Thursday, October 16, 2008

The spectre of defeat

Awake at five this morning as the Dr thumped around getting ready for her cab to the airport. She and the mother-in-law are now be in Cairo, visiting the pyramids and stuff. I will be holding the fort, attending to the cat and doing my tax return. Oh joy.

I’ve not made it through to the third round of the British Short Screenplay Competition, but the script is going somewhere else now and my name’s in for a couple of things that might be nice if they happen. On we plod.

In the meantime, I’ve promised all the days I can spare to one freelance gig which is keeping me busy. After a whole summer of writing from home, it’s odd to be commuting again. If nothing else, I am wolfing down whole books.

The Ghost by Robert Harris was a birthday present from a fellow writer. We never learn the name of the protagonist who narrates the story, which is apt in that he’s a ghost writer, the anonymous shadow helping former Prime Minister Adam Lang finish his autobiography.

There’s already a full draft, compiled by a loyal staffer of Lang’s who has died in mysterious circumstances. Our man’s more used to ghosting the memoirs of old rock stars, freely admitting he knows nothing about politics. But with Lang’s former foreign secretary and the international crimes court accusing Lang of war crimes, our man better bone up quick.

It’s a great shocker, full of excitement and intrigue. I read it in just four sittings because – after a slowish start – I couldn’t put it down. It has lots to say on writing-for-hire and hack work and process. There’s some great stuff with the protagonist completely failing to spot the danger he’s in (you keep wanting to shout “behind you!”). And there are also some great little details, like the Prime Minister’s security heavy reading Harry Potter. It’s a lively, exciting and intelligent read and comes recommended.

But there’s something about it that really bugged me, a constant distraction from the thrilling plot. A lot of the reviews of the book have concentrated on how much Adam Lang and his wife owe to Tony and Cherie Blair. It might be them in silhouette on the cover. The characters have similar backgrounds and quirks.

I think this is the weakness of the book. However shrewd these observations of the real former Prime and Mrs Minister, they’re wrapped up in a potboiling thriller, a conspiracy that’s patently not real. The real intrudes on the story.
“Harris, at one time a leading supporter of new Labour, had unprecedented access to Blair during the 1997 election campaign and during his heady early days of government. But his support withered over the Iraq war and Blair’s relationship with George Bush.”

Brendan Bourne, “Harris points pen at a leader very like Blair”, The Sunday Times, 19 August 2007.

As a result of Harris’s insider knowledge, we’re constantly second guessing the real writer. If Lang’s having an affair in the book, does Harris knows something about the Blairs’ sex lives? How much of the book’s conspiracy is real?

And where does it stop? If Lang = Blair, does it follow that X is a reference to Robin Cook, or Y is based on Peter Hain… The whole thing becomes a salacious guessing game, like something out of Popbitch: who is Harris satirising now?

Lang would have worked better as his own man, evidently not Blair yet faced with the same world and choices. That way the sharp contrast makes us think through the issues rather than the gossip. As it is, the book is a personal attack on individuals. And the attack fails because whatever real criticisms Harris might have to make, they’re all mixed up in an unreal, blockbuster plot.

The same is true of To Play The King (the TV version as I’ve not read the book). House of Cards worked because, by not being about any specific, real politicians, it was about all of them. Once you’d seen these fictional people being all smiles as they stabbed at each other, it changed how you saw the real politicians going about their business. But when Michael Kitchen comes in doing an impression of Prince Charles, our attention is all on his performance, judging how well observed, sympathetic or insightful it might be. It’s about him, not the story.

As a result, I kept thinking as I read The Ghost of Andrew Cartmel’s Under the Eagle. The play covers similar ground to this – a British Prime Minister compromised by his relationship with the US, the difficulties of his marriage, the thorny issue of rendition… Both feature an outsider – a ghost writer, a comedian – staying a night with the PM as all hell breaks loose.

But Cartmel’s characters are original creations, so our focus is broader. And just because of that, the points made hit harder. People in The Ghost keep insisting that the whole war crimes thing “isn’t personal”. It’s a shame Harris himself didn’t feel the same.

1 comment:

Le Mc said...

Interesting, I think that kind of thing would have bothered me as well--there was a similar sort of "wait, but is that how it really was ...?" when reading Penelope Lively's "Making It Up."

Sorry you didn't win the screenplay contest, I'm sure something great will come of your entry though.