Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Surly Worm: and other politicians' fictional horrors.

Hello everybody. I'm having the morning off to do some actual academic research. A conspirator and I were talking about books by politicians, and books by people who became politicians. I wonder if there's a paper in a serious literary examination of them. (For reasons of space, I'm going to ignore all the aristocrat-politician-poets of the early modern period. 

Interestingly, most politician-novels are by Conservatives and conservatives. Perhaps their usually superior classical education gives them greater facility with words, or perhaps the arrogance required to think they have a greater facility with words. Maybe Tories have more time on their hands than Labour politicians, whom I suspect are less moneyed and more engaged in grass-roots work. Lewis Jones's novel Cwmardy's Foreword rather defensively stresses that it was written in moments 'snatched' from the insanely busy life of a Communist activist and councillor. There's certainly something individualistic and ego-centric about novel-writing, whereas socialist politics used to be about the collective - hence there's a large and interesting library of novels which attempt to represent the collective experience within the confines of a form which privileges the individual. 

I think this is why so many Tories write political thrillers and bonkbusters. They're ideologically aligned with the concerns of popular fiction: individual men and women, good or bad, triumphing with some style and having a lot of sex along the way (I'm assuming this is compensating for their utter unattractiveness). Tories believe in the Great (or Evil) Man theory of history. For instance, left historians see Hitler as the nexus of and expression of more profound historical forces: individualist conservatives see him as uniquely evil (sorry, historians, for this facile summary, I know it's more complex than that). The result is that Tory novels often focus on mischievous, driven, selfish individuals, such as Chief Whip Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs' truly terrible House of Cards series. 

Who's out there? Well, the earliest ones are Whig MP Horace Walpole's delicious Gothic thriller The Castle of Otranto (1764), and later on Benjamin Disraeli's 'Condition of England' novels Tancred, Sybil, and Coningsby, and also Vivian Grey. Disraeli was a fascinating character: dissolute bisexual love life, literary talent; Jewish outsider (converted to Anglicanism at 12, but the social stigma remained)… and Conservative Prime Minister! I must confess to having only read Sybil, but it's a corker - it gave us the term 'Two Nations' to describe the gulf between rich and poor: he may have been a Tory, but by modern standards – depressingly – Benjy would be considered well to the left of the Labour leadership.  Oh, and I shouldn't forget Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, who produced a lot of epic poems in the 1820s: The Nun of Arrouca is, well, not exactly a classic. There's also Henry Brougham, a fascinating character. He co-founded the Edinburgh Review, writing on everything from literature to science. As a politician, he fought for electoral reform and the abolition of slavery, ending up as Lord Chancellor. He also invented the brougham, a type of carriage. He didn't write novels, but his output of reviews, criticism, autobiography etc was prodigious. He also apparently sent out his own death notice out of curiosity: he wanted to read his own obituaries. 

The other politician novelist of the early days was Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk. A slave-owner, diplomat, MP and author, Lewis wrote this Gothic horror in a few weeks while bored senseless as an attaché in the British Embassy to The Hague. Is it political? It is in the sense that it reflects the anti-rationalist, Romantic and emotional reaction. It's also fairly predictably anti-Catholic and therefore anti-European. It's also enormous fun. When I did my degree, we had a few lectures about the Augustans, in which the Gothic tradition was mentioned as a rather downmarket and unsavoury sideshow. Naturally I immediately read all the Radcliffe I could. After that, it was on to Otranto and then the real filth, like The Monk. Highly recommended. 

After that, a lot of the politician novelists get a bit respectable. I'm going to give an honourable mention to Trollope here: he was a civil servant whose only attempt to get elected ended in corruption, scandal and fourth place. But his work (currently very unfashionable) at its best captured the wider social movements in which politicians became caught up. Big, pointed, serious (but often funny) novels - great holiday reads, even if John Major did like them. 

Into the twentieth century and we get some interesting characters, some of them not even Tories and some of them novelists who became politicians. There's Herbert Coulston Gardner, a Liberal MP (later Baron Burghclere), prolific playwright and novelist whose fourth daughter married Evelyn Waugh. Her name was also Evelyn. The marriage didn't last, mostly because they both appear to have been vile people. The thriller writer John Buchan was briefly MP for the Scottish Universities before becoming Governor-General of Canada. Winston Churchill wrote Savrola, which is apparently awful, while CP Snow, Maurice Edelman (amongst other texts, Disraeli in Love) and Wilfred Fienburgh were all serious-minded Labour supporters who served as MPs or as Ministers in the Lords. 'Bitter' and 'louche' Fienburgh's No Love for Johnnie, about Johnnie Byrne the serious socialist MP embittered by a rightwing Labour administration, was even filmed with Donald Pleasance. I haven't got round to reading or watching Johnnie yet (sadly there are no clips on Youtube), but I'll let you know what it's like. It sounds very relevant to our own times. I've read some of Snow and Edelman's work: they're sober, thoughtful, interesting and very much not like later politicians' works. 

