Pilgrim's progress

Innocent in the House

Andy McSmith <em>Verso, 311pp, £13</em>

ISBN 1859846432

It is the year 1997. A keen, fresh administration has been returned to power. Young Mr Pilgrim, recently elected, has expressed dissent. He is about to be carpeted. As they trail upstairs to the ministers' corridor, his escort begins to sing to himself. The tune is "John Brown's Body". The first words have just been spoken by the Speaker: "Oh, the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the day./Yes, the Clerk proceeds to read the fucking Orders of the day./All the fucking Orders that the Clerk proceeds today/Can all get fucking stuffed."

We are in the hands of a Westminster insider. Andy McSmith has come a long way as a lobby correspondent since the morning in November 1990 when he approached a Tory whip, Tristan Garel-Jones, and asked him what was happening in the leadership crisis. Garel-Jones, by his own account the most Machiavellian of characters, shrugged. "Haven't the foggiest," he answered. That very evening, a group of anti-Thatcher conspirators met over dinner at his home, where they plotted her demise; within days she was out. McSmith had learnt his lesson.

This is his first novel; he should have started long ago. His background as a Labour press officer, then working for the Mirror, the Observer and now the Daily Telegraph, makes him uniquely qualified to write about the shenanigans, cruelties and hypocrisies of the political world. The story is a modern Pilgrim's Progress, with Joseph Pilgrim, like many of his contemporaries, unexpectedly successful at the hustings and thereby flung into the sophisticated maelstrom of a new Labour parliament. His troubles begin when he comes up on the Order Paper for Prime Minister's Questions, then forgets the planted item he was supposed to ask and instead burbles on about history, the past and the future. This is taken as a sign of originality and rebelliousness. A warning from a friendly Tory prevents him admitting that it was a mere mistake. Never apologise, never explain: the worst fate is to be thought a fool.

Pilgrim is thus a celebrity, and a target for the press. His past begins to haunt him. He admits to infidelity on late-night radio, his wife throws him out, he is pursued by lunatic constituents and a mentally ill criminal who is intent on GBH (at the least). The tale is somewhat clunky - three women suffering broken jaws and two being killed by lorries puts quite a strain on coincidence. And if it all comes out well in the end, that doesn't matter. The plot is not the main element that should detain us.

The themes of manipulation by spin-doctors (who is the unpleasant cocaine-sniffing Gerald - one person, or dozens?) and resistance to the bullying whips are familiar and timely. The innocent abroad - bumbling through, trying to retain his integrity - is not unrealistic. I enjoyed the description of Pilgrim's earlier life in a Marxist-feminist commune. The petty jealousies, the rages, the pointless arguments fuelled by alcohol or a joint followed by unsatisfactory sex, all while Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost unchallenged, will evoke sighs of recognition from others. Tempus fugit.

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival last month, we discussed the dangers of portraying real individuals in political novels. In my experience, those who think they're in our pages are thrilled (they're often wrong, but that's vanity for you). There are many neat pen-portraits here to entertain the aficionado. Peter Mandelson won't object to his "walking with long feline strides, head tilted to one side . . . " and having a memory like Encarta.

One celebrated cabinet minister "could hardly have looked less like the occupant of high office. She was dressed in a cheap- looking overcoat, fur boots and a pompom hat . . . " Mo Mowlam phoned McSmith as the book came out and expressed her disgust. As the author wondered what to offer in his defence, there was a moment's silence. Then a peal of laughter came down the line. Mowlam, like many of our targets, was delighted.

Edwina Currie's latest novel is This Honourable House (Little, Brown, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis