A Laboured death

A Sympathetic Hanging

Nigel Farndale <em>Quartet, 240pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0704381419

The recent auction of puppets from the Spitting Image TV series was a poignant reminder of the death of political satire in Britain. Faced with the vagaries of a "Third Way" and the unwillingness of political leaders to stand up for anything in particular, the satirists of high politics have very little to go on, their task being reduced to a mundane play on funny faces.

This vacuum at the heart of the genre might explain why Nigel Farndale's novel falls at its first hurdle. A Sympathetic Hanging is sold as a "bitingly satirical" analysis of contemporary politics, but it stubbornly refuses to be anything of the sort. Set a couple of years into the future, it opens with the assassination of a popular new Labour prime minister, and follows the high-profile journalist Michael Yates as he drifts on the margins of a murky plot to overthrow the government. The text is peppered with sardonic sideswipes, which are neither edgy nor original enough to score any points: England, we learn, has become an autonomous region in a European superstate; the state opening of parliament is sponsored by Nescafe; the pop star Mick Hucknall has been made a peer. A scurrilous portrait of the mincing new Minister for European Affairs - a thinly veiled Peter Mandelson - falls flat, largely because there is little of any substance to mock in the first place.

Still, there is much else to like about the book. Farndale's job as an interviewer on the Sunday Telegraph has made ideal research for his story of a hack who is in out of his depth. The character of Yates is a curious hybrid of pomposity and neurotic insecurity, and most of the comedy here reads like a bitter update on Michael Frayn's recently re-released Fleet Street novel, Towards the End of the Morning (Faber and Faber). In place of Frayn's lazy camaraderie and pub lunches, Farndale's journalist has an inflated idea of his own importance, and a social life that consists of a cocaine habit and ruthless networking with the great and the good.

The high-wire intrigue at the centre of the novel is less thrilling than Yates's alliance with a beautiful young ecowarrior along the way, as he tries simultaneously to redeem his lack of political scruple and to charm his way into her knickers. Farndale has a knack for letting dialogue tell a story, and the interplay between the two characters is sharp and convincing. Finding themselves up a tree on an anti-road protest as the bulldozers and chainsaws draw near, the idealistic Jenny floats the idea that they die in each other's arms. "'It would be a fine way to die, wouldn't it, Mickey?' I stroke her hair with my hand, smell it and kiss the crown of her head. I feel like crying, too. 'Don't call me Mickey,' I say."

Farndale may have failed to rehabilitate the art of political satire, but he makes up for it by eloquently ridiculing his own profession.