I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: a candid account of a tumultuous adolescence
Lord Oates’ new book is not a traditional political autobiography. The Lib Dem peer recounts his experience of running away from home, the coalition years and finding happiness
Bookshop shelves are full of countless accounts of the coalition years; some much more interesting than others. You might assume a book by the man who was Nick Clegg’s chief of staff during much of that time would focus on his time in government.
But if you pick up a copy of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden and expect a traditional politician’s autobiography, you’re in for a disappointment. Firstly, because Jonny Oates’ doesn’t think his former colleague David Laws’ book can be bettered. More importantly, he has a story of his own to share. Aside from those closest to him, few knew what Jonny had experienced when he was a teenager.
“I didn’t actually originally write it with the intention that I must publish this book,” he explains, as we chat in his ground floor office, overlooking College Green. “I wrote it because I knew I needed to understand it. I needed to get this out of my system.”
When he was 14 years old, he decided he would run away from home. At 15 years old, he went through with it. Inspired by Michael Buerk’s landmark report of a ‘biblical famine’ in Ethiopia, he decided to do something to help. Whether it was to save the world, or to run away from himself, the young Jonny stole his father’s new credit card, headed to Heathrow airport and boarded a plane to Addis Ababa. Although optimistic that his assistance would be welcomed, he was turned away by the aid agencies. Desperate and alone, and with the fear he had nowhere else to turn, Jonny returns to his hotel and plans to end his life. Then there’s a knock on the door.
The publisher’s blurb calls the book “heart-stoppingly candid” and it is. It’s an account of a young man in turmoil, over his sexuality, unrequited love, and his role in life. The most difficult events are written about in the third person. He started to write a first-hand account and got stuck, realising he needed to take a step back to do his story justice. “I think the books that touch you are the ones that feel honest. So that’s what I wanted to do”.
I thought I should play a part in saving us from Brexit. Obviously that went well
The book continues as Jonny struggles to readjust to normal life after returning home. “My parents were unbelievably tolerant, understanding and thoughtful,” he recalls. “I thought I couldn’t go back, because they would be so angry. But they were incredibly relieved that I was safe. They were amazing, but I’m not sure that I reciprocated.”
Jonny returned to Africa several years later, though this time as a teacher in Zimbabwe when he finished school, which was “magical”. During an Easter break, he travelled to Pretoria, a white Afrikaans town. The hostility is obvious. ‘For the first time in my life, I saw those really chilling signs that said: ‘Slegs Blankes’ – ‘Whites Only’.
“I remember giving a sigh of relief when I left and said that I would never come back to this country until it had changed.” In 1998 he went to South Africa as a political adviser and witnessed Nelson Mandela make his farewell address to Parliament – “it was really amazing, and really life-affirming to realise that positive change can happen”, he says.
The third section of the book deals with Oates’ time in coalition; something that clearly exhausted him, but that he “desperately wanted” to continue. During that time, he accompanies Nick Clegg to Addis Ababa and is reunited with Father Charles Sherlock, the Anglican priest who knocked on his hotel room door all those years ago, during his darkest moment. “It was slightly odd, and we were a bit wary of each other. Then we just grew into it, as we chatted, and then it was just a really great time.”
These days, Oates’ main focus is the House of Lords, after relinquishing his role at a charitable foundation that worked in Africa and India. “I thought I should come back full time to try and play a part in saving us from Brexit. Obviously that went well.” He speaks from the front bench for the Lib Dems on energy and climate change, which he says is fascinating.
Will this be his first and only book? “I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Part of this is that I thought I could never write one until I got this story out of my system. So maybe I’ll try to do that next.”
As our chat ends, I ask Jonny one final question. Is he happy now?
“What I really want to try and use the book for is as a platform to say to people in desperate situations that things can get better,” he explains. “As Charles Sherlock said to me – you are far more precious than you are willing to believe at this moment.”
“Lots of people bemoan getting older, I’m happier every decade that passes. Doubtless I’ll start to get miserable in a few years! But for now, I’m in a good place.”
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is published by Biteback