Under my byline

London crawling

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 10 June 2009

Le Parlement de Londres, soleil couchant, Claude Monet, 1903There’s too much going on in Meghnad Desai’s debut political thriller

If you can get past the first dozen pages of this book, you’ll probably keep going to the end. In the very first scene, old-school lefty journalist Ian wakes up to BBC Radio’s breakfast news talk show hosted by James Naughtie and John Humphrys — during which Gideon Crawford, the secretary of state for Scotland, will face tough questioning over the government’s approach to the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament, at which the Scottish Nationalists will take on the ruling Labour Party, in power in Westminster after many years and with a sizeable majority, thanks to their young and dashing new PM, Harry White, whose obituary Ian must go to work today and bring up to date, just in case…

You see? There’s too much going on. In this self-professed “airport thriller” of 200-odd pages Meghnad Desai has given us approximately 120 original characters, many of whom come lavishly equipped with their own individual backstories. This is in addition to scores of historical characters — in the UK Parliament you’re never far from the ghosts of history.

What’s more, everything happens on one day: Monday, 10 May, probably in 1999. At that time in the real world, Britain was two years into the PM-ship of Tony Blair, the young and hungry New Labour leader who brought his party back to power after a generation. Blair is in some ways the template for Harry White, Desai’s fictional PM, who, however, adds a powerful sexual drive to his appetite for power (thus nicely rounding out the metaphor).

Hunger of all sorts animates this novel. The plot is a maelstrom of people, events and histories, centred on the prime minister. It opens with the PM cancelling an important but largely ceremonial meeting in order to obey a summons to lunch from Matt Drummond, billionaire head of the Lew Drew News Corporation, who has funded White’s rise to power. Drummond wants a favour: throw the Scottish elections, so that his media companies can save local tax. “We calculate that a Labour victory in Scotland will cost Matt’s group fifty-five million pounds extra immediately and seventy-five million pounds in the long run,” explains Drummond’s cold-as-steel sidekick and Lolita-style lover, Asha Chan. (Now there’s no mistaking them: Rupert Murdoch and his second wife, the Chinese-born Wendi Deng, who’s half her husband’s age.) But no, the PM cannot afford to lose Scotland.

So Drummond goes to plan B — which is, show White how useful he can be by bringing down the PM’s chief rival, Terence Harcourt. That sets a second set of sordid events and characters into motion, including the editor of Drummond’s main newspaper, who must pay for and publish the damning photographs. Explaining that political rivalry, Desai is able to say things, interesting to the outsider, about the mechanics of intra-party politics in the UK.

Another few threads unwind from Harry White’s personal life, including his devoted female secretaries, who serve him professionally and as lovers. There are more unfinished trajectories from his past, of which one results in such bitterness that Roger Birch, a former friend, decides to do him in.

One more who wants the PM dead is Redvers (“Red”) McGann, an amateurish Unionist thug from Northern Ireland, who sets out with his small gang to plant a bomb under White’s car in the parking lot at a major annual football match in Glasgow between historically Catholic and Protestant teams. White, thinks Red, will be “selling Ulster to the boys down south.”

And so on: the book is full of wanters, seekers and needers. It’s a corrosive soup confined in a small bowl — that is, the clubby, close world of Westminster in which tycoons rub shoulders with politicians and journalists. Morality is meaningless within this world; there’s only what seems to be a uniquely British atheism of power. Nobody ascribes their success to God or godfather; they have bought, wrought and fought for their own fate, and even though the accounts are never balanced they are not afraid. It’s an economy of IOUs.

There’s something essentially British about all this: the live memory of propriety, coupled with its natural partner, an ancient taste for gossip and anecdote. In this “thriller” with a faintly moral denouement (peculiar!), the parts are greater than the whole: the individual stories Desai invents for his characters, based on his long experience as a Labour campaigner from the grassroots to his current seat in the House of Lords; wonkish prescriptions for the Treasury and observations on EU olive production quotas; local and religious politics in the pressure-cooker world of little Britain; the dynamic of media billionaire and popular politician; the irresistible force of “scoop” and sleaze in British journalism; the irredeemable scepticism with which the British view their leaders…

The book reflects its author, the economist, academic, politician. You guess that Lord Desai’s skills, while they make a mediocre if untypical thriller, portend well for his memoirs — which he is now writing.

(Here’s a short profile/review of Meghnad Desai and his book that I wrote a few days ago.)

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