It's hard not to have a soft spot for Ed Balls, "the slowest marathon runner in Parliament, but the best fund-raiser". Dancing and baking aside, there's a sort of lovably tragic Tiresias quality to him - like the blind seer, he's perhaps the defining economic and political genius of the modern era, but lumbered with the misfortune of an awkward surname and a few smug-seeming mannerisms which make him innately unable to connect with the general public. I piled into his autobiography over the past week looking to get to the heart of the mystery of the tiny dancer David Cameron loathed above all others, but honestly juicy details of life in Westminster are few and far between. I'd still recommend giving it a read (here). Political autobiographies might have a greater claim to be history's first draft than modern lightspeed political journalism.
Some of my favourite bits:
The quite touching moment he's goaded into going public about having a stammer, and does so by sending a letter to 20 kids
"...A man came up to me and said: 'Can I just ask you, do you have a stammer yourself?' And I said: 'It's not really about me today, it's about the children.' And the man said, with a lot of emotion in his voice: 'My son is one of the kids in that video, and what he's done there speaking about his stammer is really brave. And I think you're being a coward by not doing the same. Why don't you give these kids some hope and confidence that you can have a stammer and become a Cabinet minister?' I stood there mortified. I went back to the department and wrote a personal letter to every one of the twenty or so children who'd appeared in the DVD, thanking them for what they had done and telling them that I had a stammer too, and that they had inspired me. And that was the moment I realised I had to be open about it."
That time massive troll Tony Blair pretended he was being sent to Northern Ireland.
"'On the day when I received my first ever ministerial job in the reshuffle of 2006, I sat in my office up in Yorkshire waiting for the call I'd been told to expect. The phone rang: 'We have the Prime Minister for you.' A second later, the familiar voice said: 'Ed, it's Tony. I've been thinking very hard about how to use your skills, and I think you should go to work on investment and small business in Northern Ireland.' I paused, thinking: 'Bloody hell, I know nothing about Northern Irish politics. How are we going to manage that with the kids? What's Yvette going to say?' But it was the Prime Minister appointing me to a job and I told him it would be a great honour to accept the position. There was a pause and Tony laughed and said: 'Gotcha! Only joking, you're going to the Treasury. Good luck and enjoy it, I'm sure you'll be brilliant.'"
The lingering question: Does Ed Balls know that those little cans of gin and tonic are actually just a premixed version of a drink that is normally created by combining two distinct ingredients?
"The friendships you sustain throughout a political career will likely be the strongest you ever make. But as with Gordon and Robin Cook, or Denis Healey and Tony Benn, in politics you can put things back together again. I hope I'll also be able to say the same of Ed Miliband one day. I'll keep some gin and tonics in the fridge."
Gin in a fridge? Still at least he avoided the old cups-of-teas pluralising nonsense.
Gordon Brown: best person to be sat next to in some kind of near death aerial experience... or the worst?
So Ed Balls and Gordon Brown are in a plane which starts descending rapidly...
"...the eerie silence remained, as we continued to watch the numbers tick down: 33,000, 32,000, 31,000. Gordon turned to me and said: 'Well, here we are,' and I said: 'Yep, maybe this is it.' We had a really nice conversation about our families, about the good things we thought we'd done in our lives, and what we'd be sorry to leave behind. By this point, the plane was down to 24,000 feet. Gordon paused, turned to me, and said: 'What do you think? Should we finish my speech?'"
This nice bit of humblebragging about how he only went into politics after being denied a transfer to Nairobi, and was offered Washington and Tokyo in the process.
"[Gordon Brown] intrigued me enough in that first meeting, and in a number of others afterwards, that when he asked me to leave the FT and come and work for him, I was definitely interested. The crunch came when the FT talked to me about my next assignment. I said I wanted to be their Africa correspondent, working out of Nairobi. They said I could go to Washington, Bonn or Tokyo, but definitely not Africa. That was enough for me; I quit, and told Gordon I was coming to work for him."
Jet-setting Tokyo correspondent for the FT? Absolutely not. But future MP for Morley and Outwood?
But WHICH editor of the Independent was it who believed Ed's joke that he had a sister called Ophelia?
"One Labour Party conference, I had agreed to answer readers' questions in the Monday morning's Independent newspaper. The questions were always a mixture of serious, quirky and funny, and you needed your answers to match. The final question was: 'How do you cope in politics with the surname Balls?' My reply was: 'If you think it's been bad for me, think what it's been like for my sister, Ophelia.' That day I was having lunch with a group of journalists in the conference hotel, and as we sat down, the then editor of the Independent came over and said to me: 'Very good Q&A today, but did your parents really call your sister Ophelia?' I laughed and explained it was a joke. But I sensed surprise in his eyes. Perhaps he thought it odd for me to have a sense of humour about it."
I dug out the interview, here. I reckon given the date it would have been Simon Kelner... but honestly I think he'd have got the joke. Result inconclusive.
Balls the Bard: "...The fatal Balls of murdering basilisks" [Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2]
"...after the 2015 Budget speech ... George Osborne referenced Shakespeare as he announced funding to celebrate the anniversary of Agincourt. I did a section of my speech using quotes from Shakespeare to characterise the Budget and George Osborne's 'vaulting ambition', and - as expected - some of the Tory MPs took the bait. Erudite souls that they are, they intervened quoting Shakespeare in Osborne's defence or in criticism of me, but I had a number of retorts at my fingertips befitting each type of MP who might speak - 'People say that empty vessels make the loudest noise' and the like - so I got a good laugh all round whenever I came back at them"
Who says British politics is a monoculture? Also notable for Ed slipping a Shakespearean-sounding 'fingertips befitting' into the passage, as he gets into character.
That time someone basically tells him the plotline of the financial crisis a few years in advance, but it doesn't quite connect
"I do remember one particular visit to an investment bank. I had a meeting with its executives lasting about an hour, and we then spent a while touring the large trading floor where the actual work was being done. And as we walked through, the London-based chief of this huge international firm turned to me and said: 'It's so complex what these guys are doing these days. All these special purpose vehicles. It's very hard for any of us to know what's really going on.'"
And lastly, one me and a lot of very amateur runners can empathise with
"Just two weeks before my first marathon I did my final long-distance run - twenty miles round Pontefract racetrack on a clear but windy Saturday morning. I arrived at 8 a.m. and started my slow plodding run. After half an hour, a van arrived, and the driver began to mark out a two-kilometre circuit along the track. Not long afterwards runners began to gather for the local parkrun, dressed in vests and track shoes. A starting gun fired and about sixty runners were racing towards me, zipping along and giving me quizzical looks as they passed by. The last runners had completed the race in a little over an hour. They took photographs, had a small barbecue and drinks, held a prize-giving ceremony, cleared up the cones, and drove away at around the time I hit mile 16. It was honestly one of the loneliest, most hopeless experiences of my life."
Here's to the big guy!