Magazine article The Spectator

Fashions and Passions at Westminster

Magazine article The Spectator

Fashions and Passions at Westminster

Article excerpt

GLASS HOUSES by Sandra Howard Simon & Schuster, £10, pp. 480, ISBN 0743285557 . £8 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

One gets so tired of the heavy duty plots and intricate analysis in political thrillers that it is a joy to discover a book with a completely different set of priorities. In Glass Houses, by Sandra Howard, we have at last a Westminster-based novel where descriptions of lovely houses and designer clothes are put at the heart of the political action -- where they belong!

The parliamentary plot is skilfully and subtly woven into pages and pages of wonderful descriptions of King's Road dinner parties, so much so that at times it is quite possible to forget it is there at all. When we first meet our heroine, Victoria James, she is just leaving her 'typically chic' Chelsea house to pop out for croissants.

Looking back at the yellowish-brick Victorian home, she ponders its Penelope roses and a stout hydrangea turning a glorious autumnal red.

But it's not all beautifully judged scenic description. The gritty reality of modern Britain is never far away. As she enters a newsagent's to pick up the papers she encounters a 'lumpy old woman with long, straggly, grey hair like a wizard's whose two muscular mongrels were pulling on leads'. Her sweater is 'covered in stains and it was easy to imagine a lonely life in some squalid block of flats with drunken neighbours and dropped needles on the stairs'. Who says you cannot have chilling social commentary in a girly novel?

Victoria James is buying papers because she wants to read about the new Conservative government of which she is about to be made an important part. The political action begins when she is called in to meet the Prime Minister wearing a 'taupe skirt and tweedy jacket' and 'highheeled chocolate leather boots'. She, I mean. It is not difficult to see where Sandra Howard got the inspiration for the charismatic, young Conservative leader who recruits her to his top team. 'He had pleasing looks, brown hair, a quiet manner but well expressed convictions. He had won them over against the odds and injected real excitement.' Hardly a fictional character at all!

He appoints James minister of state for housing and planning and she is catapulted into a world of political skulduggery, obsequious civil servants, nasty union bosses and scheming newspaper editors.I hate to admit it, but I did find it very distracting trying to work out who Mrs Howard was really referring to. All the characters' names were obviously code for something: I mean, you can't have news-paper proprietors called Ivor Skeat and Oscar Bluemont, a political correspondent called Jim Wimple, and a Labour MP called Rufus Coram, can you? …

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