Rachel Cooke on Strictly Ann: The Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe
WHEN ANN Widdecombe appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, the judges were not complimentary, describing her variously as “a dancing hippo”, “a Dalek in drag” and “the Ark Royal”. Len Goodman, exasperated that she had somehow crept into the quarter finals, likened her to haemorrhoids: “You keep coming back more painful than ever,” he said, in the dazed moments after she and her partner, Anton du Beke, had completed their Titanic-inspired interpretation of the rumba. Fortunately, a cure for Len’s painful posterior was just around the corner. The following week, she finally made her exit, she and Anton having scored just 14 points out of 40. Widdy had been dragged across the Blackpool ballroom “like a Hoover or something” for the last time.
Is Widdecombe’s writing any better than her dancing? No. About the best you can say for her prose is that it is accurate. Her grammar is fine – Ann is a stickler for grammar – and her anecdotes make sense in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Her attention to detail is exemplary, if you’re the kind of reader who really does long to know precisely where she stands on the matter of apostolic succession or Michael Howard’s sacking of the former director of HM Prison Service, Derek Lewis. But in every other respect her memoirs bear a strong resemblance to her paso doble: no rhythm, no beauty, no humour and, above all, no feeling. Mostly she disdains description of any kind, using adjectives only in moments of extremis when she will concede the occasional “pleasant”, “tasteful” or (high praise) “competent”. The people she admires most in the world are all “competent”, except for Pope John Paul II. Her impression of him was one of “immense holiness”.
Of course none of this would be an insurmountable problem if the bones of her story pulled you along. But this is hardly a tale of derring-do. Widdecombe grew up in the West Country and the far east, where her father worked for the Admiralty. She had an older brother, Malcolm, who later became a vicar; her parents were happily married. After school she read for degrees at Birmingham (Latin) and Oxford (PPE), where she took a third. (Her decision to study for a second undergraduate degree was, incidentally, propelled by nothing more than her own weird snobbery; Oxford turned her down the first time.) It’s true she had a boyfriend at Oxford, Colin Maltby. But he’s a shadowy figure on the page, and when he dumped her over dinner at a pub-restaurant in Esher it took her only until the following morning to feel relieved. “Years later I was to compare the experience to the loss of the 1997 general election,” she writes. “I had been a minister for nearly seven years and the sudden loss of office was painful, but the release from relentless pressure, red boxes and perpetually tired eyes produced something akin to euphoria.”
I’m not about to patronise Widdecombe by suggesting there is something inherently sad about her single, childless status (there isn’t). But it’s striking how often she feels the need to emphasise that this is her choice, that she has never felt anything less than fulfilled. Instinct tells you that such prickliness isn’t only a response to snide Daily Mail journalists; the spikes surely protect a tender, complicated place that a less gauche and more emotionally able woman might just have been willing to visit.
After university she worked at Unilever, and then as a university administrator, a job that better fitted with the finding of a seat. She fought Burnley for the Conservatives first, slashing the Labour majority, and in 1987 she was elected the MP for Maidstone, a seat she held until 2010, when she replaced politics with making silly television programmes. Her career in government (she was minister of state for prisons and, later, shadow home secretary) is well covered in her book, but her account is hardly revelatory. We already know very well what she thought of Michael “Something of the Night” Howard. Ditto naughty, arrogant Michael Portillo. She wishes that Kenneth Clarke had replaced John Major as Conservative leader rather than William Hague, but, honestly, who cares now? Like most MPs, she is utterly delusional when it comes to the political class. “It is a weakness of politicians that, as a breed, they assume everybody knows as much about everything as they do,” she writes, a statement so lofty and wrong-headed, I threw her wretched book right across the room. More baffling still is the fact that she seems always to have been broke (in 1991, a creditor even filed a bankruptcy petition against her). People will consider her ministerial salary and all the various expenses an MP is able to claim and wonder that she ever had the gall to tell anyone else how to manage their budget. (When she worked at the Department of Social Security she announced that benefit claimants could save money by shopping at markets.)
It can’t have been easy, being Ann Widdecombe. When she was elected, there were even fewer women in parliament than now; though she took the Doris Karloff jokes in good part – the cartoons hang on the wall of her Dartmoor retirement bungalow – the jibes must have hurt sometimes. Even so, it’s hard to feel kindly towards her. It isn’t only the fact that she is determined to be an island; she makes herself so thoroughly dislikable. Towards the end of her book she writes about child abuse in the Catholic church, which she joined after the Anglicans decided to ordain women. She doesn’t defend it, exactly, but she thinks it has no more need to apologise than any other institution, and there is a terrible, gloating satisfaction in the way she notes that the BBC – from whence, she insists, some of the “loudest condemnations” of the Catholic church came – has since found itself mired in the Jimmy Savile scandal. In some quarters, one gathers, Widdecombe’s woeful performance on Strictly Come Dancing unaccountably won her national treasure status. Luckily, her memoir stands as a corrective to that, even as it seeks to cash in on it. Alas, there are, it seems, aspects of her character more ugly and confused even than her paso doble.