I have devised a sort of Zen exercise for Sunday evenings: an intensely rigorous approach that requires listening to the darlings on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour as they waffle egregiously, mendaciously and usually ungrammatically on – and on – while I strive to maintain a steady blood pressure, pulse rate and nice steady breathing. Why are they all so ghastly? And was it always thus? Time, as always, for enlightenment from books.
The master is Anthony Trollope. He went to school at Harrow, which has turned out to be a bit of a sine qua non for a political career, but family circumstance drew him instead to the less showy life of a Post Office official, first in Ireland and subsequently in England. Business made him familiar with the Cathedral and Close at Salisbury – or Barchester, as we Trollope readers prefer to think of it. By 1868, he had put together enough money to feel financially able to start to seek political office. Two weeks of skulduggery in Beverley, Yorkshire, permanently suffocated any ambition of becoming an MP; but it did hand him the material to embark a series of perceptive, shrewd and utterly merciless political novels. You will find the shenanigans of the Beverley election faithfully recounted under light disguise in Ralph the Heir. Your appetite whetted, you now have spread before you a feast of Pallisers: six novels, from Can You Forgive Her? to The Duke’s Children, that will forever remind you that all politicians are, by what we should immediately christen Trollope’s Law, innately unsuitable for the roles they so covet.
Twentieth-century politicians fare no better in the merciless hands of novelists. To which would you prefer to consign the fate of the nation: Richard Dalloway or Aylmer Weston? You will remember the perfectly nice chap to whom Clarissa Dalloway is married in Virginia Woolf’s fabulous book: solid, perhaps a touch unimaginative, never going to make it into the Cabinet. Aylmer Weston may be less familiar to you: a Cabinet Minister on the eve of the Great War, he is at the heart of Isabel Colegate’s Statues in a Garden, which, if you enjoyed The Shooting Party – which I’m sure you did – you’re going to love. More recently, Kashuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day explores one of those grubby little corners of British politics that we tend to prefer to forget: tucked behind the story of the butler and the housekeeper (and, yes, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are straightforwardly marvellous in the film), Ishiguro gives us their employer, Lord Darlington, an English aristocratic Nazi appeaser. How far is it from Darlington to Halifax?
As the century ground remorselessly on, giving us ever more glittery-eyed politicians clawing their way up the unsavoury pole, the difficulty became sustaining a grasp on the idea that these improbable, over-written, monstrous people were in fact, for want of a better word, real. The two novelists who have come closest to emulating their grotesque life-models have been Michael Dobbs and Alan Hollinghurst. I have to admit to you that Ian Richardson was so incomparably good as Francis Urquhart in the BBC adaptation of Dobbs’s House of Cards that I’ve never felt the need to read the book. Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty does, to be honest, provide a lot more information – and I mean a LOT more – on sexual practices in graveyards than I had been expecting – which makes it even more of an achievement that I would unhesitatingly say to you, read this book. It is fabulously written and feels like the True Chronicle Historie of Margaret Thatcher (marginally smaller body-count than King Lear, but much the same level of shenanigans).
On May 2 1997, as the election results were called, I bought my builders champagne to celebrate (yes I know that is the most pretentious sentence you have ever read but (a) it is true, (b) it might just suggest a foolishly optimistic person in the middle of some building work rather than a candidate for Pseuds’ Corner and (c) it seemed like a reasonable response at the time). Cue the Slaves’ Chorus from Nabucco.Imagine my surprise when the wheels started to come off. There are several explanations to be found in literature as to what went wrong. Shakespeare, of course, had been telling us for years that the people who want the power, the glory, the fame and the baubles of power are Bad Kings. We could in fact call this the Shakespeare Principle and it is inviolable. But Longfellow, not normally to be turned to in a crisis (all that Hiawatha rhythm), did pretty much nail it with the line he gives Prometheus: ‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad’. It is still perhaps too near our own time for Mr Blair to have cropped up much in fiction: Robert Harris’s The Ghost is the chief contender (readable but nothing like as good as Enigma). How innocent we were way back in 2007! How shocked we were at the terrible libels Harris was perpetrating against a very-recently departed Dear Leader. And yet, strange to relate, no libel action resulted. And when we read the book again today, nothing whatsoever in it shocks us any more. It happened: everybody knew: and we are all a little bit grubbier for ever afterwards.