Roving ambassador

Roy Jenkins is perhaps best known in Australia as the author of a much acclaimed biography of Winston Churchill. However, there’s a lot more to him than that. Jenkins has a plump CV: 33 years in the House of Commons, Minister for eight years in the Labor governments of Harold Wilson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, President of the European Community, Leader of the British Social Democrats and (in political ‘retirement’) a Life Peer and Chancellor of Oxford University. This seems enough as a public life.

But Jenkins was also a prolific writer, the author of 21 books, including essays on politics and government, on politicians and men of power, eight biographies (several of them prize-winning) and an autobiography. Twelve Cities was his 21st book published in the last year of his life. He died in January 2003.

Why at the age of 82, Jenkins, a brilliant biographer and engaging writer about politics and people decided to write about ‘places’ is something of a mystery. He said that Twelve Cities is a ‘form of reminiscent self indulgence’ and ‘intended partly as a relief’ for readers ‘who found Churchill heavy to hold and long to read’. This seems a serious miscalculation as self-indulgences often are.

Of the 12 cities chosen by Jenkins as the subjects of these essays three are British, two American, one Irish (Dublin) and six in continental Europe. It seems an appropriate distribution for a British public figure who became ‘Mr Europe’ and believed in Britain’s special relationship with the United States. He visits safe places many times and this seems the extent of his ambition. There is no evidence of travel beyond the Caucasian circle.

Writing successfully about ‘place’ is a particular art form. Some of the crime fiction writers, notably Raymond Chandler, have been good at it. Locally Shane Maloney and Peter Corris have done it well.

But the writing about ‘places’ which Jenkins attempts in Twelve Cities is more closely related to travel writing of the kind made popular by Bill Bryson (Neither Here Nor There) and Pico Iver (Saturday Nights in Kathmandu). Jan Morris, has for 40 years, been the most masterly exponent of this genre and Jenkins refers to her on several occasions.

In the introduction to her book Locations, Jan Morris talks about the intention of her writing as being to ‘simply present an individual response to a place—a wanderer’s response, offering no advice, expecting no emulations’. It suggests a degree of detached observation, a writer with ‘outsider’ insights.

Roy Jenkins was unable to do this. From the time he left Oxford and entered the House of Commons (aged 28) he was never an outsider, nor in any real sense a wanderer. He enjoyed, as the title of his autobiography suggests, ‘life at the centre’. He goes to places to meet other politicians, to attend conferences and high-powered meetings, and to give Ivy-League lectures and orations. In the essay on Paris he discusses at some length the relative merits of various high-class hotels, The Ritz, The Crillon, The Hotel Bristol and so on. The New York essay similarly describes various fine houses and hotels until he settles on most visits at the Knickerbocker Club, well placed for an early morning walk. Having experienced 60 years of ‘French official life’ he concludes that Frenchmen ‘have got much better and the English much worse dressed’.

To check the veracity of his judgments, Jenkins has a number of ‘experts’ whom he acknowledges in the preface to his book. None of them would be missing from an international Who’s who? They include Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero (Naples), twice Prime Minister of Ireland Dr Garret FitzGerald (Dublin), Lord Kilmarnock, author of Guide to Catalonia (Barcelona) and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Chicago).

Often Jenkins stayed at British Embassies. He is wary, however, lest his book becomes ‘a sort of Michelin Guide to British Embassies’. It is not. But many of the essays are reminiscent of a Michelin Guide’s descriptions of the built landscape and the brief and somewhat esoteric histories of particular cities. ‘Chicago’ is mainly about Chicago architecture and the development of the skyscraper. ‘Barcelona’ too is much about urban architecture, ‘Brussels’ about restaurants. But the average reader, unlikely to travel in the precise steps of Roy Jenkins, would be better off with a Michelin or indeed a Lonely Planet.

It is interesting that Jenkins, so adept at capturing the light and shade of great men, is incapable of communicating the excitement and spirit of great cities. As might be expected, these essays are well written, but rarely compelling reading. Now and then there are some rich veins of gold which produce a chuckle: Margaret Thatcher in Dublin haranguing the leaders of Europe at a Heads of Government working dinner is a memorable example of Jenkin’s wit and eye for portraiture.

Perhaps the problem was that Jenkins had left-over notebooks from his earlier writings—anecdotes and autobiographical material which he felt compelled to publish. These appear as fragments in otherwise unremarkable essays about cities. They should have been a coda to his memoirs, published as after-thoughts.

Twelve Cities: A Memoir, Roy Jenkins. Pan Books, 2004. isbn 0 330 49333 7, rrp $25

John Button was a minister and senator in the Hawke and Keating Governments.



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