SHEDNOTES 72: Why Straw proved to be made of straw

The Shed thought Ian Jack, Guardian, was quite good on Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, in his column on 28.2.2015. In his experience, he said, both of them were the kind of politician who was desperate to be liked all the time, not only with attractive young representatives of Chinese money …

Jack wrote:
“My own small experience of him (Straw) came on the train to Glasgow soon after Blair was elected Labour leader. I introduced myself in the buffet and found Straw engaging and open. We’d never met before, but before he got off at Preston I knew how much more Straw preferred Blair to John Smith. My memory is that he said Smith was closed to fresh ideas and a bit too fond of the drink. As the late leader was then in the early stages of his journey to sainthood – the “best prime minister we never had” – Straw’s opinion was almost blasphemous; the fact that he was entrusting it to a near stranger in a buffet car made me like him, partly because it made me feel I’d been confided in.
“Seems a decent sort of man,” I thought when I got back to my seat, and I thought much the same about Rifkind when, around the same time, I sat next to him at a lunch and abused him about the forthcoming privatisation of the railways, which, as a former Tory transport secretary, he had to defend. He could have replied aggressively or pompously – who was I, after all? – but, like Straw, he seemed keener on making allies than enemies; on being liked, and not so much because politics demanded it, but because it was how he was.
“People like this find themselves particularly vulnerable to a certain sort of interview, described insightfully by that fine New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm in her book The Journalist and the Murderer. You might call it the long-form interview, deployed by certain kinds of journalists and biographical writers to win the subject’s confidence so that he lets down his guard. On the one hand, the journalist is anxious that his subject doesn’t take against him and break off the conversation or the relationship. On the other, Malcolm writes, “the writer isn’t alone in his anxiety. Even as he is worriedly striving to keep the subject talking, the subject is worriedly striving to keep the writer listening. The subject is Scheherazade. He lives in fear of being found uninteresting, and many of the strange things that subjects say to writers – things of almost suicidal rashness – they say out of their desperate need to keep the writer’s attention riveted.”
“Of course, Rifkind and Straw believed they were having an entirely different kind of interview, in fact not an interview at all, but an exploratory chat with a foreign company that might put some money their way. Still, they seemed to live in fear of being found uninteresting, which may be the same thing as wanting to be liked or understood. Acts of suicidal rashness ensue. Rifkind makes a joke of his eagerness. “You’d be surprised how much free time I have,” he says of the hours he thinks he can devote to advancing the company’s interests. “Oh, not before Friday,” he replies to the question of when he can start. As for Straw, he invites his interviewers to consider his dilemma. “You see, I’ve managed to keep out of any kind of scandal all my political career,” he tells two young women he’s met only 15 minutes before. And then, as awkward as a poacher standing before a magistrate and twisting his cap in his hands: “You see, what I mean … I don’t want to attract attention by earning a lot more … so as a result of being … I turn down quite a lot just because I, you know, I’ve got to be able to justify towards myself [sic] as well as my constituents … that working for Man [the commodity trader that Straw is paid to advise] is something I can do in my spare time.”
Why do they never learn? Malcolm has wisdom on this question, too, though the casualties of the interview in her study haven’t been deceived about the identity of their interviewers and suffer more from vanity than greed. “Fortunately for readers and writers alike,” she writes, “human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses – the days of the interview – are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.”


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