Sunday, May 3, 2009

Paddy's corker of an autobiography

I have a confession to make. I have made a habit of being a Paddy Ashdown fan. However, I struggled to read the last book I bought by him. I think it was the first volume of his diaries. I just about managed to get to Page 48 and then packed it up and sent it back to Amazon. I attached a letter requesting a refund on the basis that "I hadn't expected the book to be so boring". A refund was duly given.

So I am no automatic fan of Paddy's writings. But I can tell whether I like a book by the speed I read it. It's taken me precisely 13 days to read A Fortunate Life. That means I really liked it. Really. To give you a comparison, I have faltered at page 266 of 442 of Barack Obama's Dreams from my father after four months. Paddy says he wishes he was as good a writer as Obama. Well, Obama undoubtedly serves up golden prose on every page. I am not sure whether he elaborates some episodes to the point of fiction or "faction", but you can get a bit bored with golden prose.

So the first thing I'd say is that A Fortunate Life is an extremely entertaining and, even, gripping read. Ashdown has had an exceptionally interesting life and he has written a marvellously readable autobiography which is rich on amusing anecdotes, doesn't get too serious or wooden, and carries through it a vein of passionate Liberalism. In summary, it's a damned sight better than his Diaries and the most absorbing and satisfying autobiography I have ever read.

I'll just give a few snippets which I found particularly good.

Although Ashdown has had a fortunate life, it is perhaps more apposite that he has had a remarkably varied life where he has witnessed a whole series of historical events or their immediate aftermath at first hand, starting with the massacres which followed the partition of India, the troubles in Northern Ireland from the point of view of an Ulsterman and a soldier, various fag-end of the British Empire military excursions and service in Hong Kong, spying at the end of the Cold War, momentous events in Parliament and, most sigificantly, the appalling massacres in the Balkans in the 1990s. He's been a poacher, Royal Marine, SBS officer, spy, student of Chinese, a youth worker, a sheep skin specialist, an estimator in the aviation industry, a parliamentary candidate, MP, party leader and the effective leader of a country of 3.5 million people. That is quite a list.

It really is quite extraordinary that one person is able to draw on such experiences which have several common strands running through them. One is that Ashdown is so obviously a liberal, as well as a Liberal, through and through. And the second is one that he himself highlights in his prologue. He picks on two days in 1992 when he, apparently, helped stop the killings of men at a prison camp but also saw women and children who were shortly afterwards taken to the edge of a cliff and shot, sending them into the ravine below:

Together they form not just a memory but also somehow a distillation of the theme of my life; that of conflict and its human consequences when the beast of intolerance and bigotry gets loose.

And, as an observer of man's inhumanity to man, Ashdown comes across as remarkably passionate about civilised values. In his marine days he relates a tale about a subordinate who he observed hitting a soldier prisoner. Ashdown hit that subordinate so hard that he flew across the room. Indeed, he lost his temper, but it demonstrates how strongly Ashdown feels about civilised norms.

I found his childhood in Northern Ireland very charming. His tales of poaching with his father were particularly funny and, I thought, once again demonstrated Ashdown's liberal outlook. I am not saying poaching is a liberal thing, but you wouldn't catch many Tories telling you this tale:

Our method of escaping ghillies was simple, effective and, again, taught to us by Billy Thompson ( a local hunter/fisherman). Part One was avoidance. We would nearly always be able to hear the ghillies coming some time before they heard or saw us. Then, if we thought they hadn't actually seen us, we would simply lie down in the dark, pull our overcoats over us and make like a stone. Ten times our of ten, the ghillies, not knowing we were there, walked past unseeing, leaving us to make good our escape. But if we knew we had been spotted, then we implemented Part Two: evasion. We would start walking round the lake keeping a good distance in front of our pursuer. If he ran, we ran. If he walked, then we did, too. If he shouted (which they always did) we would keep silent. And then, when we judged him frustrated, and choosing a point at which we were briefly out of sight, we would one by one drop to the ground, pull our overcoats over us, lie still and hope he would walk past us. And that was always what happened.

He has some great tales from his days as a Marine like the one about the Lympstone drill sargeant who presided over recruits attending a Sunday church service:

...spotting that one of his new recruits had not taken off his beret in church, (he) bawled at the unfortunate:


The book goes into engaging detail about Paddy's time in the SBS. I found his descriptions of work to perfect submarine-borne undercover landings absolutely fascinating. One little story from his SBA training days was a particular hoot:

...Survival was the subject of the shortest and most effective lesson I ever attended. The instructor, one of our Sargeants and a mountain of a man, came into the lecture room in which we were all seated, walked up to the front and put both his arms on the lectern. 'Right! Today you will learn survival. It's not complicated,' he said, pulling two very ancient pieces of bread, curled up at the edges, out of one pocket of his parachute smock. He then pulled a live frog out of the other, put it between the pieces of bread and ate it. 'If you can do that,' he said, 'you will survive. If you can't you won't!' Then, lecture over, he left the room, leaving us with our eyes out on stalks and a lesson we would never forget.

