I spent much of this weekend on trains. It’s a mild irony that when you invest in infrastucture, like renerwing railways tracks, putting in new gas pipes, or widening roads, the short term effect is to make life more miserable and unpleasant for everyone. There should be a term for this. I suggest “the planned works paradox”. I’m sure you can do better.
As a result of all the investment in public infrastructure, my train journey this weekend took twelve hours, rather than seven. This proved no burden at all, as I was able to devour David Simon’s “Homicide”, a book based on his year with the Baltimore police department and the inspiration for his stunning HBO show, The Wire. Buy both book and box set. You won’t regret either.
In the book’s epilogue, Simon talks about how spending so much time with Baltimore detectives made it impossible for him to assume the neutral, journalistic stance he’d felt was the right one for a reporter. He recounts a moment when the two detectives he is riding with stop a suspected criminal and he finds himself searching a possible murderer who needs to be restrained, just like a real po-lice.
It’s a reflection of his closeness to the police he’s working with that in a moment of tension he almost becomes one of them. Wondering whether this is good or bad, David Simon then references one of my favourite books. Richard Ben Cramer’s “What it takes“, a masterful account of the 1988 Presidential race by an author who, like Simon, spent a year up close and personal with his subjects.
After his book was published, some criticised Cramer for not being objective enough. Cramer was asked if spending so much time with politicians of both parties had affected his views of them. Had he perhaps begun to <shudder> like them?
His response was telling “Like them?” he replied. “I loved those guys”.
David Simon, writing on a totaly different subject, said amen to that. If you spend time with people, listen to them, It’s almost impossible not to begin to feel some sympathy for them. In Cramer’s case, Bob Dole emerges as a heroic but tragic figure, while George Bush is seen as a decent, if weak man trapped by position and politics into a running a campaign he doesn’t really believe in. That said, it is clear that Bush, rather than Dole does “what it takes“.
We in Britain have less sympathy for the process of politics in our literature. The best books we have about elections are accounts of leaders, or academic, uninvolved treatises. Or there’s Nick Jones’s accounts of the campaigns, fairly dripping with contempt for the incompetents, control freaks and unfortunates who run the campaigns.* At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the faintly nauseating approach of the fly on the wall who seeks only to shine a light on a leader, not to understand or enlighten about politics as a whole.
These are mostly good books. Some are brilliant.
But they don’t love those guys.
Whether it’s because they have to focus on a leader and mythologise or demonise them, or because they’re wrtten by journalists and academics who must keep their distance, you don’t get that sense of intimacy, of affection, of understanding and of a sense of equality from the British books.
I think that’s why I like blogging. If I read Iain Dale, I get, along with the posturing and the bravado, a real sense of his sympathy for and love of his party, its currents and tensions, strengths and hypocrisies. The same goes for many of the commenters at political betting and for Tom Harris. It’s probably also why I dislike Guido so much, as the anti-politics front masks a man who deeply and tragically loves politics.
So here’s my idea, that sometime bloggers (or someone like them) will be able to put this right. To be part of an election campaign, to observe it, to sit alongside leaders and press officers, organisers and advisers, breakfast meetings and late night sessions in the bar, and then to explain to the rest of us why this matters, why these guys count, and why they deserve, if not always our admiration, then at least our attention.
*One exception proves the rule. Phil Cowley’s work on the Whips office has this insight into the motivations of rebels and whips. It’s why it’s the one book I whleheartedly ecommend to people interested in politics. The boring data stuff is pretty good too.