"When it dawns on the reader how extremely anti-establishment Jon Snow's views are, one's repect for his impartiality as a broadcaster only grows" - Matthew Parris on the cover blurb.
I used to think Matthew Parris was quite an insightful chap, an opinion I had to revise after reading this book. For Jon Snow, born into a 1940s establishment of Church and Empire, is as typical a member of his generation's ruling establishment as ever his grandfather, a First World War Major-General, was of his. The ideas, the culture - all changed. The religion - vanished without trace. The power - and the effortless assumption of the right to exercise it - unchanged, although Jon Snow's power is wielded obliquely, in a Britain that counts for much less than it did in 1947 when he was born. Simply swap grouse moors in August for Cape Cod with Helena Kennedy and radical-chic lawyers the Boudins.
The book is part autobiography, part reportage, and part an attempt at historical analysis of the roots of the 'new world disorder'.
As autobiography it covers almost exactly the period of the British cultural collapse, illustrating how the establishment has changed since Roy Jenkins set out to create a civilised Britain. Growing up in an English upper-middle class world (the Queen once came to tea, then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan visited school and chatted to young Jon), a conventional public school education - then watching the news reports of the 1968 Paris riots ('a giant nose-thumbing at the older generation' as Peter Hitchens describes it), followed by university in the late sixties, the hippy bus to Afghanistan, the drugs, the girls - and a sideways slip into journalism. His early life is full of incidents when the old-boy network counts - from his choral scholarship to his first reporting job via cousin Peter Snow.
As Ulla points out on her blog, upper-class self-confidence 'that the working class can only dream of' is a great help to him. How many of us, kicked out of Uni at an elderly 22, would consider applying for the Director's job at a drug charity that he's heard about 'on the grapevine' ? "Your father taught me at Eton", says Lord Longford in the interview. He gets the New Horizons job.
He's remarkably uncurious about some things. The Bishop's son who had family prayers every morning, and knew the services well enough to conduct them as a VSO worker in Uganda, becomes an adult for whom Our Lord Jesus Christ, His sacrifice and His message are totally irrelevant, who cheerfully sires, loves and raises two illegitimate children, and whose only mention of Christianity after his young adulthood is of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, "strutting their eerie fundamentalist stuff" at a 1980s Republican convention. "Twenty years later, such influences were centre stage". I suppose that sounded better for his purposes than "Twenty years later, both were marginal figures", but that's by the by. Where did it all go ? Does a 'God-shaped hole' remain ?
Half the globe was still pink when he was conceived, Grandfather Thomas's (KCB, KCIE) portrait stared down at his childhood, but by 1974, reporting on the strike of the Ulster Workers Council, "those who wished to remain British had a sense of Queen and country that I couldn't even begin to identify with". Where did the Imperial self-confidence go ?
Isn't he the slightest bit interested in asking any of these questions ?
One has to presume not. In a postscript to the book he states that his political views haven't changed at all since he was a student. It seems likely that the truth on sex, God and politics was vouchsafed him then and remains, like the law of the Medes and Persians, unaltered and unalterable. From observation of my 1970s fellow-radical friends, this is quite difficult to achieve over thirty or more years, while simultaneously becoming very wealthy, unless you choose a career in law. Snow's partner and many of his friends are lawyers.
Similarly the enormous changes in Britain over the last thirty-five years seem to have passed him by. Grudging respect for Mrs Thatcher's economic reforms, yet little on the huge cultural changes, the rise of crime and the underclass, or mass immigration. In fairness, he's been out of the country for most of these years, and is probably insulated by wealth from their impact upon his life. If this self-described 'public-school pinko liberal' sent his daughters to a North London state school I'll eat my copy of the Aenid. But he must have known about crime, for example - he was chair of the pro-criminal Prison Abolition Trust from 1992-1997, something which he doesn't mention in the book.
As reportage, it's great stuff to read, and I won't spoil it by quotes. Snow is brave, decisive - terrific officer material in fact - a master of the scoop gained by the quick decision - to jump off that journalist's bus, to skip the official press conference, to get on foot and see for himself what's happening. He hunkers down under fire on the Eritrean frontier, hops across Latin American frontiers with guerillas, rescues stranded Brits in the Shatt-Al-Arab (in company with Robert Fisk) during the first Gulf War, walks carefully under the muzzles of Serb guns in Kosovo, wondering if and when they'll shoot.
He can be remarkably clear-eyed. On the Iranian hostage crisis, when the staff of the US Embassy were seized, he writes that 'we believed that the hostages could and should have been freed easily either by negotiation or by force within ten days of their capture'. Instead, as the Carter administration dithered, 'we watched their (the students - LT) mood change from innocent pranksterism to arrogance ... the episode informed Islamic fundamentalists of Western vulnerabilities on which they were to prey again and again'.
This ties in with the revelation in the memoirs of those who held the American Embassy that their original intention had been to hold the hostages for only a few days, but changed their minds when it became clear that there was no danger of serious action against them.
I'm not sure about 'innocent pranksterism', though. If American Christian students occupied the Iranian Embassy and kidnapped the diplomats I think they'd be described more judgementally. This inability to condemn those whose hearts are (for him) in the right place extends to describing an armed robbery in which three people died, carried out by a friend's daughter, as a 'crazy escapade'.
During the reportage we get the occasional pointer to his last chapter. The arming of anti-Soviet Islamists in Afghanistan, the US 'support' for Iraq during the first Gulf War, are, with 20/20 hindsight, factors in his 'new world disorder'. But he didn't point that out at the time, and admits himself to underestimating the significance of Bosnia in radicalising Muslims.
(Digression - I disagreed with both those policies. The mujahideen in Afghanistan, then as now, made a point of killing teachers and doctors. And Gulf War I my position was that Iraq was the agressor, so we should support Iran. But it was the Soviets and French who armed Saddam. Ours was a 'benevolent' neutrality - 'we' wanted Saddam to win but weren't piling the help in).
Surely God Almighty spoiled a great reporter to make a bad analyst when he shifted Snow into editorial mode to do his last chapter.
It's pretty vague stuff, long on a need to understand and short on specifics, as it has to be if you think about it. America and Britain have to reach out, get involved more with the world, particularly the UN and the EU. What ? That same UN - and EU - that saved Bosnia ? Bush is not a nuanced chap, our foreign policy causes 'division at home' - a small reference to a rather large elephant - stuff you can read in the Guardian any day of the week.
But they'll love it on the literary festival circuit. Snow is in danger of becoming, like Martin Bell, a national treasure - something which says an awful lot about our nation.
(His proof-reader should be shot, btw, for mispelling 'straitjacket' twice and mentioning that well-known neocon Richard Pearl.)
This will be the last post for a few days. Like Sarah at St Bloggie, I'm off to revisit childhood scenes in Swansea and Gower.
5 hours ago