31 December 2015

Andrew Marr’s ‘Head of State’

A disappointing first novel from a political insider, neither thriller nor satire 

At last I have got round to reading the paperback edition of Andrew Marr’s first novel, originally published in September 2014. At the time Head of State came out, I was intrigued by a piece in Private Eye (No 1376, 3 October, page 29 – familiarity with this magazine can only be helpful to readers of Marr’s book) which reported the launch in 10 Downing Street:

Head of State received faint praise from the critics then, and, when I looked recently on Amazon, it had acquired an oddly balanced set of Customer Review scores:

However, Marr, as well as having written other books about history, politics, poetry and the Queen, has been editor of a national newspaper (the Independent) and the BBC’s political editor and also, as the host of BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, has regularly interviewed top politicians for over 10 years. And his Author’s Note (dated April 2014), prefacing Head of State (which is subtitled A Political Entertainment - echoes of Graham Greene), seemed encouraging:
… I had long wanted to write a political satire that would help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really worked in a way that’s not possible in conventional journalism. 
… Some of the characters and stories in the novel are derived directly from my thirty years as a political reporter, though of course almost everything here is fictional.
I would guess that the bulk of the writing was done in 2013 when Marr was recovering from a stroke. At that time, well before the 2015 general election, a referendum on the UK’s leaving the EU (Brexit) set in September 2017, the motor of Head of State, must have seemed only a possibility and safely distant at that. By comparison, Michel Houellebecq, who must have been writing Submission at about the same time, was setting his novel in 2022. Now, Marr’s readers, less than 18 months after publication, are having to put to one side the facts that there will be an EU referendum this year or next and that David Cameron is still Prime Minister leading a Conservative government since May 2015. Fortunately in Marr’s 2017 the Tories are obviously in power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer being one Jo Johnson (Boris’s brother, currently Minister for Universities and Science (page 339).

Is Marr’s novel a roman à clef? Houellebecq mentions quite a few contemporary personalities in his future France but keeps them in the background, his main characters being plausible, but imaginary. Head of State mentions no end of real people, including, Marr himself (page 96), and Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, (eating a cake on page 247). Moreover, while most of the foreground characters are fictional, readers of Private Eye’s Street of Shame column could make a guess at the inspirations, and there are several, for Ken Cooper, editor of the fictitious National Chronicle. However, one of the few admirable characters in the book, the modern historian, Lord Briskett, is surely without parallel in the real world:
Dressed in his trademark coarse green tweeds, with his halo of frizzy white hair and heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, part A.J.P. Taylor part Bamber Gascoigne, Trevor Briskett was famous enough from his TV performances to attract second glances from his fellow commuters. On the streets of Oxford that crowded, clucking duckpond of vanity and ruffled feathers - he was stopped-in-the-street famous. 
And rightly so. For Briskett was the finest political historian of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His early biographies - Blair, Thatcher, Johnson - were still in print, while the memoirs of scores of almost-forgotten politicians had long since vanished to charity shops and recycling dumps after selling only a few score copies. Briskett's account of the modern constitution had been compared to the works of that Victorian master-journalist Walter Bagehot. His history of British intelligence during the Cold War had been praised by all the right people. Emeritus professor at Wadham, winner of numerous literary prizes, elevated five years ago to the Lords as a crossbencher after chairing a royal commission on security lapses at the Ministry of Defence, Briskett was regularly tipped to be the next member of the Order of Merit. 
Yet somehow these decorative embellishments, which might have weighed him down and made him soft, slow and comfortable, had had little apparent effect on Trevor Briskett. At seventy he was as sharp, as boyishly enthusiastic, as wicked a gossip with as rasping a laugh, as he had been at thirty. The exact nature of the pornography discovered on the minister's lost laptop. The attempt to blackmail a senior minister over his wife's cocaine habit. Just who Olivia Kite was taking to her bed these days … If you really wanted to know you went to Briskett, and he would tap his nose, lean towards you, give a wolfish smile and a 'dear boy', and spill all the beans. (page 15/16)
Funnily enough, it was pointed out on the History Today website recently, when marking the 50th anniversary of the Journal of Contemporary History, that modern historians are dismissed as not dealing in real history, just gossip.

But without any attempt at disguise, a key role in Head of State is taken by Rory Bremner, a real British actor (and a Scot like Marr) who has made a career from comic impersonation of public figures. And what to make of a Scotsman called Nelson Fraser - did Martin Andrews have anyone particular in mind? Not to mention a female character described as whetstone-hard (page 285). Almost totally unambiguous is the King, for in Head of State the Queen has become “late” – presumably a few years after the publication of Marr’s The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People in 2011. The characterisation of “Kingy”, as the staff of Marr’s Number 10 call him, owes rather too much to Silvie Krin’s Heir of Sorrows, as occasionally appearing in, yet again, Private Eye. By the way, in the United Kingdom the King or Queen is the Head of State, the Prime Minister is the Head of the Government. Marr is, of course, aware of this distinction and the title of the book is a pun on a particularly gruesome aspect of his tale.

Something similar happens with the locations: Gordon’s wine bar is real enough but Marr chose to put the “Universities and Constitutional Club” in the place of the Athenaeum – perhaps he’s a member.

If Head of State is too uneasily placed between imaginary and real worlds to be a satisfactory roman à clef, is it a thriller or a satire? In so far as the events being described are packed into eight days from 15 to 22 September 2017, the Brexit Referendum Day, surely the former. But Head of State is no Six Days of the Condor. There are 14 chapters, each titled with a date, and to explain the sequencing Marr chose rather than a normal narrative flow, a picture is worth thousand words:

The events in the eight days are too numerous, involve too many characters and mostly too far-fetched to yield a convincing thriller, and the leaping about in time reduces what suspense is mustered. On the other hand, there are too many attempts at wit which fall flat:
… ‘Fuzzy Blue oatcake’, the most influential right-wing blogger … (page342) 
Christ Almighty, a recent Hollywood adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox (page 20)
to provide the entertainment of one of Waugh’s comic novels, and too much grotesque unreality (for example, the said head) to make for a thought-provoking satire. There is also some poor, or just careless, writing which the editors (described by Marr in his Note as “legend[s] in the trade”) should have picked up. Just a few examples:
… hair for whose colour there was no adequate description - corngold and copper, silver birch with licks of flame. (page 24 – is this a Clairol ad?) 
… a wooden cabinet whose numbered chambers were perfectly sized to hold Blackberries and iPhones (page 82 – “with numbered chambers for Blackberries and iPhones” - they can’t be perfect for both) 
… [he] felt himself a man brimming with talents in a world that no longer needed them; an itchy-palmed electrician, as it were, during the New Stone Age (page 247 – the New Stone Age ended almost 4000 years before the practical application of electricity!).
Marr’s dislike of bloggers (discussed here in 2010) comes up repeatedly and, no doubt for related reasons, in Head of State he makes frequent and disparaging references to “Witter”, right up to page 342. So why on page 358 does he relent and use “tweeting”?

Does Marr “help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really work[ed]”? Well, there are a few lines about Brexit, which might provide the flavour of arguments which will appear as the real Referendum Day draws near:
… A Europe that fragmented now would soon become a mere vacuum, a playground for American technology, Chinese money and Russian political ambition. And Britain? Britain would again find itself desperately trying to negotiate the balance of power between Berlin and Paris, from a position of no significance. It would be impossible. (page 104) 
… Increasingly excited, he and Charmian began to talk numbers. 'lf the UK does leave the EU - well, the dollar is 1.55 to the pound now. Sterling will no longer be a reserve currency, so it will fall to, say, 1.35. Probably lower than that. (page 204, Sterling is 4% of all currency reserves at present – so would this happen? I’ve no idea, like many other readers, I suspect)
And towards the end of the novel there is this intriguing passage:
The whole thing is simply incredible. Oh no, it couldn't happen here. It's as bonkers as - what? - two brothers fighting each other for the leadership of the Labour Party, or a husband and wife jailing each other. over a pretty minor traffic offence, or two eminent members of the Conservative Party being in a gay relationship even as they proclaim family values, or a prime minister having an. affair with one of his own ministers. Loopy. Loony. It's as bonkers as manufacturing the case for an entire war and thinking no one would notice. Mad as cheese. No, no, none of that could ever happen here. The great British public simply wouldn't let them get away with it. (page 327/8)
I would expect that some of these ‘incredible’ happenings are recognisable to most of the book’s likely readership, but are the others figments of Marr’s imagination or things he knows about and we don’t?

In a while I will post about Marr’s second attempt at a political novel, Children of the Master, published in September 2015 and again not enthusiastically reviewed. Both books will probably become available in an Oxfam near you before long.


  1. There's perhaps a trace of historian and crossbencher peer Peter Hennessy in Trevor Briskett.

    David Martin

    1. I can’t help thinking that if Marr were asked, he would quote Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards by Michael Dobbs (with whom comparisons could be odious):
      "You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment."
      Of course, your man has no Oxford connections like Briskett, who was also, it seems, made a life peer in 2012 not 2010.