The Hand of History
By Andrew Stevens.
“Politics… is about constructing narratives that make sense to people: stories that encompass their identities, aspirations and fears and the policies that reflect them.”
– Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbetter, ‘Face of our future leader’, The Guardian, 1994
“It’s Swift as Jackass!”
“Or… even faster!”
– Nathan Barley
Recently I attended an event with Jake Arnott organised by the Sohemians, held in a warm and sticky room above The Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. The author did his best to answer questions above the frequent blare of passing ambulance sirens, but one in particular stood out, a planted query posed by the organiser of the event, an admirer of Tom Driberg no less, who asked which contemporary politician would form the best basis for novelisation. The answer came in a flash: “Peter Mandelson.”
The reasons given by Arnott, other than the now First Secretary of State’s eerie blend of camp and sinister (a recurring feature of Arnott’s work), was his unease with aspects of his own existence, namely his homosexuality and Jewish-ness, both of which Arnott considered to be historical weaknesses on the part of the soft left. There are of course several durable reasons as to why Mandelson would wish to suppress both. Firstly, as someone elected to parliament in 1992 for a solidly working class northeastern constituency (though as a port town not entirely without its own gay subculture), his gagging order on press reporting of his sexuality was one of several in a parliament where being openly gay was yet to reach the supposedly bipartisan level of acceptance it has attained today. Secondly, while Mandelson is now most associated with either Machiavellian posturing or his signature eminence grise role to successive prime ministers, it also remains the case that his most pivotal role in British politics will always be as the architect of New Labour alongside the other key members of the long-forgotten Shadow Communications Agency. In this we can’t begin to over-state the sensitivity to the moral pulse of Middle England, that tract of much-coveted marginal seats, the suppression of sexuality on the grounds of demographic tilt. Finally, as noted by novelist Edward Docx in this month’s Prospect, Mandelson has tackled his own Jewish-ness question head on by stating that Judaism is matrilineal and any attempt on his part to claim halakha status through his father would be fraudulent. In some ways, his Jewish heritage through his father’s Hampstead liberal background and his actual matrilineal links not to that faith but that of the post-war Attlee Labour government (his grandfather, Herbert Morrison) mark him out as a last vestige of that era, Tom Driberg, Tribune, Old Soho.
But for the most part, Arnott was on the money. You simply couldn’t make up Peter Mandelson as a fictional character. In fact, that goes for the rest of New Labour, a point much meditated upon of late in the quest for the novel that defines the Blair era and the purpose of this critical essay.
If we are to consider the novel, as Jeffrey Eugenides did in these very pages, as the “mental picture of its era” then surely the glaringly imminent demise of the New Labour era represents an opportune and bookmarked period in which to consider the various offerings. It’s a question that’s often posed, but where is the novel that best defines the Blair era, in the way that Martin Amis’ Money is said to have defined that of Thatcher’s (which in itself is misguided when contrasted to Iain Sinclair’s magisterial Downriver or, say, Hanif Kureishi’s output). It’s worth pointing out from the outset that fiction has a pretty hard job to beat reality when it comes to characterisation. One only has to think of the crepuscular working habits of the Damien McBrides, prematurely aged, crimson-cheeked and whiffing of “three-bottler” lunches in the eateries of SW1A, or the Jo Moores, the eternal student hack turned press officer and prone to imprudent emails. The characters have since migrated into their own fictional domain, mostly on television in the form of The Thick of It (as Britain doesn’t and will never do The West Wing), never to return. It’s also hard to escape Peter Mandelson and his presence, through the antics of his hapless aide Derek Draper, though in this case I’m more inclined to put him down as a frustrated novelist (he’s tried everything else) than anything worthy of fiction itself (the coke and the womanising might pass in a Bret Easton Ellis-like setting).
A generational event is often a convenient peg for fiction and the best place to start here would be Ian McEwan’s February 15-er story Saturday (2005), which despite its alleged bien pensant-baiting pro-war underpinning got the most severe critical mauling over the issue of “morning breath”. War clearly leaves a bad taste in the mouth (it’s also apparently the favoured current reading of departed welfare secretary James Purnell, as he seeks to reinvent the left from within New Labour vanity publisher Demos). Ian McEwan as author played a minor and unwitting part in the Blair era narrative with his anecdote about being mistaken for an artist at a Tate Modern soiree by Blair himself (and Blair’s repeated refusal to release himself from the misapprehension despite being corrected.) As per the range of McEwan’s enquiry, Melissa Benn (daughter of Tony), uses the backdrop of the earliest stages of the Iraq war in 2003 for her own examination of the Blair era in One of Us (2008, curiously the phrase of Margaret Thatcher to define the enemies within and without her own party) and it again relies on the interplay between the political class (modelled on Antigone) and what she describes as the “media tribe”. For all Benn’s insights however, this is simply a delicate relationships novel rather than the overbearing generational slab sought by the likes of me.
