Earlier this year, the Department of Politics at Birkbeck launched the Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence Programme. This programme allows writers to spend up to a year at Birkbeck working on a book or series of articles on a political theme aimed at a broad readership. It is named in honour of the late Ben Pimlott, who joined the Department of Politics as a lecturer in 1981 before becoming Professor of Politics and Contemporary History in 1987. In the two decades that he spent at Birkbeck, Ben earned a reputation as a first-rate teacher, a fine scholar and a brilliant writer. He is best remembered for his books on Hugh Dalton, Harold Wilson and Queen Elizabeth II, writings which resonated well beyond the ivory tower and encouraged readers to think again about British politics and the art of political biography.
Political writing, like all serious writing, is a peculiar mix of the solitary and the social. It requires long hours spent alone but such solitariness makes little sense without family, friends and readers. Jean Seaton played all three roles during her twenty-seven year marriage to Ben Pimlott. Ben made no secret of the fact that he wrote with and for Jean, who is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, official historian of the BBC and Director of the Orwell Prize for political writing. Ben not only dedicated The Queen to Jean and their three sons, he also acknowledged the day-to-day importance of her thinking on the monarchy for his work. Testament to such thinking is Jean’s afterword to the Diamond Jubilee edition of the book, which provides a fascinating insight into how the monarchy came through the crisis of legitimacy that engulfed it in the 1990s and, in so doing, confirmed Ben’s central argument. To mark the launch of the Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence Programme and the 2014 Orwell Prize Ceremony, which will be held at Birkbeck, I met Jean at her home in Islington to talk about political writing.
DH: I wanted to start by digging out an old quote by Ben from The Guardian in 1985. It’s actually very downbeat on the idea of political writing and I think it is very telling: ‘Political writing is part of the necessary froth of freedom: like decadent painting, a healthy sign of non-interference. But its direct influence is virtually as slight. At worst, it is a fatuous toadying to a closed-minded clientele, or the present-day equivalent of angel-counting on the point of a needle; at best a branch of show business – even, perhaps, a very minor art form.’ I love this quote on so many levels. It tells us that he was a very good writer but it also, I think, conveys a sense of frustration with the scholarly world, with the conventions of being a political writer. The timing is very important. Ben was just on the verge of publishing his biography of Dalton, which would go on to win the Whitbread Prize and establish his reputation with a wider audience. Where did his relationship with political writing come from and how did he resolve that tension about how to write and who to write for?
JS: Well, it makes me want to cry because it brings him to the room. He is a person who was most present sitting at that table reading poetry to the kids. But, of course, writing was so central to him. Everybody who ever encountered Ben knew that, in a sense, he had to be left alone to get on with what he needed to get on with. Not that he was rude; he was absolutely never discourteous, he was never sarcastic, but he had to write. That was the thing he had to do. Where did the writing come from? It came from a desire to use writing to shape the world, which sounds very posh and grand but I think that’s what he thought. You had to do it well because you were trying to understand the world, to shape it. Writing consumed him, I think, because for him it was a mechanism for revolution.
DH: Did Ben seek a conscious shift in his audience for that reason? Do you get a sense that, in the early 1980s, he was growing frustrated with the conventions of a particular type of academic monograph?
JS: I think that was there right from the start. Ben’s first published work was when he was nine, in The Young Elizabethan. He co-authored is first book when he was 16 about Marlborough College. The headmaster took him aside and said ‘you can’t possibly publish this because Labour MPs might take it up’ and Ben said ‘how wonderful’. His father was a rather extraordinary civil servant and, I think if he had lived, he would have turned into an even more remarkable social historian. His family were Fabian, reformist, literary and even radical, in a sotto voce way. So I think the urge to write was with Ben right from when I first knew him. When he was working on Labour and the Left in the 1930s, there was an ambition to write. That was a book that was directed with an argument. Ben could never write a sentence without an argument. He just couldn’t describe something. He just had to know why a sentence was going somewhere. He wanted to argue with the world, not with four people on the head of a pin. Labour and the Left in the 1930s was a protracted argument about the high politics of why the Labour Party still mattered.
DH: How did Ben choose his topics? There seems to have been a kind of intellectual contrariness there. He worked on Hugh Dalton at a time when people didn’t remember Hugh Dalton. He worked on Harold Wilson at a time when Harold Wilson was not popular. Above all, he worked on Queen Elizabeth at a time when this seemed like a crazy topic for a Socialist intellectual to be writing about.
