Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography by Shirley Williams - review by J W M Thompson

J W M Thompson

‘I Whirl Aimlessly’

Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography


Virago 423pp £20

When politicians reach a certain age they tend to believe that they owe the world an autobiography. Shirley Williams has long been a recognisable figure in public life (not in the front rank perhaps, although she did reach the Cabinet), and as she is now in her eightieth year it is not unexpected that she has decided to produce this account of her life. The self-portrait that emerges from her book contains few surprises. The public view of her is as an earnest, well-intentioned toiler on the progressive wing of politics, and that is how readers of her autobiography will continue to see her. People, as she admits, also have a tendency to suspect her of being somewhat disorganised – in which case it is rather a pity that this book is open to the same accusation. In fact it seems to be composed of what are essentially two books. The more readable of these consists of the customary matter of autobiography – the life story, the making of a respectable career and all that. The other is a wide-ranging survey of political history during her career. One is reminded that at various times Shirley Williams has blended her political life with a parallel existence as a lecturer on politics, mostly at Harvard, and chunks of her book could almost be the texts of her lectures.

The autobiographical passages are composed with an engaging candour about herself, her family, and the less strictly political aspects of her life. Her parents named her ‘Shirley’ not after the celebrated child film star of the time, Shirley Temple, but after Charlotte Brontë’s ‘gallant little cavalier’ in her novel

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