Then we have politics as airport novel, in the form of Robert Harris’ thinly-disguised portrait of the Blair presidency (eventually outed by the Italian publisher’s cover image of Blair himself) in The Ghost (2007), which seeks to depict a simulacra version of events by narrating a series of transatlantic plots worthy of any commercial thriller writer (Harris is up there now) through the eyes and voice of the ghost writer contracted to pen the memoirs of a recently-departed and reviled British prime minister (‘Adam Lang’) replete with a devious and scheming wife. The Ghost acts as every airport novel should and proceeds at an even pace, with a conventional plot arc. There’s even some occasional comedy and reflections on a changing British society and publishing industry, along with a short meditation on the role of truth in fiction:
“All good books are different but all bad books are the same. I know this to be a fact because in my line of work I read a lot of bad books – books so bad they aren’t even published, which is quite a feat when you consider what is published. And what they all have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don’t ring true.”
Hailing from the same 1980s media milieu as Mandelson, Harris enjoyed a considerable vantage point from which to base his observations of the Blair era, retaining a certain sympathy and immediacy with New Labour throughout, not to mention his River Cafe establishment role in publishing through his back catalogue of commercial thrillers and books to film (and marriage to Gill Hornby, sister of Nick).
For his own redemption after leaving office as a person worthy of depiction in a novel, Alastair Campbell eventually returned to his first vocation as a writer (though sadly not the erotic stories of his Forum days) and penned a reasonably well-received novel on mental illness, All in the Mind (2008, helpfully published by Random House, a firm run by the wife of New Labour architect Philip Gould). Though of course, it was his deputy as chief press officer, former BBC newsman Lance Price, who would go on to write the post-office political novel of the two of them. Time and Fate (2005), which asserts its fictional basis at the very beginning in a caveat-laden manner (“The truth, in the experience of the author, is often a lot harder to believe than fiction.”), like Harris has a token fictional Labour prime minister (‘Paul Sinclair’) who battles a sense of idealism with constant threats to undermine his existence. It’s a world of attack grids, campaign briefings in corporate coffee chains and stump politics on decaying south London housing estates. But perhaps we can see this drift towards turning out novels as part of a redemptive process following a nocturnal and often belittled role in the bowels of the British state, the lonely terrain that accompanies the termination of a 24/7 existence of dependency from others, the knowledge that after years spent battling for ideals, corporate communications beckons. Martin Sixsmith is another BBC newsman who migrated into the government spin machine, unwittingly playing a part in the exit of Jo Moore by dint of an unfortunate email (that hard currency of New Labour scandal) who also went on to pen a ‘fictional’ account of how New Labour (in this case ‘The New Project Party’) manages the media. Despite its timely attacks on New Labour’s phoney and often pathological moralism, Spin (2004) doesn’t seem to know if it’s satire or commentary, the plots of government press officers acting as a hit-squad for every disaster that befalls the governing party’s satellites in Scottish local authorities probably taking the paranoia motif a little far as a consequence of the author’s own run-ins. It’s little wonder that Sixsmith went on to advise the team currently writing The Thick of It, widely held up as a wholly authentic depiction of government relations.
At this stage it’s probably worth separating ‘official’ fiction of the Blair era from the ‘unofficial’, that is the unauthorised and uncomfortable version of events written from an objective distance. Carole Hayman’s Hard Choices (2003, the mantra of New Labour’s electoralism or die approach to everything) takes a more fluid view of political reality and is anchored in the lyrical comedy tradition of satire. To some extent, Hard Choices mirrors an almost quaint pre-9/11 era when the chattering classes were of the view that a scandal over government lying about GM crops or a union backlash against public services reforms were the two things most likely to bring down Blair and squander Labour’s hard-gotten 1997 ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ or Were You Still Up for Portillo? moment (it being easier to hate a Tory government anyhow). What’s actually more interesting about Hard Choices is that its author, an award-winning dramatist represented by a top-end literary agent, struggled to find a publisher on account of the industry’s unwillingness to take a risk on a political satire of New Labour that hadn’t been penned by an ‘insider’ (as noted in her endpiece), a newspaper political editor even lunching her to inform her of this (her existing publisher blamed “9/11”). Tabloid newsman Simon Walters’ Second Term (2000) takes up in a similar vein, though was largely overlooked, not least because of its garlanding by MPs on the cover (never a good sign).
