news and review of Shirley Williams in Ely 26th Oct 09

As part of a series of talks arranged by Topping and Company given by prestigious authors, Shirley Williams spoke at St. Peter’s Church in Ely on 26th October 09. She was supporting the publication of her autobiography Climbing the Bookshelves. Shirley did not read from her book as expected but gave a charming and entertaining talk that revealed the content of her autobiography in an informal and entertaining way. After her talk, we definitely felt we knew Shirley better and that the media hype she has endured in the past had little relevance to this erudite speaker who showed sensitivity to the nature of her audience and who used approachable language and amusing anecdotes.

As events unfolded, we became aware that her autobiography title stemmed from her childhood when her brother urged her to climb up the bookshelves in her father’s study to reach the books that her parents did not want their children to see. We learned that her parents were people of considerable influence. We began to appreciate how Shirley developed her strong principles. Her father was a political scientist Sir George Catlin and Labour activist. Her mother was the writer, pacifist, and feminist Vera Brittain who lost her fiancé and brother in the First World War and was determined to give them a life through her writing in her book Testament to Youth. Shirley spent time in America because both her parents were blacklisted by the Gestapo in the Second World War. If Germany had won, both her parents would have been executed immediately. While In the USA she was pipped at the post by Elizabeth Taylor for the lead role in the film National Velvet.

Shirley revealed a strong sense of principles. She admitted to having a little trouble with being part of a secular event in a church. Her strong sense of principles led her to break free from the Labour party and became one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party (which later merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats).

Humour permeated many of her anecdotes as did a streak of feminism and an avid concern for political issues. When she was first elected, her determination to gain admittance to every nook and cranny of the House of Commons sent her through the doors of a certain ‘room’ that should have been marked Gentlemen Members Only. The ‘Ladies’ was a much more modest affair. Her visit to a school on the governing body led her to mistakenly being interviewed for a position as a needlework teacher.

She described the different types of female politician, the strong influence of their fathers and how she decided to become a ‘chum’. She never flinched from expressing her strong beliefs:  there should be more free votes in Parliament, MP salaries should be at least equal to GPs and there is a need to renew laws after 10 years or let them fall. She spoke against the 3000 new criminal offences, some as minor as dropping litter and the loss of civil liberties after the passing of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act.  At this point I understood more than ever the important role people like Shirley have in our society: The media and personal experience indicate that this act may well be being used on the families of people needing care.  Shirley also spoke against the extreme centralization of English democracy and expressed a wish that the powers of local government should be restored. We glimpsed her political edge when she described Tony Blair as a good communicator and good actor (with an amusing aside: ‘mostly playing King Henry V’).

She described how, above all, she values her friends, many of whom are not politicians and are frank and honest with her. She admitted that she can be critical of the Church but nevertheless believes that the Gospels provide a solid basis for living. She reminded us that ‘the price of freedom is vigilance’. She believes that surveillance is out of hand and disagrees with the setting up of three unaccountable committees to keep tabs on protestors: we should have the right to protest. She believes that the voting system is slanted heavily and not equal. She supports comprehensive schools and is against a curriculum that is too rigid curriculum. She believes there is too much testing and advocates bringing back technical colleges. She also believes that parties should be able to agree more e.g. on human rights and education. Concerning Iraq, she praised the work of Robin Butler and described his study as most subtle: ‘full of unexploded bombs’ indicating that the government did give exaggerated accounts.  

After meeting this sincere and highly principled ‘chum’ it was difficult to envisage her in her more powerful and high profile role as Baroness Williams of Crosby.  This was indeed a most illuminating and rewarding event.

Further events at Toppings Ely will feature Sir Ralph Fiennes (5th November), Alexander McCall Smith (18th November), Tracey Chevalier (25th November) and John Lyons (26th November).


Topping and Company (01353) 645005


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