It’s July 1976. Parliament is about to rise for the summer, politicians and civil servants are about to desert Westminster. Will Flemyng, intelligence officer turned politician, now a junior minister in the Foreign Office, slips off to a clandestine meeting with a former colleague. A parliamentary bill is in trouble. Senior American espiocrats are visiting London. There is already a sense of nervous tension in the political air — then the discovery of a mysterious corpse in a basement cupboard in parliament threatens to turn it into a full-blown crisis, which could blow apart not only the government but the special relationship.
So far, so good, in the BBC Today presenter James Naughtie’s first novel, The Madness of July. But 1976 was a long time ago. Although it might not feel so far off for those who were alive and politically conscious at the time, it’s as long ago from today as 1938 was from 1976.
Britain was another country where we did things differently. It wasn’t a country where cabinet ministers closed official meetings by slapping the table and saying “Let’s do it!” or pulled on an old pair of jeans and called everyone by their Christian names (they still don’t). Parliamentary private secretaries not only couldn’t type, but were kept well away from the typewriters of the highly skilled secretarial cadre.
The Foreign Office in particular was famously conservative. In the Sixties some ambassadors were still insisting that their staff wear stiff collars; in the Seventies most expected to be called “Sir” (there was no female British ambassador until 1976); until 1973 women had to resign on marriage; and all against the backdrop of a decade dominated domestically by political tribalism and in foreign affairs by the Cold War.
Leaving aside the historical background, more fundamentally, there’s not enough formality, hierarchy, pace or paper in Naughtie’s Whitehall: officials and politicians are almost interchangeable, and the relationships between them feel too cosy. None of them seems particularly busy, and their endless meetings seem unstructured (and are certainly unminuted). His politicians are a curiously introspective lot, who don’t seem to have skin thick enough for the game they’ve chosen to be in, aren’t very political, and don’t even act as if they want to be in control-although they must have come from the stiff-upper-lip, who’s-in-charge-here generation who served either in the war or did National Service.
The parallel networks — of officials and politicians — are merged, and everyone is on first name terms with each other. Naughtie does not reflect the reality of officials who are loyal to their departmental hierarchies and their permanent secretaries (who control their careers), rather than to individual ministers, or of ministers who know their tenure will be limited and want to make a mark before the opposition win the next election, and who have constituents and a party to impress. Naughtie’s idea of how Whitehall worked in the 1970s probably tells us more about how the BBC bureaucracy works today than it does about how Britain was run 40 years ago.
These aren’t the kind of pedantic anachronisms or technical inaccuracies that one should be able to ignore. They are more than the equivalent of my father pointing out “But they didn’t have golden labradors in 1912”, every time we watch the opening credits of Downton Abbey. Without the verisimilitudes on which to hang one’s disbelief, it’s sometimes difficult for the narrative to get off the floor and run.
Le Carré works — the earlier novels better than the later — to a large extent because institutional structures and roles so clearly drive the relationships and behaviour of his anti-heroes. Naughtie is no le Carré, but The Madness of July is closer to le Carré than unwatchable tosh like Spooks.
Does this matter? After all, Spooks is probably just as successful commercially as le Carré, and most readers won’t be bothered by inaccuracies they don’t notice. I think it does, because in the long term fiction has a way of defining received popular opinion in a way that journalism or academic history do not. When Naughtie takes his protagonists to environments he knows well — the passageways of the Palace of Westminster, the lochs and hills of Scotland, or to the electrifying emotional impact of a Gaelic sung Mass — it all feels real and alive. The interweaving of Flemyng family secrets with the political storyline is intriguing, and there are enough gradual and late revelations to keep the reader engaged.
This is a well-plotted and finely written novel. But writing a historical novel is risky, especially if you are writing about a period that many others also know well. Now, if only he had set it in the BBC in the Seventies.