Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

This is a tale of two novelists - one senior, one junior, one serious, one frivolous, one discreetly left-wing, one loudly right-wing - who share a commitment to political debate and public life. I'm rather hoping that the younger one will learn something from the elder, although as yet the chances still look slim. This week, the eminent writer Nina Bawden - widowed and gravely injured in the Potters Bar rail crash of May 2002 - accepted a compensation offer from Network Rail and its former contractor, Jarvis. The maintenance firm (chaired by Tory politician Steve Norris) was responsible for faulty points that, at the time, had 83 separate defects.

Bawden later wrote Dear Austen, a tender, moving and quietly furious book about the squalid buck-passing and duty-ducking culture of the semi-privatised services that treated her like worthless dirt. "Own up to fault, apologise and the share price goes down" was the brick wall that blocked this elderly and bereaved victim for many agonising months. Earlier this year, she renounced her Labour Party membership after nearly 60 loyal years. The party failed to reply.

On the other side of the political fence, Louise Bagshawe - until now known as the motormouth author of glitzy romances - has jumped into the non-literary limelight after she appeared on the Conservative Party's "A-list" of top-rated candidates. Barring some unforeseen plot-twist, she will be holding down a safely true-blue seat by 2009 or so. Once a rock band's minder, and then author of bed-hopping romps such as When She Was Bad and The Devil You Know, Bagshawe has come out as a born-again, family-friendly Catholic conservative who frets about "the dilemma of writing trashy books without having anything overtly sexual in them". Her new yarn, Sparkles (Review, £12.99), involves a Parisian dynasty of jewellers whose patriarch has gone "missing presumed dead" for the past 15 years. Much like the Tory party, you might say.

This A-list is meant to represent Britain as it really is. The Thatcher-adoring daughter of a stockbroker and a Conservative councillor in Sussex, Bagshawe has enjoyed a career that combined fiction-writing with some real-estate investment in New York State (where she used to live). She once expressed the ambition that "Ideally, we want to live on the rental income from our property portfolio". Britain as it is?

I'm sure Bagshawe believes in forgiveness. And we should forgive the toe-curling cheesiness of her books, not to mention the loadsamoney smugness of some of her previous Thatcherite rants. No doubt the two-star novelist sincerely wants to grow into a five-star public servant.

So maybe she should begin with Bawden and her fellow-victims' plight. Bagshawe wrote a thoughtful manifesto for a Sunday paper, but it cut her text. Among the missing statements was that "Gordon Brown's love of PFI treated NHS hospitals like a discount-sofa sale - 'Buy now, pay later!'. But the bill remains due, and we're about to see hospitals closing or downgraded, operations cancelled and staff sacked".

Nina Bawden's disgust with the PFI/PPP voodoo - very much Brownism rather than Blairism - that helped to kill her husband and six others at Potters Bar has a different slant. But both seem to accept that mortgaging the future to service providers who fail to deliver will leave a deadly legacy. Bawden's awesome courage and dignity in the face of pain, grief and the ignoble contempt of conscience-free businessmen and bureaucrats set a benchmark for how writers should act when they venture out into the public realm. Let's see if the star of the Tory A-list, who now worries that "Labour have lost sight of the social justice agenda", can begin to match her.

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