Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

An Infernal Odyssey of Britain

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

An Infernal Odyssey of Britain

Article excerpt

Byline: MARK SANDERSON

NUMBER TEN by Sue Townsend (Michael Joseph, pound sterling15.99) ON the eve of the battle of Agincourt in Henry V, the king, to gauge the morale of his troops, moves among them in disguise. In Sue Townsend's new novel, the Prime Minister, Edward Clare, follows suit - or rather swaps his suit for his wife's designer clothes.

He wants secretly to find out how ordinary folk live, how they feel about New Labour, but his first discovery is that he enjoys being a woman - even if he does resemble "a poor man's Joan Collins". Townsend obliquely acknowledges her debt to Shakespeare when, on page 257, she says that the actorish Clare "was born to play" Henry V.

This is just as well because the trip round England in disguise is the only good idea in the book. The rest, hovering uneasily between Cathy-Come-Home realism and House of Cards comedy, proves to be a real drag.

Take the cast, for a start.

Clare's very clever wife, Adele-Floret Clare, instead of looking like an alien in an advert for Cadbury's Smash, has an enormous nose. She writes books with titles like God is a Lesbian, and Philosophers' Wives.

In her husband's absence - the country is told the PM is rehearsing a post-nuclear scenario - she neglects to take the lithium that silences the voices in her head and publicly demands burials for amputated body parts.

Alexander McPherson, the foulmouthed press officer; Ron Philpott, the "tosspot" deputy PM; and David Samuelson, whose taste in Portuguese waiters is well-known, try to minimise the damage.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Black, the ambitious Chancellor, helps Clare's son with his homework by lending him tapes of speechifying socialist heroes.

While the names of the main politicos merely echo their real-life counterparts, other characters - Gary Lineker, Graham Norton and Ulrika Jonsson - are allowed to appear in person. …

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