Book Review: A Life of Dissent by Christopher J. Walker

Tom McGuire

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A biography of Oliver Baldwin, 2nd Earl Baldwin and the elder son of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin; a socialist Labour MP, and Governer General of the Leeward Islands. His was a complicated and full life of contradictions and colour, told in full for the first time by Christopher Walker.

Born into the traditional British establishment Oliver Baldwin went to Eton before the First World War broke out when he joined up and fought with great distinction at the age of eighteen. Following the war he was sent to Armenia as a military advisor, captured and imprisoned by the Soviets and then the Turks: by the age of twenty-one he had seen more from life than many Brits back then saw in a lifetime. At this point Baldwin takes a very different path to that of his upper class peers. He left Britain to travel the world, supplementing his jaunts with work as a travel writer; he returned to Britain the gay (at a time when homosexuality remained illegal in Britain) and Marxist son of the Prime Minister. In the years that followed Baldwin continued his journalism and became a Labour MP (sitting opposite his father in the Commons), a playwright, novelist, and eventually returned to military duty when the Second World War came calling.

After the war the Labour government (that he had been part of until the death of his father meant he had to move to the Lords) sent him to the Caribbean as Governor General of the Leeward Islands where he caused trouble by supporting the natives in calls for greater economic freedom from the British businessmen who owned the sugar plantations and was eventually recalled.

This is a deeply researched and academic account but it does not skimp on personality. Baldwin’s human qualities shine through and his deep affection for his long-term partner, Johnnie Boyle, and their life together on the farm; and his loving relationship with his father, are at the centre of the tale. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley, and avowedly left-wing Labour backbencher Oliver Baldwin, remained remarkably close throughout their time as political adversaries and Stanley encouraged Oliver’s standing for parliament and standing by his own principles even if they were not the ones he had brought him up on. Oliver Baldwin’s political beliefs were strong and independent: born of harsh experience and held with absolute conviction, something rarely seen in our politicians today. Whatever your political persuasion this is to be admired.

Baldwin’s is undeniably a compelling life story and this is a comprehensive telling of that story. At every stage of his eccentric, short, but well-lived, life, there is some fascinating, colourful and unexpected drama playing itself out and this is where the book is at its best. However, it is worth remembering this is an academic book by a professional historian and as such will digress from the story.

This happens in particular in the two chapters that focus in detail on Baldwin as a writer, the book is broadly chronological but the subject of Baldwin’s career as a writer is dealt with separately with its own chronological thread independent of the wider story. In a way this makes sense as his writing does take its own fascinating journey, meandering through different mediums, subjects and ideas with age; it is also clearly a key source for Walker in putting together the picture of Oliver Baldwin. The problem is this is the point at which the biography seems most academic: there is simply too much about this lifetime of written output. There is analysis of everything from letters sent home from early years abroad at war and otherwise to fairly lengthily summaries of the plots of Baldwin’s novels and what they meant in the context of when they were written in his life. It is not a major criticism and clearly the research that has gone into these chapters is some of the most meticulous and exhaustive of the project, the problem is the book and Baldwin’s story loses some of its pace in these chapters.

This minor gripe should not detract from the book as a whole. Baldwin is a fascinating character and his story is a refreshing one, particularly when compared to today’s politicians. This is a serious book and a comprehensive and academic record of Baldwin’s story but his human qualities shine through and that has to be the aim of any good biography: to give a sense of the person. This does. Well worth a read.

Oliver Baldwin: A Life of Dissent, CHRISTOPHER J. WALKER(Arcadia Books London, 2003)

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