Book review: Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography

Probably no one in British public life has been as unfairly reviled as Diane Abbott MP.

In the six weeks leading up to the 2017 General Election, for example, 45% of all abusive tweets directed at female MPs were aimed at her. Much of this occurred as a direct response to an LBC interview with Nick Ferrari in which she was unable to provide figures on how much 10,000 police officers would cost. As Shadow Home Secretary, this was undoubtedly an error, but the ferocity of the media response was disproportionately fierce. Abbott conducted seven interviews that morning: only the LBC one went awry.

As it happens, Prime Minister Theresa May also did a bad interview on that day. Criticism of May’s performance on the comments section of YouTube suggested that “she is not strong and stable, she is uncaring and arrogant” or that “she obviously doesn’t care about poor people.” The criticism of Abbott was notably different in tone. She was described as a “racist bint,” “a communist anti-white bitch” a “stupid racist dumb bitch” and “a retarded liberal woman.”

Twitter hostility to Abbott almost invariably has a strong racist and sexist undercurrent, often also focusing on her weight and the Cambridge graduate’s supposed lack of intelligence. Much of it spells her name wrong (for example, ‘Dianne Abbot’). Much of it threatens her with sexual violence. The print media is similarly vitriolic often obsessing about her past relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. The so-called ‘quality press’ is often no better. “It’s not racist to point out that Diane Abbott is a bungling disappointment,” Zoe Strimpel wrote in a notable personal attack in the Telegraph. “Without descending into nasty comments about her voice, her expression, or her odd mixture of seeming cluelessness and arrogance, it’s worth simply reviewing a few of the mistakes that have made her campaign such a disaster.”

We should remember: Diane Abbott has put up with this sort of thing for her entire life. Born to Jamaican parents in London in 1953, at grammar school, one English teacher refused to believe she wasn’t copying her essays from somewhere else. Although consistently bright and hardworking, she was told “she wasn’t up to it” when she enquired about applying for the Oxford and Cambridge entry exam. She was one of the few black students to attend and graduate from Cambridge in the 1970s. There are not many black students at Cambridge University even today. On arriving at the May Ball shortly before graduating, she was greeted straight away by a man who said, “oh great, you must be here to wash up.”

In 1987, she became the first ever black woman to be elected to parliament. She has been an MP for longer than any other black person and for longer than any serving woman Labour MP except for Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett. On first arriving in the Commons, she repeatedly had to prove she was an MP to officials sceptical that a black woman could actually be a serving member of parliament.

She has been re-elected by her Hackney constituents seven times. She has spoken on and taken action frequently against poverty, austerity and racism amongst many other issues. An outsider during the Kinnock, Blair and Brown years, she stood in the 2010 leadership contest. She has served on the front bench and in 2019 became the first black person to speak at the Despatch Box in Prime Minister’s Question Time.

This thoroughly researched book by Robin Bunce and Samara Linton which completely ignores Abbott’s personal life should go some way to restoring the reputation of someone whose life should ultimately serve as a rich source of inspiration to many people.

Diane Abbott – The Authorised Biography. By Robin Bunce and Samara Linton. Published by: Biteback.

Tom Sharpe: a tribute

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There are few authors who I can claim to have read every single book they have had published. Tom Sharpe, who has just died, aged eighty five, was one such author. Every one of his sixteen books is both funny and incredibly readable.

That is not to say they are low brow either. Although sex, contraceptives, misunderstandings and even famously, a sex doll, famously play a part, Sharpe’s novels are extremely well written and a world away from the low comedy of the Carry On films which were still being published when his novels first began appearing.

His heyday in fact occurred at that time of great low national self esteem, the mid-Seventies. Porterhouse Blue (1975) in which a reforming Tony Benn-style minister is transferred to the position of Master of an ancient and very traditionalist Cambridge college, is for me, his masterpiece. The efforts of the new Master (driven by his domineering wife) to change the rules to enable women to be admitted as undergraduates lead to a fierce Trollopian conservative campaign of resistance from the college notably Skullion, a porter.  The academic shenanigans predate Terry Pratchett’s imaginings about Unseen University and are worthy of comparison with the campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge from the same period. Blott on the Landscape (1975) was similarly excellent while Wilt (1976) drew on Sharpe’s experiences as a college lecturer in an East Anglian polytechnic. Bored of his life teaching English Literature to apprentices and butchers, Sharpe’s hero Henry Wilt soon finds himself wrongly accused of murder after his wife goes missing when Wilt is tricked into being tied to a sex doll at a party. These last misfortunes thankfully never happened to Sharpe.

All three of these books were adapted for the screen in the late Eighties. Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans, David Jason as Skullion and John Sessions as the hapless student Zipser) and Blott on the Landscape starring David Suchet and George Cole both worked well on TV, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury. Wilt (1989) a film starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel  Smith was entertaining in its own way but as a version of the novel, it was poor. Wilt would appear in four more Sharpe novels.

After a hugely successful thirteen years, Shape published nothing after the third Wilt novel Wilt On High (1984) until he produced a sequel to porterhouse Blue Grantchester Grind (1995). Although not a particularly memorable sequel, Sharpe’s later books are still enjoyable, although by this time increasingly less in keeping with the times – characters still, for example, use telephone boxes a surprising amount despite the advent of mobile phones.

But to say Shape’s books are of their time is a weak criticism. The same is true of the works of Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh, indeed of every book ever written.

The Throwback, The Great Pursuit , Wilt. One hopes such books will endure and continue to be read. It is a shame Sharpe never wrote an autobiography. The details of his past would surely have made for a great book in itself. Sharpe’s mockery of the South African Apartheid regime, a theme of his first two British novels Riotous Assembly (1971) and Indecent Exposure (1973) saw him expelled in 1961, something he remained angry about for the rest of his life. As a child, his family also risked internment. His father who died in 1944 was a fascist sympathiser and a friend of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw).

As it is, sixteen very funny books is a fine legacy from one of the greatest British comic writers of the 20th century.Image