The new prime minister is part of a long – and largely undistinguished – line of politicians who have turned their hand to fiction. CHARLIE CONNELLY suggests a sense of entitlement might be behind the trend.
Boris Johnson’s many current faults and past scandals have already been forensically – and necessarily – dissected, but there is one aspect of his premiership worth exploring that doesn’t necessarily make you long for the embrace of sweet, beautiful death. For Johnson is the latest in a long line of politicians and, indeed, prime ministers who are also published novelists.
His biography of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor, was widely panned on the grounds that he clearly presented himself as some kind of equal, and no doubt his long-threatened life of Shakespeare will be equally pooterish whenever it appears, but perhaps the standout title in his bibliography is the 2004 novel Seventy-Two Virgins.
Written while he was also MP for Henley and the editor of the Spectator, Johnson’s so far only venture into literary fiction has been revived of late as people comb through it hoping to find clues to the inner Boris beneath the faux-eejitry and shouty late night hullabaloos.
There isn’t much to find, to be honest. The plot is a pacy one in which Arab terrorists hijack an ambulance and drive it into a courtyard at the Palace of Westminster to kidnap the president of the United States as he gives a speech. The man to save the day is Roger Barlow MP, a bumbling, tousle-haired cycling enthusiast whose motives are not entirely altruistic: if he rescues the leader of the free world it might mean the suppression of an imminent tabloid scandal about his marital infidelity. Yeah, I know.
The reviews at the time were mixed, depending on the political viewpoint of the publication. For the Evening Standard it was “326 pages of fluent, funny material” that will “lift the soul of any fair-minded Englishman”. In the Telegraph, then deputy editor Sarah Sands, now the editor of the Today programme, found it “an effortlessly brilliant page-turner… Boris is a jack of all trades and a master of them”.
On a 2004 edition of Newsnight Review – in which presenter Mark Lawson presciently suggested that panellist Michael Gove might one day be a rival prime-ministerial candidate to Johnson – Julie Myerson called Seventy-Two Virgins “a novel for people who already know what they think about everything. It is snide, sneering and lofty… he’s pretending he’s liberal, he’s not”.
I read it at the time and found it light and unchallenging in a junk food sort of way, and one of the most derivative novels I think I’ve ever read. It’s possible to identify many works Johnson has plundered, from lifting a description of a bishop putting his foot through a stained glass window from Raymond Chandler to giving his protagonist a secret lingerie business called Eulalie taken straight from P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels.
At the novel’s climax the heroic MP belts a terrorist with a statue with a technique “first learned as a child when thwacking the tops of thistles in the meadow”, a description co-opted from cricket commentator John Arlott who described the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd’s languid pull shot in exactly that fashion.
It’s no surprise therefore that it’s all but impossible to distinguish any of the Boris beneath the bluster, because he doesn’t seem to have a style of his own. His writing is an extension of his public persona, part Wodehouse, part Waugh, part Captain W. E. Johns with a smattering of the Beano sprinkled on top, a cut-and-paste of phrases and aphorisms that don’t knit together into a coherent voice.
There’s no authentic authorial tone there, no real substance, it’s not quite outright pastiche yet it’s more than a homage. One thing it isn’t is a singularly developed style: it doesn’t read naturally, as if he’s trying to sound like someone instead of developing a voice of his own.
Johnson’s sister Rachel, of this parish, is also a published novelist, notably pipping one Alastair Campbell to the Bad Sex Award in 2008 for her book Shire Hell, and father Stanley Johnson had an extensive dabble in the political thriller genre, penning The Commissioner, a novel about a British politician aiming for a post at the European Commission that was turned into a film starring John Hurt, and The Urbane Guerrilla, a 1975 thriller in which eco-terrorists steal a nuclear bomb to use at the 1976 US Bicentennial celebrations.
By following in the paternal footsteps you might say Boris is a chip off the old block, except one review of The Urbane Guerrilla says, “Mr Johnson’s preoccupation with detail could be irritating but is, in fact, effective”, which doesn’t sound like any Mr Johnson we know.
Many politicians are also published authors of memoirs – we await David Cameron’s autobiography with an almost ardent lack of interest, for example, his £800,000 advance figure probably matching the number of times the phrase “the right thing to do” will appear in the text – but a surprising number have, like the current prime minister, ventured into the world of fiction.
The earliest example I can find is Matthew Lewis, MP for Hindon in Wiltshire from 1796 to 1801, who is best known as the author of the pioneering 1795 gothic novel The Monk, the most shocking novel of its time and one that featured necrophilia, murder and a cameo from Satan himself.
After Lewis came Benjamin Disraeli, such a keen writer of fiction that he once said, “if I want to read a novel, I write one”. Almost uniquely among politicians he was quite good at it too. The author of 17 novels over nearly 60 years, his first, Vivian Grey, caused a sensation when it was published in 1826 for its skewering of British high society. The last, Falconet, was unfinished at his death in 1881, stopping midway through a sentence during the 10th chapter. In between he earned genuine admiration for the quality of his fiction. Disraeli scholars are able to glean insights into the author’s personal and political philosophies through his novels too. In the relationship between an aristocrat and a working class woman in his 1845 Sybil, for example, he issues an appeal for all the classes in society to unite against the power of industrialisation, not least to alleviate the dreadful living conditions endured by the working class in Britain’s cities.
In Winston Churchill Britain can boast a prime minister who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it’s unlikely that his 1900 tome Savrola figured high in the 1953 citation. The tale of a revolution against the military dictatorship of the fictional European nation of Laurania, Churchill’s only novel draws heavily on the Ruritanian themes of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, published four years earlier. One review lamented the author’s “desperate efforts after intellectuality”, while Churchill himself in his memoir My Early Life winced, “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it”.
