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Roving ambassador

  • 10 May 2006

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