The Liberals also had a couple of writer-MPs: AEW Mason, now largely forgotten, and Hilaire Belloc, the very interesting if slightly ephemeral novelist, historian and poet of, amongst other things, Cautionary Tales for Children, which still amuse. Mason's school contemporary Anthony Hope also stood as a Liberal candidate, but lost. Still, he went on to write The Prisoner of Zenda, so he doubtless got over it. 

After that, I'm afraid we get to the truly ghastly. With one exception: Chris Mullins' A Very British Coup, in which the Establishment quietly deposes a socialist PM is a bit paranoid (it was written in the early 80s) but rather good, and has been adapted for TV twice. The rest of the generation now active is frankly awful. Take, for instance, Jeffrey Archer's novels, which are not quite as fantastic as his real life yet feel like they last even longer: poor quality plots designed to emphasise the Ubermensch qualities of special people - Tory to the core and an insult to literature. I read several in my teens while I was ill one summer. Even then I knew they were rubbish. Despite being imprisoned for perjury, this former Tory MP is still a Lord and gets to speak and vote on the issues of the day. 

Who else? Well, Douglas Hurd, the Etonian Foreign Secretary, has written novels since the 60s, often in collaboration with others, and some apparently decent histories. The thrillers he wrote before achieving high office were notable for what Mark Lawson calls 'rough and inventive' sex scenes, and his post-politics novels have followed the same path: gold lettering on the cover, implausible dialogue and glamorous sex on the inside. Only with political plots derived from his time in high office. What worries me about thriller writers who become Ministers is their understanding of the world. Did Hurd think the world was about titanic battles won in the bedroom, the casino and the knife-fight? Or is that what he wanted?

His close contemporary - but otherwise total opposite – is of course Edwina Currie, the loud minor minister famous chiefly for having an affair with John Major, for an egg safety scare, and now for her political thrillers. What is it about politicians and thrillers? Does it satisfy a gap in their working lives, or do they regret the years in sub-committees? The truth of political lives is that they're mostly really boring. Very few get to 'push the button' or unseal an 'Eyes Only' document that changes the world. Those that do (looking at you, Blair) are usually unstable fantasists who change the world for the worse. Perhaps Blair hasn't written a novel because there's no lack of self-deluding fantasy in his real life. No need for fiction. Anyway, Edwina's output doesn't stray far from the dictum that one should write about what one knows. Her debut was A Parliamentary Affair

'Then he came at her again. More urgently and hungrily, pushing his tongue down far into her mouth, reaching for her, clutching her body. There was no stopping now. He groaned and whispered her name.'
If you dare: here's Currie reading from her masterwork. Beware: bananas and breasts appear in the first sentence. Here's the opening of the Independent's review:
ANYONE who supposes that Edwina Currie's amazing first novel is the usual sort of kill-an-hour-on-the-beach codswallop had better think again: it is much, much worse than that. It seems extraordinary that the only political objection to the book so far has concerned the use of the House of Commons portcullis on the computer-enhanced calves of the cover girl. As a corny political saga it is not all that much worse than Jeffrey Archer, but it has huge hidden shallows and is a whole lot sleazier. Big-selling schlock-busters such as this usually want adjectives for the paperback, so here are a few: breathless, stupid, vain, petty, shrill, self-indulgent, cynical, vulgar and insulting. Will they do?
Though to be fair, Currie's protagonist is a Tory hypocrite: family values on the outside, enthusiastic adulteress on the inside.  And it is a useful compendium of clichés. Whenever you write a sentence in your own novel, check that Edwina hasn't used it, and you'll be fine. 

There are plenty of other contenders. Michael Dobbs's House of Cards was turned into a hugely successful TV series, centred of Whip Francis Urquhart who murders his way up the ladder and conspiratorially drops his catchphrase into the ears of journalists and readers: 'You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment'. Frequently quoting MacBeth and other literary characters, Urquhart appears to dignify the political-thriller genre, but it's a facade. The TV series was far superior to the novels which – I discovered last year – are nigh on unreadable. Like most Tory politicians who turn their hands to fiction, the novelist they most admire is Jilly Cooper. This is a mistake. Jilly is a noted Tory and she writes largely about the ruling Tory classes, but she can't write a sentence which wouldn't make a literate 7-year-old wet his pants with embarrassment. Like Currie, no cliché is left unexposed. Perhaps they should take a tip from Tory peer PD James, whose crime novels are at least elegantly written, even if they are based on a profoundly Tory (i.e. reactionary, bitter, patronising) world-view. Don't, on any account, read James's Austen-crime sequel Death Comes To Pemberley, which is by a long chalk the worst book I've read in recent years.

