(Hamish Hamilton, 1982)
Arthur Hopcraft, who died in 2004, is well-remembered for many things.
For the ITV play about a Labour MP, and subsequent series, The Nearly Man (1974–75).
For his acclaimed non-fiction book about the beautiful game, The Football Man, in 1968.
For his remark that, in terms of his love life, he had tried both sexes and ended up wishing they’d both just go away.
And, of course, for having written the screenplay for the 1979 BBC TV adaptation of the John le Carre classic novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Apparently, Alec Guinness, who was to play le Carre’s espionage genius George Smiley, had some doubts about the script – a bit rich considering that, two years earlier, Guinness had been happy to voice such twaddle as ‘You must trust the Force, Luke’ during his bank balance-boosting appearance in Star Wars.
He’s not known, sad to say, for this very fine novel, set, literally, in the dying days of the 1970s and written very shortly afterwards. The paperback edition carries some favourable notices, but little indication that this is a finely-crafted piece of social and political history.
The spine of the narrative is the relationship between two men who have known each since schooldays. Royston (Roy) Llewellyn is a former Labour MP, now sitting in the House of Lords as Home Office minister responsible for the police. Anthony Craddock is a former high-flying journalist turned successful TV scriptwriter.
The tale opens in the early months of 1978 and concludes in the early months of the following year. Into the mainly harmonious Llewellyn-Craddock relationship comes Peter Franklin, a sickly (and somewhat irritating) young man working for Voice, a radical magazine not to be confused with the real-life newspaper The Voice, and a barely-disguised version of Time Out as it used to be, mixing radical journalism with entertainment listings.
Franklin spins a yarn about wanting to interview Craddock about the absence of politics in his plays, but his real interest is in Llewellyn and whether the minister has one or more skeletons in his cupboard. Franklin’s enrolment of Craddock in this pursuit (Craddock fancies Franklin, a key reason he goes along with it) is the motor of the plot, but on the way there are flashbacks illuminating Craddock and Llewellyn’s past, along with relevant aspects of post-war political history.
I read the paperback pretty much on publication in 1983, and missed a couple of the roman a clef aspects. Only on re-reading does it become clear that Llewellyn’s mentor Dick Goddard is based on Richard Crossman, Cabinet Minister from 1964 to 1970, and that the bibulous John Lowndes is drawn from George Brown, Cabinet Minister from 1964 to 1968.
Hopcraft has the party led by a sort of Wilson–Callaghan hybrid called Harrison.
But even as a callow young man, I identified first time round Llewellyn’s supposed partner in corruption, George Birtles, as none other than one-time ‘Mr Newcastle’, city council leader T. Dan Smith. During the Labour heyday of the Sixties, when Birtles/Smith is turning his city into the ‘Brasilia of the North’, Llewellyn acts as unofficial go-between linking Whitehall with this human dynamo.
Roy Llewellyn is hugely impressed: ‘[T]he whole place was being re-made. Its centre seemed to be populated almost entirely by men in protective helmets. It shook to the noise of pneumatic drills and pile-drivers as if under shell-fire.’
Birtles: ‘Visualise it, Roy. A vertical village within a city. It will be one of the sights of Europe. I tell you, Roy, the town planners on the continent are going to flock here. We’ll amaze them…’
Llewellyn: ‘He’s a genuine political primitive. He’s building Jerusalem up there – with nightclubs.’
Craddock ventures north to interview Birtles as the Seventies draw to a close and as Birtles’s enemies draw in. His pretext for seeing Birtles fools no-one.
‘A good team, Roy and me. Bound to make enemies. Can’t avoid it.’ There was another lumpy grin. ‘So, you’re on a fishing expedition, are you? You’re not the first … I’ve had a good half-dozen Fleet Street boys up here in the last three or four months.’
Birtles sketches his own epitaph: ‘I’m the greatest public benefactor this city and this region has ever known.’
The slide from the heady days of Labour’s mid-Sixties high noon to the downbeat greyness of the late Seventies is deftly handled. At one point, Goddard is speaking, Crossman-style, to his tape recorder, blaming Harrison for growing disillusionment:
‘He’s surrounded himself with fixers. He’s surrounded us with them. Downing Street, the Lobby, Whitehall – it’s an infestation. The special advisers have their special advisers who have their special assistants.’
That sounds vaguely familiar.
Llewellyn foresees election defeat, writing: ‘Rather think Christmas ’78 will be my last in govt office. Not resigning, old son. Suspect boot up collective botty imminent. Oh, happy day!’
The seediness of 1978–79 is brilliantly evoked, and prompts a spirited defence from Craddock when Franklin criticises a shabby pub in which they are lunching:
‘This is the heart of England. Formica and chips … There’s a stubborn tastelessness in British life that saves us from all kinds of dangerous excursions. People who are content to take their ease in a place like this are never going to fall in line behind the Workers’ Revolutionary Party or the National Front or any other gang of lunatics.’
During his upcountry Birtles hunt, Craddock checks into a hotel that has seen better days:
[T]he particular old-hotel smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol and ingrained dust and that utterly specific overlay that came from keeping the central heating at full power. Craddock knew it as ‘radiator pong’.
He adds: ‘It was the kind of hotel where night porters made their homes. A decade was nothing in their lives.’
Meanwhile, Llewellyn’s American wife Mary notices a change in atmosphere in her adopted country:
Mary said the table was too big. The place felt too masculine – too much starched white linen. She didn’t want fillet steak or turbot – any of that masculine kind of food … English good taste was creeping back into the national life, she’d noticed, like some old disease.
These sharp observations are never spoilt by clodhopping references to the year of the three Popes, the Bee Gees or the winter of discontent. Indeed, so fastidious is Hopcraft in regard to this last point that it seems somewhat incredible that Craddock and his fellow Londoners would make precisely no references to what amounted to a general strike in the public sector.
Margaret Thatcher is similarly invisible.
Spoiler alert: Llewellyn has indeed been a bad boy, but not quite in the way Franklin assumed.
It is hard to recall now the harm that the corruption scandals of the early 1970s inflicted on the Labour Party. Perhaps the atmosphere and attitude of the time was best summed up in a few lines from Hopcraft’s rightly-praised Tinker Tailor Solider Spy screenplay:
‘You scratch my conscience, I’ll drive your Jag, right? … I’m just saying that’s England now, man. All you have to do is look out the bloody window.’