Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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In political lives, as in fictional characters, puzzle and paradox deepen our perspective. That John Prescott should have an affair with his diary secretary tells us nothing at all about the individual except that he belongs to the vast class of greedy but lazy men in power. That he should suffer from bulimia, the burly bruiser with the anxious girlie's trouble, is truly interesting. It helps convert him from "personality" to person, and lends him some of the heft and warp we find far more often in good novels than in the cardboard carnival of politics.

At their best, biographers and memoirists can supplant the false coherence of reportage with the contrariness of cross-grained human narrative. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, as Kant wrote, nothing straight was ever made. And political careers seem gnarlier than most. I have been enthralled, and appalled, by Andrew Hosken's Ken (Arcadia, £15.99) – and it is meant as no insult to this dogged and scrupulous Today journalist to say that his chronicle of the Mayor of London's hidden roots and twisted branches reads like a novel.

This isn't a matter of style (Hosken writes swift, businesslike prose) or vision (he prefers blow-by-blow, coup-by-coup detail to big-picture analysis). Rather, the Livingstone story so bristles with knotty contradictions that it breaks free of the two dimensions of most political reporting into the three where lasting fiction thrives. Ken Livingstone the novel begins, half VS Pritchett and half Angela Carter, in bombed out-Streatham in June 1945, between VE Day and the Labour landslide, with a "runt" of a son born to a globe-trotting merchant seaman and a music-hall conjurer's assistant. (No, you could never make Ken up.) His early progress is pure Citizen Smith, with one of the various far-left cabals he exploited – more than vice versa – voting to keep the FA Cup final on the telly as they plotted the latest stage in the downfall of capital.

Mid-career, triumph and disaster swap places and swap again. This fan of The Godfather ("he sees himself more in the role of Michael Corleone") storms County Hall over the political corpses of his well-whacked rivals, and provokes Thatcher into abolishing the GLC. Then he turns their gross blunders against the Tories (and New Labour) in the ju jitsu comeback that re-instated him in 2000.

Livingstone could hardly emerge from Hosken's gripping tale as more of a divided soul if he hopped on his beloved buses with a little angel perched on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Mr Hyde monsters his foes, packs County (then City) Hall with costly cronies and piles vendetta on vendetta. He has the grace of Godzilla and the tact of a tank. Yet he calls early, and right, on everything from gay equality to talks with IRA-Sinn Fein to traffic charges. All orthodoxy now. And Dr Jekyll not only works, but really feels, for the outcast and oppressed, always prone to unfeigned empathy.

After the 7/7 massacre, in Singapore (where London had just won the Olympics), he delivered his masterly impromptu speech denouncing the bombers and then fled in a lift with two aides. Did he perk up, this ultra-cynical operator, grin, and crow, "Result!". No, says one. He burst into tears.

Stiff-necked and soft-hearted, lifted up by high ideals and dragged down by a reptilian eye on the main chance: the Mayor embodies all the intermingled squalor and nobility that makes the history of the postwar capital so shadowed and grey – in morality and emotion, far more than in stones and skies. That rough texture gives the story Hosken has to tell an epic scope, of public ideals and private interests violently entwined, that belongs to the grandest realistic fiction. So who writes the next chapter? Londoners do, next Thursday.