Books: A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 01 February 1997
Yet here comes heavy-footed Michael Dobbs again. Between them, his star Ian Richardson and his adapter Andrew Davies dragged Dobbs's Francis Urquhart trilogy way above its literary station. Some similarly gifted TV team should do the same with Goodfellowe MP (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) to wipe out the memory of just how dull this novel is. Thomas Goodfellowe, its crumpled crusader, is a backbench "piece of parliamentary flotsam" with a wrecked family and a glorious future behind him. In a less than thrilling intrigue, he ventures out from his Soho eyrie to bust a Buchaneseque industrial cartel which plans (with help from a crudely caricatured Maxwellian magnate) to seize control of British newsapers. The only laugh in this perfunctory plot, decked out in dreary Archer-level prose, comes from the notion that EU legislation might force our upstanding breed of media barons to sell their titles to a bunch of spivs. Remind me, now: who is it that controls HarperCollins?
In contrast, Michael Toner's Seeing the Light (Simon & Schuster, pounds 15.99) manages a few half-decent thrills and some nice touches of sulphurous wit. Toner (a former Express lobby correspondent) creates a Tory minister compelled to do good by three glimpses of heaven and hell.
The sudden conversion to virtue - and the havoc it wreaks - has a fine satirical pedigree (Toner calls his would-be saint George Gulliver). Unexpectedly, though, those parts of the book that stray furthest from political shenanigans impress the most. Toner's efforts to enter the head of "a 20th-century Englishman sunk in medieval dread" work surprisingly well, especially when Gulliver sets off on a sacrificial quest into the Sahara. Meanwhile, the usual Westminster imbroglio - with its sleazy hacks and back-stabbing MPs - raises only faint smiles. For blood and guts, the actual Tory leadership contest of 1990 outstripped the one Toner invents. Still, I did enjoy the idea of the Almighty materialising to Gulliver as a pukka gent in a Garrick Club tie. As He explains, "You need metaphors, George". So do we all - including a few of the plodding literalists who walk the parliamentary fiction beat.
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