JS: Lots of people took Ben out to lunch over The Queen. Eric Hobsbawn [who later became President of Birkbeck] took him out and said ‘Do you want to ruin your career?’ Various other luminaries, whom I perhaps ought not to mention said, ‘you can’t possibly do that’. Every time somebody said that, Ben said ‘that’s very interesting!’ He would never have written any of those books if his subjects had been popular.
DH: As a young man, Ben travelled to Portugal to report on the country’s transition to democracy. Can you tell me more about that?
JS: The Portuguese revolution, which people have mostly forgotten, was they key one because you suddenly realised that Europe was not going to go Communist. Ben went because it looked like revolution and I suppose he learnt to be a reporter there too. He interviewed lots of people and going out and talking to people is another thing his writing always depended on.
DH: I see that in his work. Hugh Dalton: A Life was a very archival, diary-driven piece of research about someone who had been lost to history, whereas Harold Wilson was, somewhat controversially for its time, built on interviews with many of the former Prime Minster’s contemporaries.
JS: Ben’s book was controversial because people were saying, at the time, that Wilson hadn’t mattered. And New Labour came in, in a sense saying ‘we are new, we don’t have history’. I think Harold Wilson was also saying that biography is not about heroes. All biographers, I think, have an understanding of their subjects but Ben wasn’t on the side of his subjects. He was interested in them and thought that they should be reconsidered. I can remember when Ben was thinking of doing The Queen. It came about as a book because the Queen was an interesting person with an interesting history who could not have been more unpopular. All right-thinking middle-class people thought they were republicans and that we needed to get rid of the monarchy and grow up and get a written constitution.
DH: How did Ben go about researching The Queen?
JS: He bought a suit! You have to know what Ben mostly looked like. He always wore a jacket. He always wore a shirt. He mostly wore a tie. He was a very handsome man but totally part of that British convention of not caring about what he looked like. He had one suit that he had before I met him; he got married in that suit and he wore it when he stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate. So the first thing we did when researching The Queen was to go to Gieves & Hawkes and spend more money than we had ever known on a new suit. Then he went to the Palace and started to talk to the press department. They then put him on to Martin Charteris [former private secretary to the Queen], whom Ben came to really admire, and it became clear that Martin would talk to him. The Queen’s private secretary at the time was Robin Janvrin, who was a very intelligent person and not at all a fuddy-duddy, and there was some key meetings with him too. Keep in mind also that Ben had been to the Palace before because Hugh Dalton’s father had been a royal tutor.
DH: Peter Hennessy, in his preface to the Diamond Jubilee edition of The Queen, drops a very interesting hint that Tony Blair’s famous description of Princess Diana as ‘The People’s Princess’ might have come from Ben. Would you care to comment?
JS: In the week after Diana died, Birkbeck was absolutely central. We got a telephone call at 3:00am because the BBC’s computer was being re-engineered and nobody could get access to their contacts. The Duty Editor called up and said ‘We have a very big story coming in. We think Princess Diana has died. I need your address book’ and so Ben sat in bed and read out a list of contacts. The week after Diana died remains, in my mind, as the closest to fascism that I have ever seen. I have never lived through a more irrational time in which immense punitiveness was doused on the heads of people who were trying to deal with little boys who had lost their mother. It was a very political week and, in that week, the very nice secretary at Birkbeck, working in her office, and me more or less in Paul Hirst’s office, fielded telephone calls for Ben because it took two of us really just to manage the incoming. Everybody wanted a piece from Ben and, to put it crudely, he was a sensible voice. I think Blair’s instinct was that we have got to see our way through this and Number Ten phones up and asks ‘what can we do? what is the mood?’ and Ben says ‘we could call her the People’s Princess’, which was, of course, what he had called Princess Elizabeth in The Queen. I remember others phoning him and saying ‘we need some guidance on this, what’s your view?’
DH: So, Ben was constitutionally level-headed at a time when others were losing their heads.
JS: Exactly. He was also emotionally sensitive to what was going on and he really felt that the nation was losing its head and you had to get through. That’s an example of someone trying to shape things as events unfurled. And certainly there was a conversation about the risk that the Queen would take if she went live on television, which of course turned out to be the turning point. Again, I remember Ben saying ‘I think Her Majesty is a very sensible woman. I don’t doubt that she would manage this’.
DH: Let me take a step back to talk about Ben’s method of writing…
JS: Rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Redrafting, redrafting, endlessly redrafting. He taught me about the draft. Which is that you write rubbish, whatever you can and then you go back, you go back, and you iron and you change and you iron and you change and then you produce other drafts, then you read it again. He made the analogy with sculpture, which is you start by getting the shape but all of the work goes into the final shaping. And famously, for instance, I was under the impression that he had finished Harold Wilson and we went off for a family holiday. We had two or three days with the boys and we got to the holiday house in Ashburton and he said, ‘I have to catch a train’ because he then moved into the print works and he was literally rewriting as pages went into the printer. So his real method to write was to write.
DH: How did you both manage to be academics at the same time? It is difficult enough having one writer like this in the house. How did you interact – or stay out of each other’s way – as writers?
JS: I was his first reader. He used to read me research notes, carefully edited for jokes, while I cooked supper. And the cynics among us would say that is because he wouldn’t have been very good at chopping an onion, but it was quite entertaining.
DH: What about his impact on your writing?
JS: He completely formed me, if that does not sound too anti-feminist. He read my stuff and helped me in enormous ways. I think there was a time when he produced lots of books in quite a short period, which presumably was a kind of strain. But being an academic is not incompatible with bringing up children, which is one thing to be said about it. He was very present in his children’s lives, especially around maths tests and teaching them Greek on holiday. Famously, all of our sons went to school knowing the Greek alphabet but not the English one. You could say it was a quite traditional relationship but he was an absolutely instinctive feminist in the sense that he never didn’t take women seriously. Lots of women absolutely blossomed around him and, for all the impossibilities of him not being a new man, I don’t think he did anything other than will me, if not today then perhaps tomorrow, to do my best. He was incredibly interested in people being fully themselves, which is why, although he wasn’t a conventional teacher, I suspect he was quite a good teacher.
DH: In 2007, you took over from Prof. Bernard Crick (who founded the Department of Politics at Birkbeck), as Director of the Orwell Prize. Could you tell me a little bit about the prize and its aims?
JS: It has been my fate to take over from great old men. You could say that it is part of the joint project that Ben and I developed. It’s got two sides. It’s about clear writing and it has to be radical. My own view is that political writing is a way of making people engage with politics. I have obviously not been very successful yet, as politics is incredibly despised. This seems to be absolutely tragic. There is no alternative to politics.
DH: Well, politicians are despised but politics is vibrant in new ways.
JS: I think that’s true. My experience of the Orwell Prize has included taking panels to 40 or 50 literary festivals and I have found the audiences there to be incredibly engaged with, and interested in, politics. Recognising good books about politics is a way of engaging with that wider audience. Also, one thing that Ben fitted into, which is a lively tradition in Britain, is the sense of history being very pertinent to now and very close to politics, whatever politicians say. The French have theory. The Americans have constitutionalism. And, I think, we have history. If you look at the short-list for this year’s Orwell Prize, there is an extraordinary range of historical books that are really about now.
DH: Let me end with a quote from Orwell, which is on your e-mail signature so you must know it well: ‘What I have most wanted to do…is to make political writing into an art’. It seems to me that Ben could have written these words and in a way alluded to them in his article in The Guardian, which dismissed the idea of political writing but then said that maybe, at best, it could be a form of art. Ben wrote on Orwell – he contributed a preface to the collection of essays, Orwell’s England – but wasn’t there also a personal connection?
JS: It is through Ben’s godmother, Gwen O’Shaughnessy, who was the sister-in-law of Orwell’s first wife: Eileen. Gwen’s husband, Lawrence, was a surgeon and he was the person who kept both Orwell and Eileen well. Noticeably, their health deteriorated after Lawrence was killed on the Normandy beaches. In the introduction to Orwell’s England, Ben says I know this country because I grew up in it. I think he grew up in it in the knitted pullover, bad food, disregard for personal conflict, reading books, high-mindedness sense but also because he had played with the O’Shaughnessys. How much Ben felt that connection with Orwell, I don’t know. He was not a portentous person. He and Orwell would have found each other, in any case.