Disraeli has a lot to answer for
It started in the 19th century. Now you can't move for MPs flogging their fiction. Roger Clarke looks at the sad state of the 'Westminster novel'
Friday 19 January 1996
There are, it will depress Mr Critchley to know, more Westminster fictions on the way. Veteran novelist Douglas Hurd, who admits to writing "in a tank at Sarajevo", says there are "a whole new lot of MPs writing novels", but won't name the guilty men. Labour MP Chris Mullin (author of A Very British Coup) reveals he often finds single pages of manuscripts left in House of Commons photocopiers late at night "with the main character inevitably named Buffy". "They sound like Labour novels," says Douglas Hurd sweetly, seeming to miss the point that in Labour novels the main character is invariably called Alf. Mavericks like Julian Critchley often take to the genre to vent some spleen (in Floating Voter likening Norman Lamont to a gangster and Gerald Kaufman to salad dressing, "one part oil to five parts vinegar"), and he doesn't even bother to disguise their names. Norman Lamont wants to write a novel, according to one political correspondent. After all, he did have a Miss Whiplash in his basement, which is something not even Edwina Currie dreamed up.
And yet the "Westminster novel", with all its promise of Machiavellian intrigue and gothic backdrop, has never looked tattier. Even Jeffrey Archer has been careful not to write too many, and Roy Hattersley has assiduously stuck to writing safe Yorkshire sagas. Only Edwina Currie has managed to squeeze new life into the genre by sexing it up a bit.
Disraeli was the first "serious" Westminster novelist. (Charles Dickens may have been a Commons reporter, but he never dabbled in the genre.) Though his books are largely unread today, Disraeli was already a trendy novelist by the time he reached parliament (and earning considerably bigger advances than Dickens). As a minister, he used the "Blue Books" of parliamentary committees and royal commissions as source material; the "First Report from the Midlands Mining Commission, South Staffs, 1843" provided key material for his novel on Chartism, Sybil.
John Major's favourite novelist, Trollope, tried to get elected in 1868, feeling he'd like a place on the "top brick of the chimney". The experience scarred him. He was taunted about his "fiction" at the hustings, and a Tory candidate shamelessly handed out money bribes to the electorate. But as with Disraeli in Coningsby, Trollope was able to use his "squalid" electioneering experiences in his novels. He wrote afterwards: "I was unable to assume that air of triumphant joy with which a jolly, successful candidate should be invested."
"Triumphant joy" would be a perfect description of the mien of ex-MP Jeffrey Archer, who is also one of the main characters in Julian Critchley's malevolent Brighton Conference farce, Floating Voter (1992). Archer, surely the most successful political novelist, became an MP in 1969 and has been exuding a kind of "triumphant joy" ever since, supposedly turning to writing to pay off debts ("It's a myth," he told me). He is happy to cultivate a public image of courtier to the powerful. Is he really privy to secrets of State? Did his plots really happen?Who cares? First Among Equals, his yarn of parliamentary rivalry, has sold over two million copies, which is more than the combined sales of all of his rivals in the house.
Tory MPs seem keener on writing novels than their counterparts in the house, though they are forever looking over their shoulders, worrying about displeasing the whips. Michael Spicer wrote a dystopian novel in the Seventies called Final Act ("as she dried herself in front of the automatic moisture absorber, Elizabeth considered the day ahead"), a shockingly bad piece of science fiction set in a future Britain that has become a helpless satellite of a bloated Soviet state. In 1988, ambitious junior Foreign Office wallah Tim Renton, Douglas Hurd's FO chum, wrote Dangerous Edge, about an ambitious junior Foreign Office wallah. And in 1992, Nigel West (aka Rupert Allason) took a rest from spy non-fiction to write A Murder in the House about a "red-haired Welshman" windbag Labour MP who is murdered just outside Parliament. Highlights include a Northern Ireland Secretary filmed by MI5 picking up a rent-boy in Belfast.
Before he became Labour MP for Sunderland, Chris Mullin wrote A Very British Coup (1982) which sold over 50,000 copies in paperback and was developed into an award-winning TV drama. "It hit a nerve at the time," says Mullin, in its depiction of a left-wing government being undermined by a corrupt establishment. Busy now with constituency work, Mullin finds no time to write. But his colleague in the Tony Benn camp, Brian Sedgemore, has managed a couple of what a politician might call "disappointing" novels (after completing such worthy tomes as The How and Why of Socialism) of which Mr Secretary of State (1978) was his first ("drunk and saturated with sex, he wanted to be Prime Minister more than he wanted people to like him"). Disappointing, too, was Joe Ashton's gruelling cloth-capped Grass Roots, published the previous year. Ashton on Soho: "It was a world of Chinese, West Indians... of whores, homosexuals, con men, tricksters... porno magazine shops and everything cheap and decadent... what did these people know about the pits and slag heaps of Yorkshire? Why didn't they care about the unemployment in Gritnall." Quite.
The single most distinguishing characteristic of the Westminster novel would appear to be the almost complete absence of quality. Like the celebrity novel, most of these books are unpublishable without a famous name attached to them. All the famous MP-novelists of the previous generation - Maurice Edelman, Lawrence Fienbrough, David Walder, AEW Mason - have been consigned to the unpurchasable sections of second-hand bookshops, and completely forgotten. The same fate surely awaits the current crop. When Francois Mitterrand died recently, it was revealed that he'd always wanted to write novels; after all, Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill all harboured literary ambitions (Churchill wrote one obscure novel aged 23, its original title was the Edwina-esque Affairs of State). The French should be grateful that Mitterrand confined his contribution to culture to green-lighting great buildings rather than writing great fictional tomes. But with the possibility of giving up the day job increasing as a general election looms, British politicians are unlikely to kick the literary habit.
SEVEN ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF THE WESTMINSTER NOVEL FOR ASPIRING MPs:
1. Always start at least one chapter: "Big Ben was striking when..."
2. Get your own back. Julian Critchley does. And Edwina Currie's alter- ego, Elaine Stalker, chillingly suggests an over-sexed MP cool his "ardour" by sharing "crab paste with Anne Widdecombe".
3. Get a rent boy in there somewhere. Or go "back to basics" with a female prostitute.
4. Get the Libyans to hi-jack something.
5. Quote Browning at some point.
6. Dedicate your book to the PM or Chief Whip.
7. Sun headlines are essential and fun to write (Douglas Hurd's effort: "Out you Go").
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