Grin and bear it: the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, in Essex in February 2015. Photo: PETER MACDIARMID/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Planes, pains and automobiles: the memoir-manifestos by Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage

New autobiographies by Nigel Farage and Caroline Lucas get a kick out of calling themselves "outsiders". The truth? They want your votes.

Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change
Caroline Lucas
Portobello Books, 281pp, £14.99


The Purple Revolution: the Year That Changed Everything
Nigel Farage
Biteback, 305pp, £9.99

I always get a kick out of the way that politicians love to brand themselves as “outsiders”. Hating the Westminster bubble is almost a professional qualification now and this year, with two-party politics in crisis, anyone who can get away with being an outsider has declared themselves to be one. This includes the authors of these books, Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage, who rarely appear in a sentence together, much less a review.

But they asked for it. It seems that memoirs are the new mini-manifestos, providing personality politics with a bit of policy (or, in Caroline’s case, rather too much) thrown in. First, let me burst their bubble. They are not outsiders. Lucas has been a member of one parliament or another since 1999. Farage has been an MEP since the same year. They are, for all their claims of maverick status, institutionalised politicians. They just think they are not.

Let’s also be frank about why these books were written. They want your votes. If there wasn’t an election this year and they weren’t candidates, they wouldn’t have decided to over-share with us. Their books are, in essence, leaflets, just with more pages. Both contain direct pleas. “It would be a privilege to achieve one more ‘first’,” writes Lucas, “to be the first Green MP to be re-elected.” The last sentence in The Purple Revolution is: “So over to you, dear voter. It is all down to you now.”

It’s a strange reason to write a book about yourself – to get elected. I’m not sure that they have thought this through. By the end, inevitably, we know too much. In terms of how they want to be seen, they divide quite neatly. Lucas, for all her protestations and humble boasts, comes across as something of a saint: principled, fighting for truth and justice, arrested in her quest against big energy, earnestly trying to reform everything in parliament that is not nailed down. Farage is thrilled to be cast as the sinner.

Here, then, we have the devil and the deep, blue-green sea. There is no doubt which book is the easiest to get through. The Purple Revolution would be an absolute hoot, if only it were parody – and I do think that it should be filed in the “humour” section of bookshops. Farage gives us a potted history, telling us nothing we did not know about his early years in Kent and at Dulwich College. He is rhapsodic about his days in the City, eulogising the smoke-filled rooms where he bought and sold metals, only to go to lunch and, sometimes, stay there. He claims a “typical Farage lunch” went from 12 noon to 12 midnight. “I would get up at the crack of dawn and work flat-out until lunchtime and lunch would just, well, carry on.”

He is very funny about a recent trip to the US (he loves Rand Paul, whom he describes as his “political doppelgänger”), where he had meetings all morning. “Steve suggested that we break for lunch – a comment that really perked us up,” he writes, “until Steve followed the suggestion with the horrific phrase: ‘I’ve ordered some sandwiches.’”

In general, this is politics as food and drink. It overflows with pints, glasses of wine, dinners and lunches. There’s an amazing chapter entitled “Car Crash, Plane Crash and Cancer: Seeing Both Sides of the NHS”. This starts on Boxing Day in 1986 when he went to work (the US markets were open) and was desperate to get home to the village of Downe in Kent before closing time:

 

I walked into the Queen’s Head and ordered a pint. All of a sudden, an indescribable pain shot through my
left-hand side. It was so acute I nearly collapsed. It seemed to go from somewhere near my left kidney, through my abdomen and into my groin. I was in absolute agony. But I tried to grin and bear it and ordered another pint.

 

As you do. Thus begins a tale that leads to the eventual diagnosis of testicular cancer. By the end of this chapter, we know rather a lot about Nigel’s left testicle. We then are told about his car crash the previous year: he’d been drinking steadily throughout the afternoon and went home. “I did not see the car that hit me,” he notes.

Then, in 2010, on the day of the general election, he was in a plane crash as he attempted to fly a Ukip banner above Buckinghamshire, where he was standing against the Speaker, John Bercow. The chapter continues with details of his back surgery and the sad story of the plane’s pilot who, after threatening to kill Farage, ended up committing suicide.

It’s too much, this chapter, in every way. But what Farage does is take these personal and random events and turn them into a political philosophy. “I have now had three near-death experiences and I’ve seen the best and the worst of the NHS. As such, I am better qualified to criticise and defend the NHS than most politicians,” he announces, adding: “The real elephant in the room on health is the effect of an expanding population in Britain . . . No one from the three main parties will talk about how the NHS is so overstretched due to the massive increase in the number of people arriving at our shores.” Here is the difficulty of writing a memoir as a political manifesto. The National Health Service is more complicated, in every way, than this. Anecdotes do not make for good policy.

The Purple Revolution lurches on. One of his favourite words is “surreal”. His book is certainly that. By the end, Farage seems a touch paranoid. He believes that he and some other Kippers have had their phones tapped. “The Tories were getting very scared,” he writes, “and with it very, very nasty indeed.” It’s like a bizarre spy story with candidates adopting disguises and everyone buying pay-as-you-go mobiles.

The apt word for Caroline Lucas’s book is a dread one: “worthy”. This is the story of her time as an MP and she invites the reader to marvel at the outdated ways of Westminster (where MPs get a pink ribbon to hang their sword on in the cloakroom). She is the Green revolutionary, tunnelling out from the inside. Honourable Friends? is stuffed with good intentions and very little drama.

Thank God for her arrest, protesting against fracking, at Balcombe in Sussex. On the night after her release, she was met by her family, including her son Isaac. “He had thoughtfully brought me what he knew I would want most of all at that moment: a small bottle of tonic water, thoughtfully diluted with gin.” I think this may be her only personal reference to drink in the book (although there are some disparaging remarks about the “moral myopia” of champagne sales at Westminster rising as austerity cuts were voted in). It’s about as far from the bibulous Nigel as can be.

There is no love lost between these two. Indeed, Farage takes the trouble to predict that Lucas will lose her seat. However, the reality is that both politicians, in writing these books, are relying on the idea that the more we know about them, the more we will want to vote for them and their parties. I, for one, am not convinced.

Ann Treneman is the parliamentary sketchwriter for the Times

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump