John Major’s Old Man


What a surprise it was to learn about this book! One tends to think of former British Prime Minister John Major as a colorless fellow (in fact, I’d already sort of forgotten about him). He was a middle child, a Jan Brady wedged in there between fellow Conservative Margaret Thatcher (controversial because she was too conservative) and Laborite Tony Blair (controversial because he was…too conservative). Interestingly, while Thatcher was paired with Ronald Reagan, and Blair with Bill Clinton and Bush II….Major coexisted with Bush I, and one thinks of them the same way. A middle of the road guy, a meat and potatoes conservative who (in contrast with his predecessor) exists entirely NOT to upset any apple carts.

What can it be but shocking to learn that his parents were performers in British music hall? Music hall performers: colorful, reckless,  itinerant, devil may care, hand-to-mouth? Well, maybe not so surprising. The children of free spirits often become down to earth almost as a form of rebellion, or perhaps self-preservation. Call it the Saffy syndrome. Like Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson he seems to have tamped down the music hall within him, and donned a cloak of respectability.

An even greater shock is how good this book is. I mean, this is a real book. I can’t help but contrast it with the way American politicians and lots of other public figures write books (superficial, lightweight, 250 pages or less in large type, written in collaboration with some other professional writer, and even so, clearly dashed off in a hurry). By contrast, Major has written an authoritave, scholarly, REAL book about the history of British music hall from its very beginnings. In typical English, self-effacing manner, he protests that this is not what he has written, but I assure you that’s what it is. The only way it differs from a similar book written by a performing arts scholar is that he includes his parents, who were not big stars, in the history. In a sense, the book seems a sort of attempt by him to put his parents’ careers in context, and maybe to explain and justify them. He mentions that early in his career he took heat about the fact that his parents were in music hall. This book is an irrefutable, knowledgable positing of the absolute centrality of music hall as a legitimate expression of British culture. What makes it even more remarkable is Major’s largeness of spirit — the amount of “Sympathy for the Devil” he possesses. It’s hard to imagine an American conservative writing with such tolerance for such a hedonistic and “fringe” a crew as music hall performers, some of whom after all specialized in singing dirty songs or dressing in drag. (Although music hall performers do carry their own “conservative” credentials as well. They were patriotic to the point of jingoism, providing the soundtrack for Britain’s entire imperial period).

Now, I would also be shocked if a busy man like Major didn’t have research assistants to help him pull this together. And he may well have used the services of an uncredited ghost-writer. Although, the style of the book is dry and plain enough to make me believe that he penned it himself. But even if he ‘d only dreamt up the project and served as its editor and puppet master, he’d have done a valuable thing. This is a good and useful book, and it’s likely to be a go-to reference work on my shelf for a long time to come.

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