I don't know about you, but I find nowadays that it takes me three months to read a book, as the only time I have to read is just before I go to sleep. And within three pages my eyes have closed. Indeed, sometimes I wake up at 5am with the light still on and with me still holding the book open. As a consequence, it took me a couple of months to complete Paddy Ashdown's excellent autobiography.
I use the word 'excellent' because it really is. It's a very honest book, in which he is very up front about his own failings as a man and as a political leader, but his book deserves to be read for another reason. Many people have got the impression that Ashdown is a slightly holier than thou figure - a caricature he recognises himself in the book. What they don't know much about - and why should they? - is the bravery of the man. For the first time he talks about his career in the armed services and special forces. At times he has to pull his punches, but you get the feeling that if the Great British Public had known about his service career in more detail, they might have been inclined to vote for him in greater numbers.
Whatever his political failings - and he admits to many - what no one can take away from him is the fact that he singlehandedly rescued the Liberal Democrats from the brink of going out of business, and took them to a point where they very nearly entered government. To go from 22 MPs to 46 was indeed a real achievement, which established the LibDems as a real third force in British politics.
One of the reasons I describe this as an honest book is because of the way he describes the whole 'Paddy Pantsdown' incident. It's not easy for anyone to write about painful personal issues, especially issues which must have been devastating to one's nearest and dearest. But he does so movingly and with candour. It is to my eternal shame that at Politico's we used to have a set of political lingerie with political slogans across the front. It's not often in my life that I have felt an inch tall, but I remember running the bookstall at the LibDem conference many years ago and Jane Ashdown came by and saw one of pairs of knickers with "Paddy Pantsdown" on the front. She was not impressed. I was crimson with embarrassment. When I got back to the shop I threw away the remaining stock.
Jane Ashdown is one of the heroes of the book. She clearly had to put up with a lot - moving from place to place, her husband's seemingly deranged ambitions to become a Liberal MP in a seat the Tories had held for seventy years and the fact that his work constantly took him away from her. But it is clear that he could have achieved none of it without her.
I don't normally like reading about politicians' childhoods or pre politics careers, but in Paddy's case, these were the best parts of the book. Many of the chapters read like a thriller, with great tales of daring-do. His description of the cameraderie and loyalty which run through every vein of his service career was something which many of us in the political world would do well to draw a lesson from.
Several LibDem friends point to the chapters on winning Yeovil as the most enjoyable of the book. And indeed, they give a great lesson in perseverance and doggedness that any candidate in a marginal seat must have if they are to win through.
The final part of the book is devoted to his three years as Imperial Ruler (I jest) of Bosnia. The horrors he witnessed during the Balkan wars had a great effect on him, and his bravery in visiting the region on several occasions, when his life was clearly in danger, may have seemed cavalier and foolhardy to some. But these visits gave him a clear hinterland when he was appointed to oversee the government of Bosnia. It is a shame that in the end he was never given the chance to repeat the experience in Afghanistan.
So, as you can see, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Paddy Ashdown's autobiography. It is a cracking read and will no doubt be one of my books of the year.
Buy it HERE.