I haven't yet read any of the others. There's Louise Bagshawe, who as Louise Mensch was briefly an MP, though she didn't write novels during her 2 years in the House. Her novels are usually consigned to the chick-lit category, though I disapprove of the term. One day I'll read one, though I don't expect her work to be any more profound or convincing than her political pronouncements. Nor have I read Boris Johnson's Seventy-Two Virgins or Iain Duncan Smith's novel. Boris Johnson's book is interesting because it's a political comedy – perhaps not unexpected, but at least it's a change from the thrillers his peers have produced, and indicative of his mental landscape and approach to life. Only he and Chris Morris would make comedy from Islamic terrorism (in Boris's novel, they invade Parliament). Though after the Lee Rigby murder, he might not be so keen on people quoting from it. Duncan Smith's The Devil's Tune is sub-Archer from the sound of it: global plot, clichéd derivative title and hilarious reviews, such as this one from the Telegraph:
"And I honestly wish I didn't have to say this, because it feels like kicking a man when he is down... but, really, it's terrible. Human sympathy strains in one direction; critical judgment the other. Terrible, terrible, terrible."
You know you're in trouble when Ann Widdecombe, awful Tory minister and another novelists writer (though not, thankfully, of thrillers) can only say: 
The Devil's Tune by Iain Duncan Smith is scarcely the greatest literature of all time but as a thriller and easy read it will while away a plane journey (or, at 400-plus pages, a couple of plane journeys) perfectly pleasantly...the dialogue is severely cliché-ridden but people do have a habit of talking in clichés.
while Currie remarked that 'It's not exactly Tolstoy, is it?', which is a bit bloody cheeky because I'd be very, very surprised if she'd ever read any Tolstoy, let alone produced anything even remotely comparable. Yes, her books have words, covers and page numbers just like Anna Karenina, but the resemblance stops there. Currie also hailed Anne Widdecombe's debut as the product of 'a perceptive but warped mind'. Which may well be true. Widdecombe's work seems to echo those forgotten 19th-century 'improving novels' by genteel spinsters: removed from all cultural context and without any reason to exist as anything other than Christmas presents from the unimaginative to the almost-dead. 

OK, finally (as I'm sure you're all utterly bored by now), let's look abroad. The good ones first: Maria Vargas Llosa and Pablo Neruda had political careers of sorts, so we can include them. Havel was a playwright. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, French President, wrote a seriously weird novel which seemed to imply that he had an affair with Princess Diana. His great enemy Mitterand wrote erotic short stories. Lots of unsavoury and/or untalented Americans wrote novels as thinly disguised propaganda: Newt Gingrich is a prolific Confederacy apologist in his Civil War novels, but hello too to Scooter Libby, Richard Perle, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart and Barbara Boxer

But I'm going to leave you with two final texts. The first is Sisters, by Lynne Cheney, wife of the future Vice-President. Set in the Wild West, it's a transgressive tale of (very chaste) lesbian love shot through with literary references to female friendships, lynchings, murder, knife-fights and Injuns: confused, badly-written but surprisingly feminist. You could buy a copy for £35 or so, or read the PDF for free. Here's a little taste.  
"The sampler you have began with Mrs. Barbauld's hymn--know it will be a gift I shall treasure always. How well her words describe our love--or the way it would be if we could remove all impediments, leave this place, and join together as the Ladies of Llangollen did. Then our union would be complete. Our lives would flow together, twin streams merging into a single river."
Sophie kept looking at the note when she had finished it. She had no idea what the reference meant, who the Ladies of Llangollen were, but it didn't matter. The note was clear. Miss Travers wanted Helen to run off with her, to leave James, perhaps the children, so they could go away together. But surely she couldn't have been serious. This was fantasy, wasn't it? But even if it were, Sophie argued to herself, this was fantasy of a sort one did not expect to find in correspondence addressed to one's sister. A woman pleading with another woman to go off with her--one might suppose it the plot of a French novel! But even as the thought occurred, Sophie knew it wasn't quite correct, because the letters were so unselfconscious; the writer seemed to have no awareness she suggested anything shocking. The ingenuousness reminded Sophie of something, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. 
Interestingly, one of Cheney's later novels sees a Republican vice-president die of a heart attack while having sex with his mistress. Dick Cheney, of course, had heart problems while in office. And shot a friend in the face. 

Finally, here are a couple of lines from Graham Perrett's The Twelfth Fish. Perrett is a Labor MP in Australia, and the novel is his debut. Described by his own mother as 'way too rude', he held off publishing the sequel in case it scandalised the electorate and lost him his seat. Forget the unkind things I've said about the others: here we hail political fiction's own William McGonagall:

"Karen attacked my surly worm with gusto" (p167)
"I started to worry about Cylla's jaw muscles cramping' (p155)
"Methodically commencing fellatio" (p167)

 I'm wondering about a paper on The Aesthetic of the Politician's Novel. Given this standard, it'll be short…

Enjoy your weekend.


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