“GOVERNMENT’S loss will be erotic literature’s gain,” joshed Boris Johnson, at the farewell do for a member of Downing Street’s staff as she headed for the exit and a publishing deal. Cleo Watson, a close ally of Dominic Cummings, is in the process of writing the first part of a trilogy inspired by the Machiavellian and over-sexed denizens of the Westminster bubble.
Titled Whips! and described as “a cross between House of Cards, The Thick of It and 50 Shades of Grey”, it looks set to be devoured more for its thinly veiled portraits of household names than for any literary merit or political insight it might offer.
During Johnson’s stint as editor of The Spectator, the magazine was widely referred to as The Sextator. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Downing Street is now perceived as hotbed of lust as well as intrigue. With the Prime Minister’s own oeuvre including not just history and biography but a raunchy novel called Seventy-Two Virgins: A Comedy of Errors, it’s easy to see why Watson feels no inhibition about pulling back the duvet and revealing how steamy such a cloistered, high-pressured and back-stabbing arena can get.
One of her chums has intimated that Cummings’s fictional presence will be minimal, since “Dom is not a chick-lit sex object”. This implies plenty of others will fill that role – no need to name names.
Kiss and tell novels are hardly new, but they are always compelling. Remember the furore around Primary Colors? An anonymous account of a lecherous and self-serving southern governor’s presidential campaign, it was an unsubtle and unflattering depiction of Bill Clinton. Trying to guess who wrote it gripped Washington for months, until finally the political journalist Joe Klein came clean.
Primary Colors was no bonkbuster – writing about sex is dauntingly difficult. By comparison, Whips! has taken a leaf out of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire series, while upgrading the graphic content for a less shockable modern audience. Thanks to her, what we already know about the personal lives of the party in power will soon look like a mere appetiser for the feast to come.
The likelihood is that Whips! and its sequels, if ever they see the inside of bookshops, will be a passing craze for readers, albeit a life-long embarrassment for those skewered within its pages. Spitting Image or Peter Brookes’s cartoons will suddenly seem kindly.
It is striking, however, that our own corridors of power have given rise to fewer political novels than potential Alba Party MSPs. With the notable exception of James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still, a magisterial overview of half a century of social, economic and nationalist life, there has been no serious attempt to bring our political system or ideologies to the forefront of fiction.
This is not a plea for a Holyrood bonkbuster, although why not? Workplace rivalries, passions and bed-hopping are not confined to hospitals, banks, car showrooms or wherever else people are thrown together for long hours every day.
If nothing else, a red-hot novel about our lieges would remind readers that behind their manifestos, microphones and rosettes politicians also have beating hearts and sensitive souls. No irony intended! I see a satirical romp – let’s call it Under Arthur’s Seat – that turns Holyrood into a byword for secrets and lies, sex and cover-ups, revenge and unexpected reprisals.
Truth is, you scarcely need an imagination to get a cracking plot out of what has happened at Holyrood since parliament reconvened in 1999. From the untimely death of Donald Dewar, through the scandal of Tommy Sheridan’s High Court trial, where he conducted his own defence, to the failed IndyRef and the legal travails of Alex Salmond, there’s a super-abundance of material to embellish.
Had a fraction of these events happened in Copenhagen, Borgen would still be running. That’s before I even raise the controversial release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, or George Galloway haranguing the American Congressional Senate.
Add to this Nicola Sturgeon running the political gauntlet in recent weeks, and the prospect that she might soon have to face Salmond or his cronies across the debating chamber, not to mention the leader of the Scottish Conservatives declaring Johnson must go if found guilty of breaching the ministerial code. As often before, Holyrood is like a lemonade bottle that’s been shaken so hard it’s in danger of erupting.
Of course, most writers need time to process and distil major events. Enduring fiction does not move to the beat of social media or gossip. Yet the woeful and inexplicable dearth of novels set in the ambit of the parliament suggests something deeper than simply the need for a long perspective.
Where is our Tom Wolfe, with his Bonfire of the Vanities? Where is our Michael Dobbs, politician turned author of House of Cards? Where even is our Anthony Trollope? His prolific output created an unparalleled record of middle-class society and political manoeuvring in Victorian England.
Perhaps the blame can be laid at Sir Walter Scott’s door, for using the yardstick Tis Sixty Years Since, when looking at the events that shaped the country. By that measure, any novelists likely to tackle the early years of Holyrood and the independence campaign will right now be rejoicing that they don’t need to sit their National 5s.
Yet I suspect that Scott was merely tapping into the very Scottish trait of preferring to look to the past rather than direct a spotlight on the present. Although today our most popular genre is crime, historical novels continue to flourish, as do supernatural or mythic tales. It would seem that, when it comes to escapism, we like immersing ourselves in the mists of time and fantasy.
Some of our finest writers, chief among them James Kelman, powerfully depict parts of the community reeling from decades of government decisions that have left them stranded. In that sense, every line of their work is political. Nevertheless that leaves untouched a whole field of imaginative exploration into the heart of Holyrood.
Maybe novelists just don’t know enough about what makes our politics tick. Or perhaps they’re just not interested. In light of everything that is happening at the moment, I don’t know which is worse.
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