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. Continue reading