Boyd Tonkin: When authors join the campaign trail
The Week In Books
Friday 16 April 2010
Fans of the jet-setting bonkbuster will be thrilled to hear about Desire, a new addition to the genre from one of its best-selling practitioners. Heroine Lisa wakes up in Thailand to find her love-rat husband dead. In the frame for murder one, she flees across the world with a cute FBI renegade who, whatever the piece in his pocket, is definitely pleased to see her. Sadly, the author of Desire, who has previously penned Glamour and Passion (among a long shelf of raunchy romances), will not be doing much promotion over the coming weeks. For Louise Bagshawe is seeking election as the Conservative candidate for Corby and East Northamptonshire. Her leaflets simply dub her a "local mum". Too modest by far.
We should have more bonkbuster authors in Parliament, and fewer of the bank-buster City types who never give a moment's pleasure to anyone except their tax accountants. The serious point here lies in candidates' – and MPs' – willingness to defend their own passions and principles against the party machine. Bagshawe has in the past spoken up against canting "back-to-basics" policies that seek to mess with people's private lives. So what does she think of her party's policy to privilege one form of relationship – marriage – and then to value this sacred institution at precisely £2.88 per week? When shadow home secretary Chris Grayling visited Corby last week, did she publicly upbraid him for his homophobic inclinations? And if not, why not?
If mainstream parties select writers as candidates in winnable seats, one hopes that they expect free spirits who won't mind slaying the odd sacred cow. Conversely, contenders with a slightly racier background than the average lobby fodder of corporate lawyers and party apparatchiks should be proud of their special talents. Bagshawe's website refers to "a string of bestsellers", but fails to mention that these are not patio-gardening manuals. Don't be shy, Louise. Given the self-righteous prissiness that now rules on the Labour side, it might stiffen your support.
Other first-time candidates with a literary record should also shun the cloak of invisibility that seems to arrive along with the party rosette. Take Tristram Hunt, the young historian selected by Labour to fight Stoke-on-Trent Central. His candidacy is controversial as some activists resent him as a golden boy "parachuted" in from London. Time, surely, for the author of the finest modern biography of Friedrich Engels, The Frock-coated Communist, to display all his profound grasp of working-class politics at its most robust and militant. It was Engels, after all, who fashioned the inchoate idealism of Marx into a solid set of beliefs ready to spearhead class warfare.
Many of the attacks on Hunt – especially online - reveal crass British anti-intellectualism at its ugly-mugged worst. Again, he should stand up for his values and vocation rather than hide behind a party label. That, by the way, might also involve him in a sharp challenge to Labour's liberty-infringing "anti-terror" laws. They would have had those alien agitators Engels and Marx deported in a trice.
Look north to Penrith and the Border, and we see, sporting a Tory blue rosette, the multi-tasking Rory Stewart. His Afghan trek The Places In Between ranks (I think) as the best-written travelogue of the past decade. In Occupational Hazards, he portrayed – from his deputy governor's vantage-point – the breakdown of the Anglo-American mission in Iraq with exemplary candour and insight. Now he runs for a party which, in its default xenophobia and craven subservience to US interests, risks repeating all the calamities of Western meddling in the Middle East that his work chronicles. As with Louise Bagshawe and Tristram Hunt, he, and his party, have a choice: call on the free-range gifts of these authors-on-the-stump to enrich your offer to the voters - or stifle them under the tattered blanket of orthodoxy.
P.S.Science writers, and their readers, will be fascinated to see the heavy fines and bans imposed by the Financial Services Authority on ex-Northern Rock executives David Baker and Richard Barclay to punish the misreporting of loans. As the bust bank sailed towards the iceberg, all the while boasting its success, at the ceremonial helm (and paid handsomely for it) was the then chairman Matt Ridley: local notable, biologist, and author of The Origins of Virtue and Nature via Nurture. In the Rock's buccaneering prime (before it went sub-), Ridley made much of the affinity between his spin on evolutionary theory, the evils of the state, and the virtue of free markets. After its bail-out (by us) and his resignation, it all went rather quiet on that front. Where does he stand now? I look forward eagerly to his new book, The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves.
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