A more heavyweight and well-received satire, currently under adaptation for television by Andrew Davies (The Line of Beauty) was James Hawes’ elegiac Speak for England (2005). Though the tactless and amoral world of reality television producers of the decade without a name was firmly in Hawes’ sights, he did find some time to have a pop at not only Blair (unnamed, of course) but also his “Press Secretary” and, more tellingly, his “Best Friend (currently Without Portfolio again)”, who is publicly spanked, later in the book.
Richard T. Kelly’s Crusaders (2008) acts as more of a slab of a state-of-the-nation novel, so beloved of critics and publishers these days, than anything directly political (see also The Northern Clemency, Once Upon a Time in England). The political element is supplied by the presence of ambitious Blairite Member of Parliament for Tyneside West Martin Pallister, though for the most part the terrain covered is that of run-down communities and the zeal supplied by an idealistic churchman in hoping to heal them. Critics likened it to a reworking of Our Friends in the North, an inevitable comparison but apt given the city’s stubborn refusal to emerge from the shadows of the T. Dan Smith era (a subtle characteristic of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet alluded to in bent property developer John Dawson, modelled on Smith’s sidekick Poulson, further down the A1 in Leeds). Kelly deploys the region’s palpable (compared to the rest of England, save London and South Yorks perhaps) working class political institutions (the NUM, the Miners’ Gala, CND, municipal socialism) as a backstory behind the failing fortunes of New Labour and its emerging holy alliance with ‘religion’. The fixtures and fittings remain constant in a city which continues to have a visible if ineffective far left presence, even today.
Like Crusaders, Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle (2004) manages to work in the odd reference to Socialist Worker sellers (that urban fixture of the post-2003 invasion era) for its enjoyment. Coe had certainly paid his dues to political satire with the lofty and damning assessment of 1980s venal excess What a Carve Up! and could comfortably retire content on that alone. Clearly he had more in him, though the celebrated The Rotters Club was ostensibly an affectionate tribute to his surroundings during a Brummie childhood of the 1970s. The Closed Circle, beyond being a highly anticipated sequel, was an attempt to reconcile many of the threads which he laid out in The Rotters Club but had not reached their natural end in it, though the spectre of Iraq looms heavily as a backdrop in this 2004 novel. Coe also returned to the West Midlands car plant and major regional employer British Leyland, now the ailing Rover Group subject to a management buy-out by the golf club mafia Phoenix Consortium, even mentioning the local council leader’s cry of “the rape of Rover” in its copious use and reworking of actual source material. The derided and shadowy world of the special adviser (SpAd in British state argot) is represented by Malvina, “media adviser” to an ambitious but shallow minor New Labour MP Paul Trotter. There’s a scene where Trotter meets his childhood friend Doug, now a provincial newspaperman, in a restaurant where the entire One of Us mantra (not to mention the Gould/Mandelson ‘revolution’ fixation) is played out pitch-perfectly:
“You subscribe, as I do, to the core beliefs and ideals of the New Labour revolution. Don’t you?”
“Do you mean mine, personally? Or the party’s?
“Either. Anyway, I’m assuming they’re the same.”
Yet, there’s also a dull moment or two, for instance this section, which sounds more like Rik from The Young Ones in its coupling of dialogue and commentary as a sly aside:
“’I cycled,’ said Paul, helping himself to a large glass of still water, from a bottle for which they would later be charged more than the hourly minimum wage recently introduced by New Labour.”
It also contains one of the clumsiest uses of the blow dry/blow job gag, ever, but we’ll overlook that. The Closed Circle is rightly hailed by critics for doing the job as it “sharply satirises the New Labour era” (though see Jerome de Groot’s n+1 piece for a more critical view of Coe as Third Wayer).
A largely overlooked satire of the New Labour era is Andrew Martin’s Bilton (1999), where the fictional prime minister Philip Lazenby extols a new Third Way-type policy of typical Blairite vacuity, Social Dynamics. As Francis Wheen notes appreciatively in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:
“No one has a clue what this means. After a blizzard of Initiatives, however, the outline of Social Dynamics becomes vaguely discernible through the fog of jargon. Individuals or businesses or voluntary organisations will be rewarded financially through an incredibly complex network of tax breaks or Community Payback Vouchers – for any act deemed to be socially useful and dynamic, such as individual responsibility, a spirit of community, an increase in generative capacity, or a reduction in public spending.”
There’s more than an air of this ‘ringing true’, as a cursory glance at any recent British government website will reveal. In fact, I’m sure I heard this announced recently. The landscape of British society of the past decade is one of Home Office initiatives with abbreviations and new ways to circumvent them, as captured in fiction by the likes of Tony Saint (Refusal Shoes, The ASBO Show) and Daniel Davies (Isle of Dogs), both writers steeped in the bleak urban paranoia of the Ballardian and New Labour’s black edificial Millbank Tower “media operations site” playing the role of sinister lair staffed by cartoon villains in all of this.
Another overlooked chronicle of the early Blair era, less satirical and more gritty, is Ben Richards’ A Sweetheart Deal (2001), which deals with principled trade union organisers in a setting otherwise populated by mendacious press officers and dipsomaniacal eternal student hacks. Richards squarely takes aim at the New Labour dinner party set and when a colleague is assaulted, the press officer’s first question is “Was it a Trot?” As James Flint noted in an overview review of Richards’ subsequent work, the likelihood is that these targets largely met with indifference from the critics. Richards himself migrated into the world of television drama, writing the likes of Spooks and Party Animals.
What then of the other members of that pre-eminent literary generation, Barnes, Amis and McEwan? McEwan, as noted, has produced Saturday, while the closest Barnes has come to anything of this sort is the state of the nation affair England, England (1998). Amis, on the other hand, has remained decisively above it all. At Amis’ former employer the New Statesman however, current affairs commentator and equality commissioner Ziauddin Sardar charged that the triumvirate of Amis, McEwan and Salman Rushdie were actually ‘Blitcons’, that is British literary neoconservatives guilty of providing intellectual cover for anti-Islamic sentiment. Most of Sardar’s article was based around conjecture and spurious coincidence, but that didn’t stop Robert McCrum being wheeled out to defend the three.
To some extent, Saturday acted as a passing of the baton from one pre-eminent literary generation to another when Zadie Smith engaged in her hyper-deferential interview with Ian McEwan for The Believer. Smith is interesting, not only as an unfortunate lightening rod of attention from anyone who doesn’t have a publishing deal or hasn’t sold that many novels, but as the standard-bearer for the projected hopes for those who keenly enthuse about White Teeth’s status as that era-definer we’re all looking for (despite it spanning several decades). Iain Sinclair has dismissed the value of White Teeth to his own London project (in refusing to allow her in his City of Disappearances) as “suburban”, but there is probably no higher accolade among New Labour than to be rooted in the periphery of swing marginals. The trick here is that White Teeth relies heavily on the notion of multiculturalism, bumping along together, without which the book is nothing, it being a formal English novel rather than a Lonely Londoners or Foxy-T. Multiculturalism is another facet of the Blair era, it’s been around since the Windrush docked on the Thames and Colin MacInnes was bumming around Notting Hill, but entered the government narrative during Blair’s cringe-making attempt at rebranding staid Britain as Cool Britannia, though far from being celebrated, it’s now the subject of invective-strewn Daily Mail editorials and a sinister codeword for whatever point the far right wants to get across. Like everything else, it has since been quietly dropped in favour of an official policy of ‘integration’.
The constant throughout all of the political novels of the Blair era, official and unofficial, has been the presence of media management, a discipline now taught at masters level in our universities. Christopher Hitchens might have been bemoaned the death of the Fleet Street novel in his elegiac piece for the Guardian but perhaps our recent past has been best defined by the newsmakers rather than the newsmen. For all intents and purposes however, the age of spin has received the novels it’s deserved, good and bad, ringing true or otherwise. If anything, as Hitchens notes, we’re still waiting for our Evelyn Waugh, our Anthony Powell (which isn’t going to come via the glut of columnists-cum-novelists). When the greatest work of fiction of the age, the Dodgy Dossier of WMD fame, can come off a computer in Downing Street, what chance do authors have anyhow? What greater irony than if the most prominent fiction writer of the Blair era turned out to be Blair himself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009.