Inspired by Yann Martel’s delightful and illuminating website, in which he recommends books for the Canadian Prime Minister, I have been wondering what Gordon Brown might be reading – or what book might be recommended to shed some cultural light on his daily workload.
I remember once being told that Brown’s favourite poem is Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard‘. Reading again this late eighteenth century reflection on the transformations taking place to the people and places in the English countryside, I am struck by how sad and despairing it is. Rather than celebrating the lives of the “unhonoured dead” (which Brown seeks to do, for example, in his ‘Britain’s Everyday Heroes’), Gray elegises about what might have been, about missed opportunities, about people failing to realise their ambitions….”Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire”.
Contrast this with a poem my 11-year old son recently selected, in response to a teacher’s request to identify a favourite poem. He chose ‘Chocolate Cake‘ by Michael Rosen – a poem I used to read to him when he was younger. Nearly as long as Gray’s Elegy, Rosen’s poem is about a young boy who – having had a piece of his mother’s delicious chocolate cake – sneaks down to the kitchen, in the middle of the night, to snaffle some more. Just a few crumbs to start with. Then an edge. Then a small piece. And – you’ve guessed it – he ends up eating the lot, hiding the empty plate at the back of a cupboard, hoping that no-one will notice. He thinks he has got away with it until, just as he’s leaving for school the next morning, his mum tells him to wipe the dark smudge from his bottom lip.
This boy took his chances. No ‘might have beens’, no ‘missed opportunities’.
Brown might want to have a read of this poem as he heads off to Brighton, to what will surely be his and Labour’s last Party Conference in power for some years.