The Shirley Williams story – Climbing the Bookshelves

Shirley William’s memoirs, Climbing the Bookshelves, is published on 24th September, and you can order it from Amazon using this link (and earn the party some commission). Today’s Sunday Times serialises the book: “the rebel ‘Gang of Four’ politician, reveals her maverick streak was rooted in a free-spirited childhood”. Here’s an excerpt:

I was a competitive child. I liked risk, matching myself against challenges. Climbing my father’s bookshelves to the very top was one such challenge. So later was amateurishly climbing mountains, breaking fingernails as I clung on to wet rock. Risk was one of several things that attracted me to politics when I was young, though I was also drawn to some obvious causes — poverty and inequality, lives limited by the accident of birth. …

George Catlin, my father, was a slim, handsome, scholarly man, a university lecturer. He gave me the single greatest gift with which a child can be endowed: self-confidence. He and I conspired together. I climbed his bookshelves, right up to the ceiling, clinging grubbily to the dusty ledges. He never tried to stop me, and both of us knew he wouldn’t tell my mother, who would immediately anticipate cracked skulls and broken arms.

That I was a girl was irrelevant to his ambitions for me. I could be anything I wanted to be. He saw no reason to think that women were lesser beings than men. …

My mother, Vera Brittain, was a conscientious but rather remote parent. She was small, dark-haired, intense, serious and single-minded. My brother and I were brought up to respect her work; she was the family’s main breadwinner. She enjoyed a period of fame as a bestselling writer. Her most renowned book, Testament of Youth, was an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved. … Her candour, which she did little to modify, left behind a trail of offended acquaintances. …

I was undoubtedly badly behaved. I was also a slob, covering my gymslip with a large jersey and rarely brushing my hair. At one history lesson the brilliant but peppery teacher, Miss Patrick, presented me with a cheap hairbrush in front of the class.

You can read the paper’s extract in full here. (And buy the book – did I mention? – here).

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This entry was posted in Books.


  • Terry Gilbert 14th Sep '09 - 8:58pm

    I’m sure she’s popular enough to appeal to far more than the small minority (of the party, as well as the nation) who attend conference, though. I’m looking forward to reading this one, as I almost always agree with Shirley, though I do not share her religious outlook, so it should be a challenge!

  • Thanks so much for posting! Baroness Williams: I love her on panels, TV or radio, and have enjoyed her public lectures. Can’t wait to read the book. Always fascinating, insightful, intelligent, and, seemingly, modest. Rare combination of personality traits in such a high-profiled public figure, let alone a political one! Cheers!

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