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Members Only: on politicians who write fiction

Read Monday, 23 May 2016

Power struggles, personality clashes, rivalries, resentments, grudges and grand gestures – the world of politics is heaving with human drama. It’s not surprising that political figures are inspired to put pen to paper, writes Sophie Quick.

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Winston Churchill’s one and only work of fiction, <em> Savrola</em>.

It’s a strange club – the group of politicians who also write fiction – and it’s fun to imagine all its members gathered together in some stuffy, dark-wood, old-guys watering hole somewhere. Among those present: Winston Churchill, glaring into his 27th whiskey, avoiding eye contact, pretending he never wrote Savrola. Jeffrey Archer, bounding around, distributing signed copies of his latest bestseller to wincing fellow members. House of Cards author Michael Dobbs excusing himself from a boring conversation with Jimmy Carter (The Hornet’s Nest) to take a phone call from new celebrity pal Kevin Spacey. And recent recruit Lindsay Tanner, author of Comfort Zone, wondering if Kevin Rudd, author of Jasper and Abby and the Great Australia Day Kerfuffle, will be making an appearance. (Probably not. This is a club for novelists, and Jasper and Abby is a picture book about adorable Prime Ministerial pets.)

There are quite a few more members, such as former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, but membership – at least in the English-speaking world – mostly skews conservative, including Australian Liberal MP Dennis Jensen as well as former US presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, former British PM Benjamin Disraeli and former British Junior Health Minister Edwina Currie. But among all of these, it’s probably Dobbs who enjoys the most credibility as a novelist. The political thriller he wrote all the way back in 1989 is now, of course, a wildly successful Netflix series (a remake of an earlier, also successful, BBC version) of which he’s an executive producer. Though Dobbs wasn’t a politician at the time he wrote the book (he was, in fact, the recently spurned chief of staff to Margaret Thatcher), he now wears a fluffy red cape and sits in the House of Lords.

Political vampires

House of Cards was relished by readers for its black humour and killer one-liners (not to mention killer politicians), and Dobbs famously wrote it in a mood of some bitterness after receiving a bollocking from the Iron Lady. Each chapter of the book begins with an epigraph in the voice of the protagonist, Francis Urquhart. Chapter 22 opens with: ‘Politics. The word is taken from the Ancient Greek. “Poly” means “many”. And ticks are tiny, bloodsucking insects’. It’s a common trope – the idea of politicians leeching off the electorate, off each other and off the public purse. But writers, too, have a reputation for bloodsucking. (‘All writers are vampires’, the actor James Gandolfini once said). So, what does that make the members of the politician-novelist club? Double-dipping parasites?

Novelist Michael Dobbs now sits in the House of Lords, wearing this glorious fluffy cape.

That would be an unfair assessment of Winston Churchill, whose life achievements include staring down Hitler and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (though not for fiction). He was yet to stand for elected office when he wrote his first and only novel, Savrola. The book – about violent revolution in a fictional European state on the Mediterranean – was written when he was 24 years old, and it’s now considered a work of juvenilia; a curiosity for Churchill nerds. (It’s either adorable or creepy that the romantic heroine is believed to be based on the figure of Churchill’s own mother.)

But other politician-novelists – those, perhaps, with more work and life experience – have drawn inspiration directly from the world of politics. That’s hardly surprising; it is, after all, a world richly populated by ambitious weirdos and their fatal flaws. And nobody knows this better than Michael Dobbs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the spectre of Dobbs in the halls of Westminster struck fear into the hearts of conservatives. He was known as ‘the baby-faced hitman’ and, ‘the party’s chief bonk buster.’ In an interview last year, Dobbs explained: ‘If I heard that a minister was being silly in his private life – normally affairs, men cheating on their wives – but it hadn’t reached the newspapers, my job was to have a word with the minister and say “Look, this is going to get into the newspapers if it goes on, and we have to develop a strategy, or a plan, to make sure that it doesn’t”’. Of course, in Dobbs’s books (and in the TV series), Francis is less interested in collaborating with colleagues on strategies and more concerned with leverage, blackmail and entrapment.

Was Jeffrey Archer among those who cowered at the approaching step of Michael ‘bonk-buster’ Dobbs? (The Tories were not, of course, successful in preventing Archer’s indiscretions making it – spectacularly – into the papers … and eventually to court, before Archer ended up in prison.) Archer entered Parliament in 1969, and started writing bestsellers in the 1970s as a way of getting out of debt following a failed business deal. He, too, was in Thatcher’s inner circle; she even appointed him deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985. Though Dobbs and Archer moved, for a time, in the same crowd, they have little in common as writers. Contempt was the theme of Dobbs’s extravagantly cynical House of Cards series; the most striking aspect of Archer’s latest book is its sentimentality.

