Liam Fox: somebody give this man a new job. Photo: Oli Scarff - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: The fantastic Liam Fox

The North Somerset MP’s wife calls his phone “Teddy” – he takes it to bed with him.

Labour’s wannabe leaders are accusing the party of profiteering in the scramble to wear Ed Miliband’s tarnished crown. One of the four grumbled that it’s daylight robbery to charge candidates £5,000 to access the party’s 240,000-strong membership list.

Another moaned that the costs add insult to injury when the official hustings seem designed to prevent debate. Rigid rules and stopwatch answers favour prepared lines over free discussion. Banning clapping, hissing and booing by members – to save time – turns political meetings into church congregations.

The party counters that the hustings are fully booked, but the sense that an important competition is a sideshow, failing to engage most of the electorate, doesn’t augur well for Labour’s future.

Liam Fox, the Tory former defence secretary, is putting out feelers to find out if David Cameron will reward his loyalty by making him chair of the intelligence and security committee. The backbencher has rarely rocked the Tory boat since his cabinet resignation in October 2011 over his unofficial adviser Adam Werritty’s access to the Ministry of Defence and Fox remains plugged in to US defence networks.

Colleagues mutter that the restless Fox, who apparently continues to use a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone because the email is considered more secure, needs a job. The North Somerset MP’s wife calls his phone “Teddy” – he takes it to bed with him.

George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs would be thrilled. The Trades Union Congress museum in the Dorset village has a wedding licence. Unison’s Lynn Barrer is to tie the knot with Gary Kilroy of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association at this month’s festival, then pose for photos under the sycamore tree where Loveless, a Methodist preacher, and his fellow agricultural labourers met in 1834 before landowners had them transported to Australia. A honeymoon closer to home, in Spain, will follow.

The Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP, Paul Maynard – the parliamentary bag carrier for the Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd – is not the brightest spark in the department. The Tory’s dimmest idea was to ask Labour MPs to contact his office “to share your supplemental or topical question” before quizzing Rudd in the Commons. The opposition, unsurprisingly, declined.

Tessa Jowell’s friends (as we call them in the trade) whisper that her hubby, the corporate lawyer David Mills, would prefer her not to run for London mayor. Mills was burned by the public fallout of a conviction, subsequently quashed, for allegedly receiving a £380,000 bribe from Silvio “Bunga, Bunga” Berlusconi. The Labour couple separated but are reconciled and Mills shuns the limelight. This contest could get tasty.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era