Crimes against the English language

By Jill Segger
September 7, 2010
There are some authors whose speaking voice one hears clearly when reading their written words. Alan Bennett is one. Another, obviously constructed from my imaginings, is Elizabeth Gaskell – a low, quiet voice with a hint of Manchester and an undertone of amusement. Another, which offers me far less pleasure, is the voice of Tony Blair.

Light and skittery, with that gratingly contrived glottal stop, I heard the faux-demotic tones of the “pretty straight kind of guy” with disagreeable clarity as I skim-read through A Journey at the weekend. It has been revealed that the publishers of Blair's memoir persuaded him to drop the hyperbolic and slightly messianic definite article from the title. They need not have bothered. The book is so full of self-importance and evangelical certainty that superficial and belated attempts to give it a patina of modesty are futile.

Whether or not protesters prove successful in carrying out a citizen's arrest for war crimes during the book-signing tour, I found myself hoping that someone might attempt to feel the former Prime Minister's collar for crimes against the English language.

There are so many clichés that the reader is left wondering at the laziness and shallowness of Blair's mind. Lights appear at the ends of tunnels, salt is rubbed into wounds, the Vatican is described as “an amazing place”. One paragraph is concluded with “blah, blah, blah”, another with “Blimey, get a life”. There is some toe-curling detail on the Blairs' marital relations that should do well in the Bad Sex Awards. It is disturbing to find that a man who held the highest office of state cares so little about the dignity of the written register.

It could be argued that a politician is not a writer and that such criticisms are nit-picking. But that is to miss the point that as a mind is furnished, so will it write. The memoir reveals Blair as a man who believes his views and person to be so important that the modesty, clarity and essential civility of good style are nowhere on his agenda.

It is also impossible to avoid the conclusion that he has never read well. A man with good writing in his mind's ear could not write like this. And an ill-read person remains outside that hinterland of grace and humility which has been created by centuries of accumulated wisdom, insight and eloquence.

Having turned himself into a celebrity politician, Blair might have done better to adopt the practise of celebs and employed a ghost-writer. But that is not his way. The populist must write in his own voice and that voice is the authentic Tony Blair – a curious mix of vanity and naiveté, cynicism and optimism, slippery evasion and extraordinary pop-psychology revelation.

Overall, the book tells us little of import about the big issues of the Iraq war, of Blair's subservience to Bush or of the “war on terror”. The scathing comments about Gordon Brown are simply ugly and might have been best left unwritten. But the narrative does reveal the essential banality and narcissism of Labour's most electorally successful Prime Minister. Perhaps it also serves to remind us, the voters, that we can and must do better.

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