The Journey of 'A Journey': UK Reactions to Tony Blair's Memoir

LONDON -- Reviews have been mixed; it's infuriated the Queen; and after its author was bombarded with flying shoes and eggs in Dublin, they had to cancel his London book signings. In short: the poodle is in a doghouse. And yet former British prime minister Tony Blair's memoir is top of the pops. This week he takes A Journey to America. Should we expect more shoes?


In the UK, on Facebook and Twitter, the trending topic has been the underground prank trend of moving copies of this memoir to the crime section at Waterstones (Britain's equivalent of Barnes & Noble). There's also Labour's leadership election, which started the same day the book was launched -- David Miliband, the most Blair-like of the contenders, squaring off against his younger brother, Ed Miliband, who has emerged as a curate of leftish hopes. Blair's book, intended to loft David's ambitions, may maul them more. (Lefty leadership candidate Diane Abbott quipped if she were D. Miliband, she would ask Blair to go into hiding for a while. Miliband's retort: He thinks it past the time for calling him a Blairite and holds faith in Blair being someday quizzed on whether he was a Miliband-ite.)

Mr. Zuckerberg, tear down this Facebook wall? Memoir writing used to constitute one of life's more placid pastimes. But forget sex; eggs sell now. Nielsen's BookScan records 92,000 hardcover sales in under a week, the best opener since they've kept count. Across the pond, it's to debut third on the New York Times's best-seller list. That newspaper notes the oracular, enigmatic praise of Waterstone's spokeswoman: the book had become "a must-read for people wanting to participate in daily life."

In the UK, responses from people wishing to participate accordingly have encompassed:

  • on the sex: After reading, one commentor wished for "mind bleach."
  • on the Northern Irish (no overlap with the above): A well known blogger points out that Blair touts peace there as a decade's red-letter accomplishment; then puts Bloody Sunday in the wrong city.
  • the sardonic: ''Blair so disgusted with himself he boycotts his own book signing."
  • the chicken: Thatcher would've soldiered on with the book signings.
  • the Tory (predictably): Blair botched Britain.
  • the tweets: "If Tony Blair actually found blood on his hands he'd just assume it was stigmata"; "If Tony Blair were to put a cat in a bin, the world would end immediately"; "He looks really old on the cover .... They should've used Michael Sheen instead"; "So Tony Blair has cancelled his book signings .... Anybody want to buy a box of odd shoes and 2 dozen eggs?"; "I want to go into Tony Blair's house and move all his books around instead. Much more fun."

Now on leave from London's headaches in the States, though, Blair will pocket a Liberty Medal off President Clinton this evening, and is slated to appear on TV beside Katie Couric and Jon Stewart. What does it mean that the rebel colony response has been so much gentler? It couldn't just be his supportive statements about Israel, although these are generally more popular in America than they are in Britain. Perhaps it's the relatively adversarial character of the British press, joined up with Yank hospitality with a tourist? Call this theory the Thatcher effect: a controversial UK politician arouses curiosity (or from ideological comrades, fervent support) on American shores, but leaves his or her sorest opposition on the ground back at Heathrow. Or is it that foreign leaders in the U.S. tend to appear smallish, trotting through the CNN studios in their droves as part of a cabinet of curiosities. Last of all, could it be that, while in both the UK and the U.S., the Iraq War played a major role in bringing new parties to power, in the U.S. that change was right-to left, and diffused some of the anti-war movement's energy in its course.

This last comes, I suspect, nearest the explanation: The U.S.'s clearest analogue at the moment to the Stop the War Coalition would be the (likewise anti-governing party, even slightly British-sounding) Tea Party. Both cases reflect an active and ongoing struggle for power and bearing in the party out of government. She mightn't have heard of them, but Sarah Palin shares a moment with Britain's Mili-band of brothers. And it's a shame the American president seems not to care for the UK: Though his fortunes decline at home, months after Britain's parliamentary elections pitted three Obamas against one another, the Labour leadership race has also, in its own way, metamorphosed into Obama v Obama v Obama.

So more than a decade since the high water mark of the Third Way, U.S. and UK politics remain, in their curious way, cyclically linked. For someone who treasures Anglo-American comity, this pleases me.

Presented by

Pádraig Belton

Padraig Belton is a journalist based in London. He is completing a doctorate at Oxford.

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