I learned about the great Tony Benn from Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, in which Benn explains the history of the NHS to the viewers. I did research on the guy and intrigued by this aged socialist lion who worked for decades to promote liberal causes in the UK. A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries is the final collection of writing that the extremely prolific diarist wrote before his death in 2014. While largely dealing with politics and human rights, there are charming personal stories, too, with Benn writing of lunch with friends (the guy loves Pizza Express and goes there a lot), and visits with family. Because the recollections deal with his life at its twilight, there are sad moments when the political giant ruminates about death and his mortality as his health begins to fade.
A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine deals with the period in the world when the global economy crashed and the Labour party was going through turmoil as Tony Blair was losing his grip on his leadership. Benn, never a huge fan of Tony Blair, is continuously suspicious and contemptuous of the former prime minister, and takes the man to task for the War in Iraq, supporting hawkish policies that curb civil liberties, and for his support for neo-liberal foreign policy. Other political figures that make appearances as well – Benn offers pithy commentary on the plays of the international community. He’s cautiously optimistic when Barack Obama wins the presidential election, and is dismissive of Hillary Clinton’s political ambitions; he’s also surprisingly sympathetic and supportive of Gordon Brown who takes over for Blair as prime minister, and fails to revive the party’s dwindling fortunes. Even though the diaries stop before the coalition government with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, Benn is seemingly depressed about the state of the Labour party. He’s despondent that he won’t live to see a new Labour government, and is worried that the damage Blair wreaked on the party is irrevocable.
Benn also has some insightful opinions on women’s rights, Islamophobia, gay rights, immigration, race relations, and war. He’s far ahead of his time (much like Jimmy Carter – who appears repeatedly in the book), and travels throughout the country and the world (he goes to South Africa to meet with other statesmen to form the Elders, a collective set out to fight for human rights) to give lectures and offer critique on current affairs. Despite his advanced age and ebbing health, his will and energy is stunning: he marched in protests and used public transportation daily to get around to his exhaustive schedule of appearances.
The bulk of the writing is Benn’s thoughts on politics and the state of current events, but there are personal moments that are touching. His children feature largely in the book, helping their dad, and he’s got a great network of friends (including beautiful movie star, Saffron Burrows), and the stories he shares are lovely and create a complete picture of a irascible, passionate man who cares a lot about the world and wants to change it for the better.
I’ve started reading his other diaries – I’m going backwards, so that I can relate to what he’s writing about; currently I’m reading his thoughts on 9/11 and the impending War in Iraq. Benn was not only a charismatic speaker and an important voice in liberal politics, but he was also a wonderful writer.
See below Benn’s appearance on Michael Moore’s film Sicko: “If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.”