Thursday Book: Confessions of a sad socialist

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The Independent Culture
EXCEPT FOR the fact that he is a successful, happily married TV comedy writer (put that on ice for a moment, because it's hard to square with what's coming next) John O'Farrell has led an utterly miserable life. He was born an obsessive Labour supporter in Maidenhead. Had Maidenhead's only other Labour Party members not been his parents, he would have been tossed over the weir at birth. On the eve of Margaret Thatcher's election victory in 1979 (an event that was to haunt his life), he represented Labour in a mock-hustings at school, arousing howls of derision.

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.