When politics gets stranger than fiction

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The Independent Culture

THE MARKET in political memoirs grows more demented by the day. When the pitiable whines of a ludicrous has-been such as Norman Lamont can count as hard news, publishers and papers alike have clearly lost their marbles. Meanwhile, the increasingly strange tale of John Major and his folks - crooning half-brothers and all - looks more than ever like a bizarre plot concocted in tandem by those South London shamans, V S Pritchett and Angela Carter. The Brixton Boy's apologia will be reviewed in these pages next week by someone whose views he has good reason to respect.

THE MARKET in political memoirs grows more demented by the day. When the pitiable whines of a ludicrous has-been such as Norman Lamont can count as hard news, publishers and papers alike have clearly lost their marbles. Meanwhile, the increasingly strange tale of John Major and his folks - crooning half-brothers and all - looks more than ever like a bizarre plot concocted in tandem by those South London shamans, V S Pritchett and Angela Carter. The Brixton Boy's apologia will be reviewed in these pages next week by someone whose views he has good reason to respect.

We have plenty of politicians who seem to have stepped straight out of the pages of fiction. The late Alan Clark was probably invented by Evelyn Waugh with a little help from the Choderlos de Laclos of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, while "Peter Mandelson" is obviously the title of a sensational part-work sketched out by Anthony Trollope and updated (though not yet completed) by Gore Vidal. What we lack, in Britain at least, are good modern novels of the political process that shun both the creaking puppetry of Michael Dobbs and the grinding pomposity of C P Snow. Ian McEwan's spritely scherzo in Amsterdam only whetted the appetite for more.

So congratulations to Prion for reprinting, in their Film Ink series, the postwar novel that above all others proves that low intrigue and high art can converge. Robert Penn Warren's 1946 masterpiece All the King's Men (pounds 7.99) draws on, but transcends, the real history of Louisiana's demagogic governor, Huey P Long. It paints a wonderfully rich picture of idealism tumbling fast into a mire of sleaze and scandal. The young aide and fixer who narrates the story, Jack Burden, sinks from burning faith to complicity and degradation through a tragic, hurtling progress that lays bare all the curses that come together with political charisma.

Sounds familiar? So it should. I don't much hold with the vexed concept of "plagiarism" as either a critical or a legal entity. Yet it has to be said that "anonymous" Joe Klein's Clinton-campaign saga, Primary Colors, was one of most conspicuous acts of... well, hommage in recent literature. (The borrowings from Warren stretched right down to the characters' names). Primary Colors was fine, pacey fun peppered with sharp if narrow insights; but All the King's Men ranks among the great American classics.

Now, the manuscript of a so-called "British Primary Colors" - a Blair- based romp entitled Holly Lester - has been doing the rounds of book fairs and publishers' libel lawyers for many months. If it ever appears, it will achieve the tawdry distinction of being a blatant rip-off of a blatant rip-off. Surely the strongest British novelists could do a lot better than such third-hand satire? As the dark arts of political spin and hype pinch tricks of style from the armoury of fiction, proper writers should make sure that the traffic of ideas is flowing both ways. An army of cynical readers would love them to try.

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