A sense of wonder

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
On a Clear Day: An Autobiography. By David Blunkett Michael O'Mara Books #163;14.99. - 01 85479 741 7.

David Lister finds David Blunkett's tales of youth and growing up compelling.

When the late John Smith first indicated that he would give David Blunkett a shadow cabinet post, David Blunkett's children panicked. In fact they considered changing their names.

They also considered writing a letter to John Smith, imploring him not make their dad education secretary. They knew he was so keen on discipline and homework that his public statements could make their lives a misery.

Blunkett, of course, is now shadow education secretary, though, whether out of concern for his children's feelings or deeper political reasons, he has not yet become notorious for speeches about discipline and homework.

Few people could better claim that such virtues "never did me any harm". His achievements in A-levels, university and of course politics despite a disability that would have deterred thousands of others bear testimony to self-discipline certainly, hard work and a curious mix of radicalism and old-fashioned Yorkshire values.

As he himself puts it: "In general I am left-wing and radical on economic policy but conservative on social matters. This is the very reverse of the attitudes and actions of the Labour Party throughout the eighties and early nineties."

How does Labour's education spokesman get on with his colleagues when he espouses discipline and homework? I'm afraid you won't find out from this book. For another old-fashioned Blunkett virtue is loyalty, another is privacy, perhaps another is coyness.

He travels at frenetic pace through his Parliamentary career so far, with little about personalities he has worked with, or the key battles he has fought in the Labour national executive. His private life is almost as much of a no-go area. He and his childhood sweetheart, devoted companion and wife for more than a decade suddenly part leaving the reader a little bewildered.

Is this beginning to sound like a bad review? Perhaps I should belatedly state that despite these caveats, Blunkett's autobiography is one of the most compelling, instructive and illuminating books I have read for a long time. While it may tells us little about politics or his marriage, it is enormously rich in detail about his childhood, schooling and emergence into adulthood as a young, gifted blind man.

Blunkett's deadpan style can paradoxically be profoundly affecting, from the description of going to his boarding school for the blind where his parents were made to leave immediately - "obviously this has a profound effect on an infant, who feels totally abandoned and terrified, particularly when he cannot see who or what is around him" - to his account of his father's death from an industrial accident when he fell into a giant vat of boiling water - "I had visited him shortly after he had undergone plastic surgery and the terrible smell of burnt flesh, which remains with me today; and the astonishing fact that he had asked about my pet rabbits despite the wanderings of a mind swamped by anaesthetic and pain killers. It was a dreadful agonising end; in later years such feelings led to my involvement in the fight to improve regulations concerning health and safety in the workplace."

The book is rich, too, in humour, describing the hurdles to be overcome for an ambitious, romantically inclined blind boy in the swinging sixties, learning to dance for example. Blunkett eventually managed then spoilt his moment of glory on discovering that the girl he had plucked up courage to ask to dance was in fact a man.

This book is a tale of resilience, from his determination to take A-levels against the advice of his school, to his radicalism in Sheffield council politics and in advocating the first cheap public transport policy against much opposition. But it is also a tale of unfettered love for his series of guide dogs, who are described interestingly with greater affection than his romantic involvements. Ruby "was a lively, mischievous and in many ways outrageous blonde with brown eyes and we were planning to go up to university together. " Thus we are introduced to his first guide dog.

But, most of all I will remember this book as an insight for the sighted into how much fulfilment an imaginative blind person like Blunkett can take from life. One incident in particular remains with me. He writes a poem about, going to Wimbledon. He says: "I had the good fortune to watch the Chris Evert and Steffi Graf semi final. I was captivated by the atmosphere and my poem attempts to express what I felt about this eccentric, but quite quintessentially English fortnight each summer."

But, of course, he did not watch it. He saw none of it. And yet. It leaves the reader with a sense of wonder.

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