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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide