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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge