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Fascinating character study of a flawed woman who's led an interesting life
on October 23, 2008
Cherie Blair's main claim to fame is her marriage to Tony Blair who was Britain's Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007. However she is also an interesting individual in her own right: the daughter of a famous actor who has had a prestigious legal career as well as having a front row seat for recent political events. She was widely disliked in the UK, and I have to say that if you don't like Cherie Blair, this is probably not the book that will change your mind. I started reading it with an open mind, but by the end even I was getting tired of her! Having said that, I enjoyed reading "Speaking for Myself" and I recommend it (which may sound strange, but only if you think you need to like the subject of a biography to enjoy reading it).
One of the things that has always intrigued me about Mrs Blair is that she is such a contrast: a high achiever with a great deal of intelligence and yet so devoid of emotional intelligence that she is oblivious to the way that she comes across. It's clear from reading this book that she is a warm and caring person, intensely loyal to her family and friends, who does a lot for charity. It's also clear that she has poor personal judgement and no idea how to read situations.
Cherie grew up in working class Liverpool. Her father was largely absent from her life (she only found out that she had a new step-sister when she saw the birth notice in the newspaper). She was raised by her grandmother and mother and developed a strong sense of feminism from an early age. What's interesting is that she then chose to go into law - one of the most conservative occupations that she could have chosen - and to marry a man whose political ambitions meant that she was condemning herself to playing a support role. She makes a throwaway comment at one stage about how simple her life could have been had she chosen to marry someone else, but the fact is that she made her choices knowingly and yet proceeds to complain about the consequences at great length. It's hard to muster the sympathy that she clearly feels she deserves.
Cherie also has a preoccupation with financial security, which is not attractive but nevertheless understandable given her working class background. What she doesn't seem to get however is how inappropriate it is for a woman in her privileged position to complain about being hard up. Instead it's as if she thinks that if she just explains one more time about how Tony went from earning £80,000 per annum to £20,000 per annum when he became an MP, then we'd suddenly get it and feel sorry for her.
In the early days of Tony's political career, he and Cherie had a strong partnership. The dynamic between them changed when he became PM. Cherie had to accept that she didn't get to know what was going on and that Alastair Campbell would make decisions about what she could and couldn't do. She felt quite isolated in Downing Street (at one point she refers to herself as "the prisoner") and probably as a consequence she developed very close relationships with her hairdresser Andre and with her "lifestyle adviser" Carole Caplin. Nevertheless when things all fall apart with Carole, she comments that she didn't have the emotional energy to deal with Carole's misery. This section of the book is Cherie at her worst. She had gone through a miscarriage, felt financially insecure and was generally feeling sorry for herself. She is so pre-occupied with her own woes that she doesn't give much thought to the looming conflict in Iraq and she also never admits that she made errors of judgement (the inability to acknowledge her mistakes is a recurring flaw in her character).
The best parts of the book are when Cherie is talking about the places she's been and people that she's met. Her descriptions of official visits to China, Pakistan and Rwanda are fascinating, as are her observations about world players like the Clintons, President Bush, Vladimir Putin, the Royal Family and the very theatrical Silvio Berlosconi. (Putin's wife tells her that Putin has a rule that you must never praise a woman as that will only spoil her). She had a unique front row to history and she's very open about what she thinks. The book is also very amusing at times - I laughed out loud when she described sitting her driving test. She comes across as being very honest throughout, even when it's to her detriment (and it often is).
The book is long and could easily have been shorter. (There's too much about her early boyfriends for example.) It's not badly written, but a better editor would also have encouraged a greater degree of self-scrutiny. She's an interesting and complex woman but this is not the book it could have been. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, I enjoyed it very much.