Dreams can come true 

Cometh the Hour is the sixth book in Archer’s sprawling Harry Clifton Chronicles, a series that follows the title character’s rise from humble beginnings on the Bristol docks to infiltration, via marriage, of the upper classes, followed by worldwide fame and fortune as a writer. The action is set against the backdrop of England’s tumultuous 20th Century (by now it’s the 1970s, and Harry is in glorious middle age) with various characters occupying powerful positions in the world of politics. It’s a story in the up-from-the-bootstraps Disney mould, populated by righteous goodies and – of marginally more interest – snivelling, black-hearted baddies.

Can this curiously naive novel really be the work of a man who has served both in the House of Commons and at her Majesty’s pleasure? In Cometh the Hour, the goodies are bestselling authors, politicians and business bigwigs, and it seems power couldn’t be in the hands of a more worthy group of people. In fat, Archer’s characters seem at all times on the verge of actually combusting with integrity – sticking up for the widows of Russian dissidents here, lending their business acumen to the improvement of public hospitals there – and forever congratulating each other on their extraordinary decency. (‘I read your speech in Hansard … and I agree with your sentiments. Let me see if I can remember your exact words …’)

There’s a puppyish enthusiasm for the trappings and traditions of parliamentary life throughout Archer’s book, and even a walk-on role for Margaret Thatcher. These passages read not so much as the work of someone who once served in Britain’s ruling political party and more like that of an enthusiastic schoolkid – just returned from his first visit to the Parliament, eager to show off his knowledge. (‘“Back to work, I’m afraid,” said Thatcher. “It’s a three-line whip, so I can’t ignore it.”’) It’s hard to know if Archer’s writing is an expression of an extremely blinkered worldview, or just a lucrative exercise in wish fulfilment.

Out of office

By contrast, the new novel from Lindsay Tanner features no characters at all who hold political office – instead, its focus is on how the tides of political change impact on those in the electorate with very little power indeed. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald last year, Tanner insisted he had no interest in writing fiction about parliamentary politics. ‘I would bore myself to death,’ he said.   

It’s a disappointingly classy move from the man who, as former Finance Minister and member of Kevin Rudd’s Gang of Four, had a ringside seat for one of the most spectacular power struggles in Australian political history. In Comfort Zone, there are no cameo appearances for former prime ministers, which is a shame since recent leadership figures definitely lend themselves to punchy dialogue. (‘Back to work, I’m afraid,’ said Rudd. ‘Those Chinese f**kers are trying to rat-f**k us, so I can’t ignore it’.) Instead, Tanner’s first novel is about a grumpy, bigoted, down-at-heel taxi driver, Jack Van Duyn, who is drawn into criminal intrigue.

The book is set in Carlton, in the heart of Tanner’s old seat of Melbourne, and while it might not be about party or parliamentary politics, it is about how the tenor of political debate impacts on people in the demographically diverse inner-city. Comfort Zone dramatises the ways in which Australia’s bitter national conversations around multiculturalism and refugee rights work to pit disenfranchised groups – asylum seekers, public housing tenants, the working poor – against each other. (It also, incidentally, makes excellent use of Tanner’s surprising sensitivity to midweek traffic flows of Melbourne’s inner-city north.) Though the story is told from Jack’s point of view, there are certain barbed passages where one wonders if Tanner’s own voice is creeping into the narrative. This is especially the case with the not-so-subtle digs at latte-sipping Green voters; the voters who successfully installed their candidate in Tanner’s seat after his retirement in 2010: ‘[Carlton] was now awash with identikit smart young professionals who voted Green, made donations to Oxfam, and took little interest in the plight of the genuinely poor people living right next to them. Their obsession with house prices was never far below the surface of their supposedly idealistic environmental and social beliefs.’

Comfort Zone is a fast-paced thriller, but Tanner has described the process of writing it as ‘gruelling’. Is he planning to write more works of fiction? Archer and Dobbs have written almost two dozen books between the two of them and are showing no signs of slowing down. Many of us believe we have a book in us (and, as Christopher Hitchens once quipped, ‘in most cases, that’s where it should stay’), but those who have risen to the top of the political heap are probably more practised than most at silencing internal voices of self-doubt. That’s surely a huge advantage for anyone setting out to write a work of fiction. And maybe it’s also why politicians have been responsible for so many memoirs that ought to be classified as works of fiction. To quote Francis Urquhart in House of Cards: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; truth lies in the hands of its editor’.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.