Gordon Brown’s new year reading

This is a follow-up to a post I put up just before the Labour Party Conference in September 2009. That one’s worth reading again I think: What is Gordon Brown reading?, modelled on Yann Martel’s delightful website for the Canadian PM. Like Martel, I have no aspiration to create a definitive reading list for the PM – this is, rather, a set of musings on how literature might provide some food-for-thought for an embattled Prime Minister.

Things don’t seem to have changed much for Gordon since the Conference. He’s still under pressure from all wings of the Party, and still seems vulnerable, despite Hoon and Hewitt’s failed coup.

So, where might he turn for some inspiration or some solace? Just as I recommended in September last year, I think he could do a lot worse than read Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake. A wonderfully mischievous excursion into the pleasures of taking risks, seen through the eyes of a young boy.

A much more macabre and thrilling version of this theme of risk-taking is provided by Blake, that great proponent of passion and energy, in his ‘Proverbs of Hell‘, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s plenty for Brown to chew on here.

“Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead” advises the narrator – I can imagine that advice being given by one particular member of Brown’s Cabinet.  Indeed, the poem appears to have other echoes of life behind the doors of Downing Street: for example, Brown has been criticised for being a ditherer, such that it might feel as if “one thought fills immensity”; on the other hand, he would rightly point out that “the hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure”.

Blake’s poem provides an array of intriguing pronouncements, and the challenge for Brown is to navigate his way through the range of voices providing instruction and advice – to know when to be ruthless (“sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”), and when to be thoughtful and restrained (“the weak in courage is strong in cunning”); when to take advice (“the thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest”), and when to ignore his advisers and, Malcolm Tucker-like, vent his anger (“the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”).

So what can Brown take from this poem?

He needs to be wise and cunning, that’s for sure. But he also needs to learn ruthlessness and ensure that his desires do not remain unacted on. Time is running out for uncertain leadership. Like the boy in Rosen’s poem, Brown needs to take his chances. Come May 6th, we might know if he has reached Heaven or Hell.

graham hitchen

twitter:  @graham_hitchen

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