Douglas Hurd fumbles for the Currie formula

Mark Lawson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:41

This year it is generally expected we will see the retirement of the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and it is no secret that he plans to become a popular novelist. Before reaching high office, Hurd wrote or co-wrote seven thrillers, which were n otablefor their rough and inventive sexual scenes. He recently asked his literary agent to advise him on what kind of deal might now be available. A publisher I spoke to estimated that a £250,000 three-thriller deal would be plausible.

While the Foreign Secretary and his agent construct such a contract, the newspaper publication this weekend of a Hurd short story offered potential readers and publishers a preview of his form as an author.

The story, called Sea Lion, is set on the Falklands around the day of the next British general election. Richard, a young Tory historian and "darling of the Spectator", is researching a book called The Falklands Falsehood, in which he plans to argue thatthe Argentinians offered Britain a good deal over the islands, and that Margaret Thatcher refused it in order to ride a patriotic lion to victory in the 1983 election.

However, influenced by his Falklands landlords - a taciturn crofter called Macgregor and his beautiful but enigmatic daughter Laura - Richard comes to see that he is constructing an untruth in pursuit of personal publicity. After personally and courageously repelling a latter-day invasion of the islands by Argentina, he tears up his research notes. On the same day, the Tories under John Major unexpectedly win the election.

If this short story is indicative of the kind of novels Hurd plans to write in retirement, then it is clear that he intends to, as it were, take his work home with him. The story seems to be a parable about modern Conservatism as Hurd sees it: showing how cynicism, greed and self-interest have corrupted the basic patriotic and honest soul of the party.

Writing in this kind of code need not be a handicap in his new career. The novel by a serving politician is the extreme example of the roman-a-clef. Edwina Currie's A Parliamentary Affair is only interesting if the reader assumes, especially during the lurid sex scenes, that the heroine, Elaine Stalker MP, is Mrs Currie herself and that the other politicians are versions of actual Conservatives. Whatever the quality of its prose, a politician's novel can always be read with interest between the lines.

I worry, though, from reading Sea Lion, whether the Foreign Secretary has fully grasped the conventions of the modern thriller. For example, the prose of contemporary bestsellers is generally studded with brand names such as Rolex, Ferrari and Versace. Mr Hurd's attempts at this trick in his short story are perhaps too homely: "She had bought the mint sauce at Tesco's ... together with the Cadbury's Fruit and Nut."

The dialogue shows something of the same problem. Modern thriller prose is mid-Atlantic, with an eye to American sales. The fashion is for jazzy slang. But Mr Hurd's heroine, Laura, says "Grief!" when surprised, where a contemporary reader would expect something more along the lines of "Freaky deaky!" or "Jesus H Christ on a bicycle!"

Then there is sex. In Hurd's story, Richard and Laura, though attracted to each other, never even take their clothes off, where current genre convention demands that they should not only go to bed, but do something unusual there with a strawberry or a goldfish. Mr Hurd may feel that he can not unleash his erotic imagination while in high office, in case of embarrassing the Government, but in retirement he will need to revisit some of the steamy tumbling in his early novels.

ENGLAND's cricketers have performed more creditably in the current Test in Sydney, and there has been much reference to "attitude". In the first two Tests, players had the "wrong" one. Now they have the "right" one. The problem is that, among English cricket writers and administrators, the word "attitude" covers two specific, and distracting, agendas.

The first is the Patriotic Fallacy. It is often suggested that modern cricketers do not take enough pride in "pulling on the sweater with the three lions." The hidden element of this accusation is that, for many recent Test players England was an adoptedcountry: they were naturalised South Africans or immigrant West Indians.

In fact patriotism is a largely irrelevant quality in sportsmen. The majority of really great players have, I suspect, been extreme egotists, whose motivation came less from their birthplace than the desire to rewrite the individual records in their discipline.

If playing for their country mattered, it was because it admitted them to the most competitive arena, the one in which greatness is measured. Most England captains would rather have a batsman and a bowler who wanted to be the best individual performers in the history of the sport than 11 players who wept when they heard Elgar or read Betjeman.

Consider the question of patriotism with regard to the great international cricket team of the last 15 years: the West Indies. This is not a proper national team at all, but a collection of citizens from proudly nationalistic islands, generally hostile towards each other. The celebrated win-instinct of the great West Indies sides came from internecine regional conflict - Viv Richards' batting was showcasing Antigua, Gordon Greenidge's Barbabos - rather than patriotism in the sense that commentators and administrators mean it.

The second English confusion is the Manners Fallacy. A good example of this was the muttering by the chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth, about players lying round the dressing-room wearing Sony Walkmans. Previous manifestations of this complaint have featured track suits, long hair, stubble and showing dissent when dismissed.

Yet, as well as being egotists, most great modern players have been bad-tempered mavericks. The successful Australian sides of recent years have been famously ill-mannered, riddled with swearers, drinkers and bizarre facial hair. None of this has hobbledthem in competition. Indeed, the strength of Australian cricket derives in part from its deliberate refusal of historical English manners: in constructing a concept of "bad losing" to replace the amateurish English creed of being a "good loser."

What England needs is not patriotic choirboys but unpleasant egotists. Patriotism? The problem of Graeme Hick, born in Zimbabwe, is not that he isn't English enough, but that he has become too English; he isn't arrogant and nasty enough. Manners? Mike Atherton - who has been disciplined for showing dissent and criticised for being rude to journalists - is our most successful batsman.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments