Hard Choices, by Carole Hayman

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The Independent Culture

If nothing else, Hard Choices has an arresting pre-publication history. Turned down in apparently mysterious circumstances by Carole Hayman's previous publishers, it fast became a victim of what is known in the trade as "rave rejection syndrome", whereby publishers express a profound admiration for a book while regretting their inability to publish it. Hayman informs us in her perky afterword that "a feeling that the book was being 'suppressed' grew among my Westminster acquaintances". An "eminent Political Editor" deposed that Downing Street probably had a copy of the manuscript "and would be using a red pencil".

Stumbling forward at last into the glare of public scrutiny, courtesy of a gallant independent press, Hard Choices turns out to be, well, a moderately amusing skit - "satire" is perhaps too grave a term - on aspects of the Blair satrapy. Set some years on the further side of a National Emergency, during which the nation's computers crashed irretrievably and the Houses of Parliament collapsed (literally) into dust, it supplies a breathless vision of a nanny state bossed by Happiness Wardens. Meat, cigarettes, most hetero- and all gay sex are off the agenda, and a free press survives in the shape of a much disparaged organ called the Independent Satellite.

Administered by a charismatic, Beatle-booted matinee idol named Gideon Price (pastel-suited wife Hettie is on the dowdy side), UK plc harbours some unedifying secrets. Most are given a sharp, symbolic framing: the opening chapter features an escapee from the "National Re-location Centre" dressed in a fox costume and chased by hounds. In this atmosphere of genteel suppression only Grace Fry, sassily unorthodox Minister for Women, seems up to investigating the sinister goings-on at the "Ossophates" factory in her constituency.

Quite funny in parts - government business is conducted in the "Drome" amphitheatre, whose central hall is known as the "Great Navel" - Hard Choices cannot, unhappily, stop drawing attention to its own facility. Satire, it might be said, works best when not breezily advertising its satirical intent, but there is an odd, preening quality to Hayman's serial assaults on Blairite excess, and an abiding thought of tin-tacks being walloped into place with a ten-pound hammer.

"Techno-speak mystified her," Grace reflects, having been introduced to something called a Systems Requirement Operative, "making her long for plain old-speak English". In the absence of anything much in the way of characterisation, the novel is reduced to relying on its paraphernalia - Salutation Services, Home-Zone surrogate grannies and a great deal more. In the unlikely event that anyone at 10 Downing Street did spend a dogged evening over the manuscript, you imagine that any pencillings were more likely to have been in blue.

D J Taylor's life of George Orwell is published by Chatto & Windus

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