Every so often one reads in the Times or the Daily Telegraph an obituary of an old warrior that simply leaps from the page. A heroic rescue mission in the second world war, an escape by tunnelling, Burma, Kenya, Aden, a secret journey to Lhasa disguised as a yak-herder, and that’s just the military stuff. Then there’s the extra-curricular life — the gliding accident, the false start as a trapeze artist at 17, chairmanship of the Benevolent Fund for Abandoned Zoo Animals, the notorious fling with the Foreign Secretary’s wife, the deep love of Shelley, the book on Indian Railways and the passion for rare cyclamen. Crikey, you think, let’s hope he at least makes it into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But if this fellow could write, what a memoir! Yet the truth is, he’d have struggled to find a publisher.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon will have had no such difficulty. There is a simple reason. He was for 11 years a fairly effective leader of Britain’s third political party. As such, a man is entitled to a peerage, and to an autobiography — in which, if he insists, he may throw in a section on the early and non-political parts of his life, too.
But these last are what makes this book. Paddy Ashdown’s erstwhile prominence in politics supplies the less thrilling or satisfying part, and occupies only half of it. It’s Ashdown the man, Ashdown the young rebel, Ashdown the 15-year-old fondler of his maths tutor’s breasts, Ashdown the soldier, the Chinese linguist and Ashdown the spy, that will grip any reader of this action-packed, pacey, lyrical and sweetly honest book — be they interested in politics or wholly unconcerned.
In fact those in search of political news and insight are the only readers likely to come away disappointed. Much of what’s political here has been written (not least by Ashdown himself) already, but the thinness of the politics pages goes deeper than that. Lord Ashdown seems to think it’s obvious why he became a Liberal. It absolutely isn’t, and he never explains — perhaps not even to himself. He was plainly super-keen to be an MP (his chapter on the winning of Yeovil is epic and beautifully written stuff) and he always seemed to me to enjoy being a leader, but beyond that no real shape to his ideas or ambitions for Britain emerges, no strong sense of what — beyond decency — he believes in; and one suspects the inner-Paddy yearned to be a Governor but found his appointed arrival-time in history had deprived him of territories (except Bosnia) to govern.
As an author Ashdown is a better stylist than any recent British party leader I’ve read, but unless you have the manic, self-harming genius of an Alan Clark, then a political memoir is made interesting either by revelation, or by having finally won big. And Ashdown would claim neither — even if his description of Margaret Thatcher’s strange handshake (‘she has a habit of not so much shaking a visitor’s hand as grabbing it, and passing the unfortunate captive across her and away, much as one might a partner in a Scottish country dance’) is spot-on. I should tell him, however, that this is the handshake she reserves for those whom she respects. Ask Julia Neuberger how the rest are treated — presented (Julia told me) with some fingers dangling like a dead fish, which one is allowed briefly to hold.
But if the second half of the book is clouded by the sillinesses and ambivalences of daily politics, the first half stands in brilliant sunshine. Though not entirely without a certain stealthy self-regard, this part of the book is about action, not posturing. Read young Ashdown’s Sports report in 1958. Read about Borneo, diving and the Special Boat Service. Read about the Sergeant instructor who initiated Paddy and his cohorts into a course on survival by eating a live frog sandwich in front of the class. Ashdown’s account of learning Chinese offers the clearest picture I’ve ever read of how the language and its transcription differ from Western equivalents. His service in Belfast is written up in a fair and fresh way. And his time as a spy (though plainly a torn tissue of what he must have drafted before the Foreign Office got their hands on his manuscript) is no worse for being teasingly incomplete. The story of the capture and transmission home of one of President Sukarno’s turds is a classic.
In a very short and rather sad epilogue, Ashdown, looking back, laments on the mystery of ‘where it all went. How did it all happen? Where has it all gone?’ Beneath this, I think, is a niggling doubt about what it really added up to: what’s left, when the story’s told?
He should not be so uncertain. Though this is an action book, and full of things a man may do, a quieter theme underlies the memoir: the wickednesses from which a man may and should refrain. ‘I do not think,’ he writes (of jungle warfare in Borneo),
that people leap from innocence to terrible violence in one bound. I think, rather, that anyone can succumb to the evil that steals up on us, little step by little step, and that what Lieutenant Calley did at My Lai could well have appeared to him to be just one small step beyond what had probably been perfectly acceptable common practice in its unit. Evil, it turns out, is not the great Beast of myth and legend. Rather, it imitates the bilharzia worm, slipping in imperceptibly between your compromises, to start its long progress towards possession.
There are people and politicians who, as dishonour steals gently upon their age or circumstance, never turn and say ‘No. Enough.’ Paddy Ashdown is not among them. This is the autobiography of a good man.