassador to Washington have both published memoirs considered politically indiscreet.

So what's behind all this?

In Cherie's case, the advance she received -- half a million sterling -- must have played some part in the gossipy element of her book. For be warned of this: if a publisher pays a large advance, he will want something spicey and sensational in return. Nothing for nothing in this world!

And I think Cherie is a person who still feels the chippiness of being a Liverpool Catholic from a one-parent family. She really did have a tough upbringing: she could have ended up in a sink estate with no qualifications, if it hadn't been for the encouragement of the nuns who urged her to aim high and achieve the best. Her father, the actor Tony Booth, was a hell-raiser who abandoned several of his families.

Somewhere in Cherie, there is still a Liverpool rebel who wants to show "the toffs" in the Establishment where to get off. In Britain, everything now is increasingly driven by the celebrity culture, by money and marketing. That inevitably means that discretion is seen as an old-fashioned and outdated virtue. If you can grab a slice of the celeb and publicity action -- go for it!

The same values are gradually seeping into Irish life, but the intimacy and interlocking networks of Irish society still preserve a certain decorum.

"You have to be very careful how you tread in Ireland," a political media commentator remarked recently. "You might be slagging off someone, only to find you're talking to his cousin."

Indeed, an example of that very phenomenon occurred recently on the Tubridy show on RTE 1 when the novelist Marian Keyes damned all politicians as shallow and power-hungry. "Some families have an ethic of public service," riposted Tubridy huffily, who is indeed a cousin to a gaggle of Fianna Fail politicos.

That complicated network of kinship inhibits most people from total or intimate disclosure. A politician's wife in Ireland wouldn't reveal her contraceptive methods because she'd be thinking of her aunt in Clara, and sparing the blushes.

Also, the Irish State is gradually turning into a one-party system and Fianna Fail has a total lock on that system.

One act of personal indiscretion and you'll never eat lunch in this town again. Around the subject of Terry Keane, for example, there prevails a Sicilian code of Omerta.

Are the WAG-like tell-all memoirs good or bad? Perhaps they do lower the tone of political discourse. On the other hand, perhaps they tell us a lot more about character and morals in high places than more serious tomes. They also tell us that British political wives are not as likely to be cowed in the way they used to be -- Mary Wilson loathed the plotting and back-stabbing associated with the political scene but just buried herself in poetry to forget about it.

When history comes to be written, Cherie Blair's witness will count for something.

Even if the disclosures are a tad vulgar, they add something to the sum of our knowledge about the personal dynamics of the political class.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section