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A Broad Canvas. Hinterland

by on 1 December 2016


talk by Chris Mullin

at Duke Street, Richmond, 23rd November

Review by Quentin Weiver

Was it “preposterous” or “a curious Molotov cocktail”? The press were thus divided in its opinions of A Very British Coup, the book by which Chris Mullin’s writing is best known.   That was 34 years ago and flurries of books have followed, including a trilogy of his equally controversial diaries.  Now, hot off of the press, comes his autobiography Hinterland– a Memoir.

The large and well-informed audience that came the talk, which formed the third of the offerings in the 2016 series Arts Richmond’s Books for our Time, a key part of the annual Richmond upon Thames Literature Festival, were a little less divided about Hinterland– a Memoir.  Chris Mullin, former government Minister, who came into politics following his time as a reporter on the wars in south-east Asia in 1970’s, is now a novelist and broadcaster. His overview of his latest book was delivered with relaxed wit and an unconcealed impish glee as he warmed to the part of his subject area that covered Politics with a capital P.


Chris Mullin.  Photograph by Elizabeth Wait


Mullin believes that a politician should have “done something first”, not just evolve from an Oxbridge PPE graduate who became a parliamentary researcher.  An Essex boy, who seems to have progressed up the East coast, via his unloved and unloving boarding school to a more fulfilling time studying law at Hull, and eventually to sit for almost two decades as MP for Sunderland South, Mullin was indeed 40 years old before entering parliament.

In the meantime his views of world politics were honed by years spent in the hell of war-torn Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Here he learnt to be suspicious of the official reports of events, a view that he believes has stood him in good stead in his political life.  Indeed, he comes across as being streetwise and astute. Nevertheless, he has retained an admiration for the people of the countries and spoke warmly of friends and indeed relatives in Vietnam, as his wife of some thirty years is Vietnamese.

Once characterised as a member of the loony left “more odious than Ken Livingstone” and described by his own party leader as a “certifiable lunatic”, he has clearly mellowed. From Bennite to Blairite, and now hinting a ideas that an avid Daily Mail reader would not blanch at, he clearly paints on a broad canvas.  Perhaps he is even more believable as a political commentator by not being trammelled.  After all, as a journalist Mullin has written not only for Tribune and the New Statesman but also for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator.

Telling of his time as in government, his knowledge of the ways of the world of Whitehall and Westminster was only too evident as recounted with wry humour a Yes Minister –esque series of events when trying to bring in legislation to control the height of suburban Cupressus Leylandii . Maybe this set off his love of gardening, which is a great motivator for him post-parliament.  Up in his respected “Deep North” he has rescued neglected acres and is creating a garden as varied and colourful as its creator.

The gardening sparked a question from our Duke Street audience concerning the current state of the economy. Would Mullin prune out dead wood or apply lots of Growmore?  For a man whom you might think to be a Keynesian, he went for the first option, expanding on Brown’s 2008 economic crisis, and condemning the many politicians of all hues who have allowed house prices to be forced up above any realistic level.  For anyone with young adults in the family, this point must resonate in Richmond.

Questioned on his once stated assertion that George Bush Jnr. was the worse President the United States had ever had and asked if would still apply after January, Mullin’s quite smile returned and he kept his silence. However, in a recent Speccie article, he quoted a US writer who said, “Trump is a smart man with a deep understanding of what stupid people want”.

Mullin answered many questions about the relative power of the politician and the journalist in forming opinions and about the role of the establishment in maintaining the status quo. When asked about the concept of conspiracy theories, perhaps alluding back to A Very British Coup, he said that he couldn’t believe in a Conspiracy Theory when, in government, he had seen the more effective reality of the Cock-Up Theory.

Chris Mullin comes across as a man who has seen much wrong in the world and passionately wants to put it right.   Hinterland may be just the cocktail for the present time. Molotov or preposterous, take your pick.  You will love the book or hate it, but you will not feel indifferent about it.

Quentin Weiver

November 2016

From → Literature, Reviews

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    I really enjoy reading these reviews!

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