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on 30 September 2007
Roy Jenkin's lived a full and varied life, as a highly successful politician, writer and bon viveur (his enjoyment of claret was famous), and his memoirs, first published in 1988, certainly captures this. As a portrait of the Wilson governments they match the Castle, Crossland and Benn diaries (with greater perspective allowed to diarists who are inevitably by their medium caight in the moment), and he takes into the formation and eventual rupturing of the SDP.

But first he tells us how he got there. Rather like Gordon Brown, Jenkins was not born into a wealthy family but rather an family of some local political importance. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, where he wryly admits to only ever attending one lecture, and meets future political allies and adversaries such as Tony Crosland and Ted Heath (president of the Oxford Union, generally a route to future success) and also captures some of the excitement of the 1945 Labour victory. As a political buff myself it was heartening to find that others followed politics with such avidity!

His life as a Minister is well captured; Jenkins was also a highly-admired political biographer (with Asquith, Churchill and Gladstone some of his subjects), so it is no surprise that he writes so elegantly and with teasing irony on ministerial life. There are few remarkable surprises or soul-bearing disquisitions as marked the Alan Clark diaries. Rather, Jenkins gives the impression of a man of great intellect and power who knew his worth. (I find it rather telling that he constantly refers to "Wilson", even though as PM and Chancellor they had to work closely together; he is not dismissive but it's clear he feels that he would have made a better Prime Minister).

Some sections of the book are engrossing, especilly chapter when as Chancellor he faced a daily struggle with the value of sterling and the British economy. The passage where, in 1968, a run on the pound almost capsizes the entire government, is thrilling to read and gives an impression of the phyisical and mental stamina required at the top-levels of politics. Similarly, the early days of the SDP, where opinion polls had them at 50%, seem tremendously exciting, and given the height of the ambition (to break the British two-party system, no less) and how close he came, so they must have been. The subsequent fallout and disillusion are also keenly evoked.

However some are less captivating sections. The period as President of the European Commission is one. Perhaps it is because most readers will be less familiar with the cast of politicans from the various EEC (as it then was) countries. The post was concerned more with coordination than with policy creation, and given the near-standstill the EEC reached whilst considering the British rebate, it must have been rather tedious compared to being Chancellor or Home Secretary.

Jenkins also fills us with a sense of his "hinterland", his enjoyment of good food, cigars, travel, books, tennis and wine. One has the sense of a rich and varied life, and he enjoys teasing other politicians (like Barbara Castle) who seem unable to switch off from politics. But little is conveyed of the character of the House of Commons, of being an MP, again unlike Alan Clark's diaries. Perhaps this is inevitable when he was a Minister for so long, and the leader of the SDP afterwards.

It should go without saying that you'd need to have an interest in British politics to find this book enjoyable. But if you do, then its elegance, proximity to major events, historical sense and effective portraits of major postwar political figures (from JFK to Margaret Thatcher) make it one of the best of its kind.
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on 16 March 2017
long and a bit verbose
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on 4 January 2015
A political interest necessary for this as that is all it's about by a nice, sociable chap. Detailed & he offers you plenty of his opinions. A lot devoted to the formation & development of the SDP which was new to me as well as being President of the European Commission. I have also read his biography of Truman which I much preferred to this. Have also read Gallery of 20th Century Portraits - needless to say most of them political sketches but a book I would return to now being more familiar with some of the figures so good as a quick reminder guide.
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on 7 March 2011
Jenkins' contribution to the centre and centre left of British and European politics is still of great historic interest, and was unquestionably one of the foremost politicians of the 20th century.

Here is an authentic voice : from his modest roots (bizarre that he was sometimes thought of as `posh'), Jenkins eventually became a genuinely great statesman of the type who is now sorely missed. He describes in rewarding detail his intellectual and political maturation, and recounts with consummate modesty his achievements as a cabinet minister, as President of the European Commision, and as founder member of the SDP.

Rather like its successor a generation later, the Labour party of the seventies found itself hamstrung by internal politics, and achieved less as a result. However, anyone who lived through the tumultuous changes in Britain between 1964 and 1990 can take heart from this volume of honest, and impressively thoughtful, reflections.

I found this a thoroughly gripping story from start to finish, and was left with a great admiration for a politician of great vision and accomplishment.
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on 30 July 2010
As an Old Labourite this book was low on my list of "must read" items - I had avoided it for 19 years in fact - but the need to develop a factual as well as theoretical underpinning for teaching a course in law and social change coupled with the oddity that the centrist (Wilson, Crossman) and leftist (Benn) political narratives with which I was familiar did not deal with the key reforms of the 1960s in any depth (or at all) led to the purchase.

Having read the book I remain of the view that he was what some of my socialist chums would refer to as a class traitor, but goodness me how thoroughly alive and exciting he made it all seem in "Life at the Centre". One cannot help but form an affection for the chap as his story unfolds, even when, for example, his lifelong passion for the EU is revealed to be based upon a thorough lack of understanding of how that antediluvian monster actually worked or what it had achieved (see pp444-446). The mixture of important historical and evauative detail of events and people, coupled with the joie de vivre with which it is put to paper made this a throroughy enjoyable and useful read.

I picked up at about the same time and for the same reason Adonis and Thomas "Roy Jenkins" (OUP). A valuable supplement in terms of historical detail and a rarity in terms of the fondness for the subject which shines through in all of the contributions, none of which descend to the level of hagiography.

It is difficult to imagine how similar books could be written by or about the present sorry bunch who lead political life.
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on 16 August 2010
If you are interested in the politics of 1960-1990, this book will not disappoint. It describes vividly the Labour governments of that period, telling us a lot about the personalities involved. It gives the reader a good understanding of the birth of the great Labour Party schism that began in the early 1970s as an argument about Europe, and would come close to destroying the Party in the following decade.

I find it hard, though, to like Jenkins personally. He has an unappealing habit of congratulating himself on the good things that have fallen into his lap. Any material good fortune - the acquisition of a six bedroom house in Ladbroke Grove, a month-long holdiday in an extensive Tuscan villa - is typically described as "eminently satisfactory". He found it worth noting in his diary at the time, and subsequently recounting in these memoirs, the fact that one day in 1970 he was so busy, he had to have a sandwich for lunch. You read it wondering where is the passion for the cause of the underprivileged that you might expect to see in the son of a Welsh miner, Labour MP and socialist campaigner (who even went to jail in Jenkins' childhood in defence of strikng miners). It's hard not to conclude, as my Dad, a Labour activist, did in the 1970s, that he was "just a bloody Tory".

I read it because Andrew Marr put it on a par with Denis Healey's memoirs, The Time of My Life. I cannot agree at all. Healey's book ia a masterpiece, one of the greatest British political memoirs of the last century. Jenkins's work is important reading for students of the era, and deserves to be read for that reason. But if you're like me, you will find yourself,as you are reading it, frequently scoffing at his pomposity and self-satisfaction.
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on 16 July 2014
I bit slow and ponderous really. Interesting but boring I am afraid
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on 5 May 2016
good read
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