The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn
Reviewed by Tom Harris for ePolitiX.com
I probably disagree with Paul Flynn on more issues than I care to list. He and I do not occupy the same geographical position on the broad and colourful spectrum that is the modern Labour Party. He clearly does not share my admiration for Tony Blair or my enthusiasm for nuclear power.
He is, nevertheless, one of the best writers I know – not just ‘a good writer for an MP’, but a very good writer. Full stop. His love of wordcraft comes across powerfully, beautifully and movingly.
The Unusual Suspect, the Newport West MP’s memoirs, is the kind of book that could achieve the virtually impossible task of persuading the reader that politicians are more than speech-makers, legislators and soundbite-creators; that they are, in fact, rounded human beings with the same back story as those they represent.
Paul, as a highly regarded parliamentarian – now in his seventies and standing again for re-election in his Welsh seat – recalls his life’s main events with a beguiling clarity and honesty.
The dramatic and serendipitous events that formed the careers of better-known political figures are well documented: Tony Blair’s successful lobbying to be reinstated on the Sedgefield shortlist after his name had been removed, Gordon Brown becoming the youngest-ever rector of Edinburgh University, William Hague’s famous (infamous?) teenage appearance on the Tory conference rostrum.
Flynn reminds his readers that a less extraordinary hinterland need not be a barrier to a political career. His early failure in academic life, his financial struggles as he and his wife brought up a young family, his job in the Llanwern steelworks, his divorce and remarriage… There is much to which the ordinary reader from a non-political background can relate.
He also successfully communicates his life’s great loves: the Welsh language and his wife, Sam, the description of whose battle with breast cancer reveals the very human and vulnerable side to Flynn.
But it is his retelling of when he and his first wife discovered the dead body of their 16-year-old daughter Rachel in her bedroom, that best illustrates Flynn’s writing ability. Here it is calm, measured and factual, but with human despair and desolation intruding through every dot and comma.
Throughout most of The Unusual Suspect, however, Flynn’s charm and humour shine through. His description of the early days in the Commons of a group of newly elected Welsh MPs brought a smile of recognition to my lips, while his plentiful and detailed analyses of various Labour Party selection contests made me grimace – again, with recognition.
He is, as one might expect, ruthless in his denunciation of those with whom he has crossed swords over the years. His personal attacks on Labour parliamentary colleagues come across as just a bit too bitter, and almost spoil the generally generous tone of the rest of the book. He falls into the trap of extreme sanctimoniousness when he dismisses the motives of those who wish to serve as ministers rather than backbenchers:
“My guru Tony Wright helpfully defined MPs as the Whys and the Whens. The Whens are obsessed with when they will get a job, go on a trip, be recognised as leaders. The Whys seek out the truth and remedies for reform.”
Flynn himself, as he records, served on Labour’s front bench in the Welsh and social security briefs, so was, at least for a time, a ‘When’ himself. Given how accessible The Unusual Suspect is to the non-political reader, it’s a pity that Flynn has chosen to perpetuate the anti-politics media myth that only backbenchers can ever be true to their principles, and that seeking ministerial office is, of itself, a compromise too far.
Nevertheless, most of the book is an unashamed celebration of politics. Like his previous book, Commons Knowledge (which I bought at Labour conference shortly after being selected as a candidate, but before I was elected), it’s packed with fantastic anecdotes illustrating the often weird life of an MP, whether at constituency or parliamentary level.
The Unusual Suspect is one of the best – and best written – political memoirs I’ve read. Any personal frailties which Flynn, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposes simply confirm the view that the electorate are best served by individuals as flawed and as complicated as themselves.
The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn
Biteback £19.99 256pp
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"Mary Blewitt is one of the heroes of our time. For years she has worked, too often without help, with the survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. She has listened to their stories, brought them practical assistance, and help them rebuild their shattered lives. That takes courage of the highest order.
Too often, after humanly inflicted tragedies, we hear the words “Never again.” They were said after the Holocaust, yet the Rwandan massacre – 800,000 people brutally murdered in a mere hundred days – happened despite the warnings given before the event. Too often, we’ve had reason to recall the words of Martin Luther King, “In the end we will remember, not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
It is all too easy, after events such as these, to think of the victims. It is much harder to think of the survivors and what they need in order to survive. They have lost their families. Their world has been destroyed. In the case of Rwanda, the crisis goes even deeper because so many of those who were not killed were deliberately infected with AIDS. They need our help – and help begins with the act of listening to, and empowering them to tell, their stories.
This too is deeply difficult. It took fifty years for many of the Holocaust survivors to be able to speak of what had happened, so painful was the memory of trauma and the trauma of memory. Yet the telling is essential, both for the survivors and for us. We need to be reminded of what happened. And they need to speak as part of the healing of memory and mind.
This is a book of tears, tragedies and wounds, of lives lost, injuries sustained, and of much work still to be done. I hope it speaks to you, for we are all bound by a covenant of global solidarity, and though we cannot change the past, only by remembering it do we have a chance of changing the future".
This week, on the anniversary of the 100 days of killing that we now call the Rwandan genocide, Biteback is privileged to publish You Alone May Live by Mary K. Blewitt OBE, a harrowing and important account of her own experiences.
Over a period of 100 days from 6th April 1994, largely unimpeded by the international community, up to a million Rwandan Tutsi were murdered by Hutu militias in the most appalling episode of ethnic cleansing since the Second World War.
Fifty members of Mary Kayitesi Blewitt’s family were slaughtered in cold blood during the genocide.
Mary was lucky. She managed to locate the bodies of her loved ones and lay them to rest. After the killing ended she travelled the capital, Kigali, witnessed the exhumation of mass graves and struggled to understand the scale of the killings.
To try to make sense of what had happened, Mary undertook voluntary work, believing she had been allowed to survive in order to help others like her. She became a figure of trust with survivors seeking her out to tell their own stories of survival. One woman told how she was raped in front of members of her own family who were then murdered. She was allowed to live and told, “You alone may live, so that you will die of sadness.” This was a common experience amongst women survivors.
You Alone May Live is an important book about grief and survival in the face of unimaginable trauma. It traces the arc of Mary’s own extraordinary journey from a childhood in exile in Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda, to trying to come to terms with the loss of her family in the genocide, to setting up the Survivors Fund (SURF) a charity providing aid to Rwandan survivors. Poignant, sad and sometimes overwhelming, this book records Mary’s story but also encompasses the painful testimonies of those who survived and shared their memories with her.