Books: A week in books

Political insiders who write novels about great affairs of state almost always get it embarrassingly wrong. Not the facts or the folklore, but the tone - the edgy, tart, sardonic air that blows through all the corridors of power, but which the Dobbses and the Curries clumsily distil into a knowing sixth-form cynicism. Read Joe Klein's Primary Colors - an ocean ahead of its British rivals - for proof of just how high the political novel can climb. Back in the land of tabloid tittle-tattle, truth beats fiction any day. A single page of Alan Clark's Diaries delivers a clearer view of the private springs of public life than a whole shelf of dire parliamentary potboilers.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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