BOOK REVIEW : Rich coves in tweed suits

LETTERS TO A YOUNG POLITICIAN FROM HIS UNCLE Alistair McAlpine Faber & Faber £14.99

At the corner of any worthwhile gathering of the Conservative Party in the Eighties, you would always be likely to find a small, rotund, faintly scruffy figure, often in a mustard-coloured tweed suit, with his head cocked to one side and an enigmatic smile. Lord (Alistair) McAlpine was Treasurer of the party from 1975 to 1990, Deputy Chairman for four years, and a devoted Margaret Thatcher man throughout.

McAlpine always seemed consumed with boyish glee at the tricks and insidery games of high politics, a man whose contacts were excellent and whose demeanour was faultlessly irreverent (except about Her). He was one of the faintly mysterious rich coves who was always buzzing back from Venice or turning up at soires with other rich coves in the glitzier London hotels. From time to time he would try a bit of journalism, and now writes a column about salerooms for the Spectator.

And that was about that. Then, rather unexpectedly, he wrote one of the great accounts of the Thatcher years. The Servant was written in the chirrupy form of a Machiavellian guidebook to politics, as from an advisor to "the Prince" (who was, transparently, Lady Thatcher). It was - well, thoroughly unsentimental is perhaps the most tactful description.

Now McAlpine is back with another sideways-swipe at the Tory years. This time his Lordship has gone for the epistolary novel, a sequence of letters from a veteran office-holder at Tory Central Office to his rather nasty, thrusting nephew. The letters are rich in advice, some high-minded, some cynical, about how to get on in politics, and have a whiff of Lord Chesterfield about them. This is a book of political manners for our time.

But they also tell a story, as the nephew rises from the Oxford Union to the Commons and eventually to the highest office, while his sister marries and his adoptive sister falls into a life of vice and unpleasantness. There is a twist in the tail, which it is not the job of a reviewer to reveal.

How well does the conceit work? The device of seeing only the uncle's letters, and never the nephew's replies, allows the latter to develop as a shadowy and faintly menacing presence, about whom we are as knowing but also as ignorant as the uncle. There is a game going on with the reader, who is bound to be confused as to how much of the uncle / narrator is Lord McAlpine himself, and how many of the anecdotes, lunches and bon mots are the genuine article, mined from his years at Smith Square. There are savage attacks on a figure who is clearly John Major and there are unmistakeable references to real events, such as the resignation of Cecil Parkinson after the Sara Keays affair.

It is all pretty good fun. I liked the sententiousness of the uncle, and the mood of self-conscious grandness that reeks from the book, as it does from Central Office. There is a feeling of a curtain being briefly whisked to one side, behind which shadowy figures are engaged in a great and mysterious business, talking sternly to one another of Destiny and Leadership. It is hooey, but spicy and unusual hooey.

The problem is that the uncle is, in the end, rather long-winded and sentimental. The conceit might have worked better had the novel remained resolutely at the level of cynical revelation. Instead, there is a curious whisky-and-soda idealism suffused through the story, a yearning for some kind of perfect right-wing "Leader" who saves the Armed Forces, obliges everyone to drive electric cars and makes the law fair.

The Leader allows no trimming, doesn't make the mistakes Thatcher did, and is eventually brought down by smaller-minded Tories. The Leader seems to me to be a sort of fantasy-figure whom McAlpine would love to have served. And at the same time, the uncle's story is tinged with more than a little self-pity, which undermines his stern injunctions and way-of- the-world knowingness. We could have done with rather less of this stuff, and with a bit of cold-hearted subbing from some faintly clinical female editor at Faber & Faber.

This, though, is to carp. There are so many books about politics which are all the same - all those earnest biographies and memoirs and so on. Well, here is something utterly different, both quirky and serious, both light and yet curiously unsettling. I couldn't "place'' it, any more than I could ever quite place McAlpine himself; but I'm very glad I read it.

Andrew Marr

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice