Disraeli Has a Lot to Answer For

By Clarke, Roger | The Independent (London, England), January 19, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Disraeli Has a Lot to Answer For


Clarke, Roger, The Independent (London, England)


"W hen I want to read a novel," said Benjamin Disraeli, "I write one." Many MPs share this view. There are now more published novelists in the House of Commons than at any time in its history, and even Commons clerks like Philip Hensher (Other Lulus, 1994) are in on the act. Next week sees the publication of Edwina Currie's second blockbuster, A Woman's Place (Hodder pounds 16.99), a torrid tale of parliamentary sex where homophobic MPs are exposed as being secretly gay and Currie's alter-ego, Elaine Stalker, is abducted by a sexually-fixated care-in-the-community patient. No wonder Julian Critchley, her parliamentary colleague but literary rival, huffily prescribes a "cold shower" for her, and dismisses her dairy sex scenes as something "from a cookbook".

There are, it will depress Mr Critchley to know, more Westminster fictions on the way. Veteran novelist Douglas Hurd, who admits to writing "in a tank at Sarajevo", says there are "a whole new lot of MPs writing novels", but won't name the guilty men. Labour MP Chris Mullin (author of A Very British Coup) reveals he often finds single pages of manuscripts left in House of Commons photocopiers late at night "with the main character inevitably named Buffy". "They sound like Labour novels," says Douglas Hurd sweetly, seeming to miss the point that in Labour novels the main character is invariably called Alf. Mavericks like Julian Critchley often take to the genre to vent some spleen (in Floating Voter likening Norman Lamont to a gangster and Gerald Kaufman to salad dressing, "one part oil to five parts vinegar"), and he doesn't even bother to disguise their names. Norman Lamont wants to write a novel, according to one political correspondent. After all, he did have a Miss Whiplash in his basement, which is something not even Edwina Currie dreamed up.

And yet the "Westminster novel", with all its promise of Machiavellian intrigue and gothic backdrop, has never looked tattier. Even Jeffrey Archer has been careful not to write too many, and Roy Hattersley has assiduously stuck to writing safe Yorkshire sagas. Only Edwina Currie has managed to squeeze new life into the genre by sexing it up a bit.

Disraeli was the first "serious" Westminster novelist. (Charles Dickens may have been a Commons reporter, but he never dabbled in the genre.) Though his books are largely unread today, Disraeli was already a trendy novelist by the time he reached parliament (and earning considerably bigger advances than Dickens). As a minister, he used the "Blue Books" of parliamentary committees and royal commissions as source material; the "First Report from the Midlands Mining Commission, South Staffs, 1843" provided key material for his novel on Chartism, Sybil.

John Major's favourite novelist, Trollope, tried to get elected in 1868, feeling he'd like a place on the "top brick of the chimney". The experience scarred him. He was taunted about his "fiction" at the hustings, and a Tory candidate shamelessly handed out money bribes to the electorate. But as with Disraeli in Coningsby, Trollope was able to use his "squalid" electioneering experiences in his novels. He wrote afterwards: "I was unable to assume that air of triumphant joy with which a jolly, successful candidate should be invested."

"Triumphant joy" would be a perfect description of the mien of ex-MP Jeffrey Archer, who is also one of the main characters in Julian Critchley's malevolent Brighton Conference farce, Floating Voter (1992). Archer, surely the most successful political novelist, became an MP in 1969 and has been exuding a kind of "triumphant joy" ever since, supposedly turning to writing to pay off debts ("It's a myth," he told me). He is happy to cultivate a public image of courtier to the powerful. Is he really privy to secrets of State? Did his plots really happen?Who cares? First Among Equals, his yarn of parliamentary rivalry, has sold over two million copies, which is more than the combined sales of all of his rivals in the house.

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