Paddy goes into detail about learning Chinese which seemed to involve phenomenal application. He then regales us with his time on active service in Belfast. Of course, there are some fairly harrowing parts but I enjoyed this little story which happened when there was a major riot brewing:

I was on the radio asking Alan Hooper to send in our reserve Troop, pre-positioned in a quiet side street just round the corner, as fast as he could, when a huge mountain of female Shankill Road Protestant fury came charging up to me, bosoms heaving dangerously and face suffused with anger. 'You fuckin' English fuckin' bastard,' she screamed above the noise.

'What are you fuckin' doing here? Why don't you fuckin' go back to fuckin' England and fuckin' leave us in fuckin' peace? Can't youse fuckin' see you're not fuckin' wanted here? And anyway why can't youse fuckin' show any fuckin' respect?'

The tirade rose to a crescendo, ending explosively:

'Can't youse fuckin' see? Youse've got your fuckin' Land Rover parked outside our fuckin' church and it's a fuckin' SUNDAY!'

The chapter which gripped me perhaps the most was the winning of Yeovil. Quite simply, Paddy must have been mad to ditch a well-paid job with a grace and favour villa on the shore of Lake Geneva to become PPC in a seat where the Liberal party was third with a very threadbare organisation. But, of course, he wasn't mad. This was more evidence of Paddy's unquenchable thirst to serve which marks him out as extraordinary. We get all the details of the printing operation involving a press nick-named "Clarissa" and then, once he is elected, there is the following seminal anecdote which I think is one which is probably the highlight of the book and sums up everything that endears Ashdown to me. I think this book would make a good film and this episode would be an excellent scene - I can see James McEvoy as Paddy. He travels up to London for his first state opening of Parliament in a lamentably beaten-up Renault Five with its windows missing and some masking tape and polythene (a repair which failed) flapping in the breeze, his family inside (Jane at the wheel) and his dog Traddles barking out of the window at every passer-by as they arrive at Westminster shortly before the Queen's procession:

Just as I was thinking that all was lost, and we should turn round and go home to Somerset, we burst onto the Embankment just short of Vauxhall Bridge. Shortly after that, we met our first police roadblock barring entrance to Parliament Square. We drove up, and I explained I was an MP (I think this was the first time I ever used the title) and needed to get to the House for the State Opening. The policeman took one look at the car and seemed disinclined to believe me. But I produced my newly obtained House of Commons pass, and he let us through, narrowly avoiding a savaging from Traddles as we passed. Now we were on Millbank, and the roads were largely empty, save for an ambassadorial Rolls Royce or two sweeping majestically past us and a few spectators. There was much laughing as we sped through and quite a few cheers, which I knew were not intended to be helpful. Then another road block, another disbelieving policeman and another flash of my pass and we were in Parliament Square. Now there were many more spectators and much more cheering, to which Traddles responded enthusiastically - I was now trying to look as invisible as the front seat of a Renault Five would allow. Jane floored the accelerator and cut the corners of Parliament Square practically on two wheels, while Traddles (now three-quarters out of the back window) yapped as though his life depended on it. Finally, and with great relief, we dived into the safety of the House of Commons underground car park.

Ashdown's coverage of his days as an MP and leader are fascinating. There is this interesting and telling bit about the name of the Liberal Democrats. At the time, the party was called the SLD or the "Salads". With the finances and poll ratings in the toilet, the party is about to go down the swanny if something else goes wrong. The biggest problem was the name. Ashdown wanted to change it to the "Democrats" and was quite adamant about that. But the debate was tearing the party apart. Ashdown's eventual reaction speaks a lot about him and the essence of the party itself. After a very bad-tempered meeting of MPs about the name, Ashdown went home:

I...poured myself a large whisky and quite quickly came to the conclusion that the problem was me - I was wrong and had to change course if I was not to destroy the Party completely. Being a relative outsider compared to the older MPs...I had, in my rush to create the new party, failed to understand that a political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies and a chomium-plated organisation. It also has a heart and a history and a soul - especially a very old party like the Liberals. Alan Beith and the other "Name" rebels understood this better than me. They were right, and I had nearly wrecked the Party by becoming too attached to my own vision and ignoring the fact that political parties are, at root, human organisations and not machines....I concluded that I should announce a referendum of all Party members, dare any MP to say that they would go against the democratic voice of the Party and announce at the same time that I would be voting for 'Liberal Democrat'. The row quickly subsided, a ballot of all members was arranged and, in the autumn, the Party agreed to 'Liberal Democrat' by an overwhelming vote.

I found Paddy's description of his visit to the former Yugoslavia and his time a High Representative in Bosnia Herzegovina the most substantial part of the book. Those parts are so profound that they defy summary. Suffice it to say that, after reading them, I was deeply ashamed of myself as an inhabitant of Europe.

You can order Paddy's excellent A Fortunate Life here with a little divvy going to the Liberal Democrats.

Below: Yours truly with Paddy at the launch of A Fortunate Life

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