A recent study by the University of Wolverhampton revealed that 350 British politicians have had novels published since the Reform Act of 1832 and most of them seem to have been in the last couple of decades. Most of them seem to be Tories too: Ann Widdecombe has written four novels, one of which, a rail against euthanasia called The Clematis Tree, was described by fellow Tory novelist Edwina Currie as “almost dottily old-fashioned” and “the product of a perceptive but warped mind”.
Widdecombe responded that while she liked Currie, she didn’t like her books. “Too much filth,” sniffed the current Brexit Party MEP. The bonkbuster credentials of Currie’s 1994 tale of political romance and intrigue A Parliamentary Affair can probably be discerned from the less than subtle names of her randy protagonists – Elaine Stalker and Roger Dickson. When the details of Currie’s affair with John Major emerged a decade later, readers of A Parliamentary Affair may have mentally replayed some of the more salacious scenes in their minds and immediately wished they hadn’t.
Other Tory novelists include Douglas Hurd (another nominee for the Bad Sex Award), Iain Duncan Smith (“this verges on the deranged” said the Sunday Times of his 2003 American political thriller The Devil’s Tune, possibly named after the one he would dance to when in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions) and Louise Mensch, although the latter’s literary career came before her flirtation with political office.
Of the other parties, Vince Cable published his thriller Open Arms in 2017 to mixed reviews, while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup is arguably the most successful novel by a British politician since The Monk, but beyond that the pickings are slim.
What is it with the political right and fiction? An uncharitable analyst might argue their entire political rhetoric is based in fantasy so it’s an easy step, but maybe it’s more to do with wealth: the right is dominated by rich white men with an inflated sense of their abilities and it’s quite a conceit to think one can write fiction good enough to be published from a standing start, a little like releasing a recording of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto after picking up the instrument for the first time in the studio.
Politicians like these haven’t put in the literary hard yards and learned their craft, they’ve just assumed they can ease straight in at the top.
Outside the UK it seems a rare thing for politicians to venture into the world of literature. Last year Bill Clinton put his name to the thriller The President Is Missing, although how much actual input he had is questionable given his co-writer was James Patterson, while at the time Boris Johnson was releasing Seventy-Two Virgins Jimmy Carter published The Hornet’s Nest, a ponderous, plodding pseudo-epic based around the American War of Independence.
India has also had a number of literary politicians. Shashi Tharoor, former diplomat and now member of the Indian parliament, saw a Biggles-inspired novel serialised in the Junior Statesman when he was 11 years old and has since published four successful novels as well as a range of highly-regarded non-fiction.
It’s also probably worth mentioning Pavan Varma here too, the national general secretary of the centre-left Janata Dal (United) party who once took it upon himself to write The Art of Making Love to a Woman, an updated version of the Kama Sutra.
Which brings us back to Boris Johnson, not least my favourite review of Seventy-Two Virgins. At the time the book was published Johnson’s Spectator was a hotbed of scandal to the extent some were calling it the ‘Sexator’. Columnist Rod Liddle had left his wife for Alicia Monckton, then the receptionist at the Spectator offices, while it emerged Johnson had been having a long extramarital affair with deputy editor Petronella Wyatt. On top of that, so to speak, the magazine’s publisher Kimberly Fortier was revealed to have been involved in a clandestine relationship with the then Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Hence the Times’ review of the paperback edition of Seventy-Two Virgins, which said, “With a title such as this the right honourably dishevelled Boris Johnson’s debut was never going to be about the staff of the Spectator”.
FIVE GREAT BOOKS OF POLITICAL FICTION
ALL THE KING’S MEN
Robert Penn Warren (Penguin Modern Classics, £12.99)
Penn Warren won a Pulitzer Prize for his story detailing the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a 1930s US politician who sets out burning with idealistic zeal only to be corrupted by his own success. Published in 1946 and based on the true story of Louisiana politician Huey Long, the book was turned into a 1949 film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Joseph Conrad (Penguin Classics, £9.99)
Published in 1904 Conrad’s novel still has much to say about South American politics today. Its fictional setting of Costaguana is based on Colombia and tells a tale of big business buying political influence among the turbulence of the continent’s politics. Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s most famous work but many regard Nostromo as his masterpiece.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Vintage Classics, £8.99)
This 1915 utopian fantasy details an isolated Amazonian community comprising entirely of women. There is no war or conflict of any kind until the arrival of three American male academics who cannot believe that such a prosperous, peaceful and healthy society can have emerged entirely free of men. Originally published as a magazine serial the novel was all but forgotten until it was revived in the 1970s.
THE SHORT REIGN OF PIPPIN IV
John Steinbeck (Penguin Modern Classics, £12.99)
Steinbeck’s political satire set in 1950s France sees astronomer Pippin Héristal suddenly and unexpectedly installed as king of France purely in order to give the communists reason to stage a revolution. Unhappy with his new status as the direct heir to Charlemagne, Pippin waits out his inevitable dethronement riding his scooter around Paris to relieve the boredom of life at Versailles.
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
Chinua Achebe (Penguin Modern Classics, £9.99)
Published a matter of days before Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966, A Man of the People tells the story of narrator Odili and his former teacher Chief Nanga who has entered politics in an unnamed African country. Remarkable in its historical prescience the book charts the emerging conflict between a young and idealistic emerging generation and the old guard of West African politics.