Heatwave 1971: Naughtie's novel The Madness of July is set over an airless 1970s London summer. Photo: Getty
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Highland flings: on two new novels by the “Tartan Beebists”, James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark

The debut novels of two Tartan Beebists, whose hearts clearly belong in Scotland despite years of working in Westminster.

The Madness of July
James Naughtie
Head of Zeus, 352pp, £12.99

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle
Kirsty Wark
Two Roads, 437pp, £14.99

One of the less-discussed consequences of Scottish independence would be if the newly liberated country were kicked out of the EU and Scots no longer had the right to work in the rump of the UK. Just think of all the plum media jobs that would be up for grabs. Adios, Andrew Marr! Adieu, Andrew Neil! Zài jiàn, Nicky Campbell!

What led me to measure up the curtains of the BBC’s current affairs programming in my head? Oh yes, reading the debut novels of two more Tartan Beebists, Jim Naughtie and Kirsty Wark. Both of these journalists have come late to fiction – Wark is 59, Naughtie 62 – and clearly their hearts belong to Scotland despite many years of working in Westminster.

Naughtie’s novel, The Madness of July, is mostly set in an airless 1970s London summer following the discovery of a body in a cupboard in the House of Commons. Yet it only comes alive when the protagonist, an anxious halibut of a man called Will Flemyng, returns to his childhood home in the Highlands. There are misty peaks, herds of deer and even a huge gillie called Tiny. Dark secrets are found in a strongbox. Meaningful looks are exchanged between granite-like men. It’s great.

Naughtie has kept his thriller taut by condensing the action over a single long weekend and layering several disparate plotlines. In England, there is Flemyng, a junior minister at the Foreign Office with a background in the intelligence services. In Scotland, there is his brother Mungo, piecing together the family history (their mother was apparently a bit of a goer in her day), along with their faithful manservant Babble.

In America, there is Abel, who – spoiler alert – turns out also to be Flemyng’s brother. Something untoward happened on a mission behind the Iron Curtain, it is intimated, and he decided to reinvent himself in America, working for the intelligence services there. Abel has a female boss who is revealed to be a lesbian. The book is studiously casual about both of these facts, but you get the sense Naughtie is quite pleased with his own progressive panache in having included a female character who sleeps with other women.

Not that she does so on the page, as it were. This is a novel that ruthlessly eschews all the frippery normally associated with thrillers: femmes fatales, helicopter gunships, people being sent body parts in the post, creepy sex basements, villains with monocles, silver thumbs or other improbable distinguishing features, pitched battles on the roof of iconic buildings, et cetera. It proceeds mainly by middle-aged men having repressed, tense conversations in anonymous Whitehall rooms. (It’s hard to convey drama when all you’ve got is men in an anonymous enclosed space, which leads to such sentences as: “Paul stood up to join in Flemyng’s stately progress round the table. They speeded up gently as they went, getting energy from each other.” I’m sorry, people are talking about state secrets and sleeper agents while chasing each other round a desk? Come back, implausible weaponry, all is forgiven.)

The sections set in Scotland are by far the best: Naughtie evidently feels a deep affinity with the country’s exhilarating scenery, where the mist curdles over the loch “like the guilty secrets of a multitude of hidden smokers”. Perhaps the same sense of nostalgia for his birthplace drove the writing of this book and his decision to leave the Today studios to cover the independence referendum for the BBC?

Kirsty Wark, who recently wrote in this magazine about the many hours she has spent on the Caledonian sleeper train, is also animated by Scotland’s landscape. Her setting is the Isle of Arran and, most particularly, a little house overlooking the sea across to Holy Isle. It is owned at the start of the novel by the elderly Elizabeth Pringle, who decides to leave the property to a young woman she saw pushing a buggy many years ago, and who left her a note asking to buy the place if it ever came on the market. By the time Elizabeth is ready to vacate her house – for a nursing home and, shortly after that, a grave – the young woman has grown up and has an adult daughter of her own, called Martha.

The book interweaves Elizabeth’s story of thwarted love, and loss, and loneliness, with Martha’s attempt to reunite her family even as her mother, Anna, succumbs to dementia. It is happy to dwell on domestic life, and better for it – I found it easier to care about Elizabeth’s lost lover than the imminent downfall of western civilisation against which Will Flemyng is fighting. Sometimes a smaller canvas allows for finer brushwork.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue