Thursday Book: Confessions of a sad socialist
THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER: 18 MISERABLE YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A LABOUR SUPPORTER BY JOHN O'FARRELL, DOUBLEDAY, pounds 9.99
Thursday 01 October 1998
As a privileged, middle-class, meat-loving vegetarian at university, his accent failed to impress his militant working-class comrades. As a labourer, sampling working-class life, he was thrown in with a gang of Tory bigots. As a Labour Party activist in the Conservatives' flagship authority of Wandsworth, he was a foot soldier in a monotonous series of heartbreakingly ineffective local election campaigns.
Meanwhile Battersea, his local parliamentary constituency, metamorphosed from Labour stronghold to yuppy paradise. He failed to win a seat on Wandsworth Council. As ward secretary, he loathed the apathetic thousands who didn't attend his ward meetings; loathed even more the humourless six who did (one week nobody came - a low point). He moved to Labour Lambeth at the point the council was revealed to be massively rotten.
The saddest fact of all, though, is that O'Farrell can't get it out of his system. Even though be is now a successful TV comedy writer, the moment he was given his first publishing deal, he wrote it all down in painful, chronological detail.
This is not a book to hold you through the night when you could be having extraordinary sex; it's not even a book that changes your expectations of what a Labour party activist's life is like. (Dull? Yes, dull.) It is one of the gloomiest books in the world. The cover, a montage of the young O'Farrell in front of a desolate Battersea Power station, wearing his red martyr's rosette, warns you off. The title and subtitle shout "Go away!" It makes One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich seem like a short, sharp shock.
It should have been funny. Like all serious subjects, this one sets itself up gamely for lampooning, and O'Farrell the comedy writer recognises the potential and uses it to justify his labours. But he can't make it funny. There are theoretically funny situations, but they sound like sour grapes; there are anecdotes, but they exist to score points and reveal truths. He can be good on Labour hypocrisy, but his Tories are too monstrously inhuman to be funny. Thatcher is an evil Mekon-like figure. O'Farrell appears to believe that she eats children.
He is too close to it all to laugh; he has spent too many years patrolling apathetic estates, promoting lost causes with unlovable leaflets. As he notes himself, senior political figures, conditioned by hard work, monotony and disappointment, are possessed by bitterness. So is he. It goes with the job. This book is his exorcism, sadly lacking levitation scenes or vomited toads (though there is a mention of Norman Lamont).
Eventually, O'Farrell allows some warmth to permeate. He gets married and discovers the distracting joys of family commitments. He sheds the unpalatable principle of vegetarianism. He writes jokes for Gordon Brown: not, unfortunately, someone you remember as ever having been funny. (The same can be said for Spitting Image, of course, though that was arguably less wooden.) He discovers that his brand of worldly, battered cynicism ideally qualifies him to supply the glib one-liners required by Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You.
In the end (and O'Farrell leaves it until the end, so I don't see why I should do differently), his formula of almost perfect political woe breaks down. It is the 1997 Labour election victory, during which, in a blather of euphoria and alcohol, he gets to shake Tony Blair's hand and is happy. Even the most die-hard Tory would find this a relief by now.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 3 Russian girl takes her own life after parents find pornography on her computer
- 4 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 5 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
The Jump 2015 line-up: Joey Essex, Mike Tindall, Jodie Kidd and co take to the slopes
Game of Thrones: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' goes viral 35 years later
Martin Scorsese 'in shock and sorrow' after death on set of new film Silence
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures