“Edwina, O my Edwina,Other rhymes for “Edwina” include “let’s make love until you scream like a hyena” and the title of this post. Somehow I could never quite rid the back of my mind of it as I waded through A Parliamentary Affair …
Other men would rather swig industrial cleaner …”
Well, I told you I was reading it and I know everyone was waiting for a report.
A Parliamentary Affair was published in 1994, which means the present day reader has an advantage the original readership didn’t: we know the author had a four-year affair with John Major when she was a newly elected MP and he was a Whip. A nation felt faintly queasy over its breakfast cornflakes as the news broke and didn't want to imagine too many details. And guess what, here the female protagonist, newly elected Tory MP Elaine Stalker, has an affair with one of her party Whips. In the light of what we already know there's a terrifying suspicion we're getting just too much information. You read the sex scenes with a growing, horrified fascination: oh, please don’t say you did THAT? Like, did he really have her backwards in his office over a leather blotter with the Commons crest pressing into her face? And there is one scene involving whipped cream, strawberries and the male anatomy that … well, fortunately I never liked whipped cream with my strawberries anyway.
Moving on. I would say Currie chose her order of careers – MP first, then novelist – wisely because she started off by playing to her strengths. Novel writing isn’t one of them, or at least it wasn’t in 1994. This was her first and she may have improved. All the newbie habits are there: inability to settle on a point of view character for any one scene; occasional rants on subjects that the author feels strongly about (amoral tabloid journalists, overweight working class people); a very strong authorial voice that sometimes delivers information direct to you, sometimes lets it emerge through character dialogue. Sometimes you can only tell which is which by seeing if there are inverted commas wrapped around the paragraph you’re reading. The characters have the kind of conversations where they reveal exactly the information required by the scene without any sense of it arising naturally through dialogue. A test I like to use for natural sounding dialogue, which I think I learned from David Langford, is: can you imagine it being shouted across a room? This definitely fails the shouting test.
(It does not however pass the Soft Porn Dialogue Test. After the first Encounter, she says to him [staring intently at the anatomical part with which she has just become orally familiar] "It certainly gives a new meaning to the term Honorable Member". I wish I was making this up.)
And yet it grips you, in a West Wing kind of way, because of the author’s obvious love of the parliamentary process and the minutiae of how the great British political machine goes about its stuff. A lot of stuff I’m sure comes straight out of Currie’s own experiences, in particular her frustration as an underappreciated intelligent and capable woman in the 99.9% male world of Westminster. Yes, I can well believe she was felt up by a smug Tory patriarch as all the MPs milled together at the bar of the House to elect the Speaker.
But of course we’re not reading this for the dialogue or the politics. It’s all about the shagging. It doesn’t take us long to get into the swing of it, as it were: two on-going hetero adulterous affairs and one gay one between elder statesman and underage boy (underage meaning 19, as it still was in 1994), with a bit more bonking, titillation, adolescent sexuality and one rape going on in the wings. And here I have to admit Currie surprised me – a little.
My chief memory of the 1992-1997 Major government is a never-ending series of scandals and resignations (Wikipedia helpfully lists 13 of them, averaging at 2.6 a year), mostly to do with affairs. I distinctly remember getting to the point of wondering why Major didn’t just give his Cabinet an ultimatum: dump the mistress or get out, now. Of course, we now know he was in no position to point fingers. (What’s grey and smells of Currie? Moving swiftly on …)
Currie convincingly portrays the Commons as such an alien world that affairs become almost inevitable. The hours, the pressure, the sheer detachment from what passes for normality in the outside world. You’re thrown against these people who understand, unlike the wives and husbands trapped back home in their normal day to day lives, and who can deliver what said spouses can’t in terms of support and meeting of minds. Don’t think for a moment that I believe she excuses the behaviour, but she does explain it much more than I thought possible. Sadly, she then goes and blows it with Elaine’s righteous indignation when her husband also has an affair. The difference is obvious, at least to Elaine. Elaine and the Whip are engaged in doing Great Things in Parliament, so that makes it All Right. Their affair is what keeps them sane. Elaine’s husband is caught in bed with a neighbour who is not very intelligent and overweight and generally menial, and he’s obviously there for the base reason that he isn’t getting enough in the marital bed, so clearly that’s grounds for divorce. Well, obviously.
It all works out, sorta. Elaine goes through a learning process that I’d like to think the rest of us never needed to. There’s a sudden IRA bomb threat plot that feels a little grafted onto the end of the book, but it does bring about closure. The book ends on a nice note, keeping us in suspense at the fictitious 1996 election with the results about to be read for Elaine’s constituency. And just to show that Currie does have a sense of humour, one of the more repellent characters is polished out of the story with a nasty dose of salmonella.
So, where does this leave the proposed political bonkbuster Best Beloved wants me to write? Not sure. I can probably supply the plot, she can provide the gossip, but then there’ll be the, um, stuff that probably wouldn’t occur to me in a month of Sundays under normal circumstances. Like novel uses for dairy products and fruit. Ah well, thinking cap on, and I can console myself it will all be tax deductible.