Book review: Things Can Only Get Worse? by John O’Farrell

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Things Can Only Get Worse? Twenty Confusing Years In The Life Of A Labour Supporter by John O’Farrell, Published by: Doubleday

In 1998, John O’Farrell published, Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997. It was an enjoyable and genuinely funny political memoir detailing O’Farrell’s life from his teenage defeat as Labour candidate in his school’s 1979 mock election to the happy ending of the New Labour landslide in 1997. Eighteen years is a long time: by 1997, O’Farrell was well into his thirties, balding, married with children and thanks to his work on the likes of Spitting Image and Radio 4’s Weekending, an established comedy writer.

The book was a big hit. But now twenty years have passed again since Blair’s first big win and the story of that period as related in this sequel is rather more complex.

On the one hand, New Labour won yet another landslide in 2001 and a third big win in 2005. The Tories have never really recovered from their 1997 trouncing, winning only one small majority in any of the last six General Elections. And as O’Farrell says, things undeniably got better under Labour, with the government “writing off the debt of the world’s poorest countries…transforming the NHS by trebling health spending and massively reducing waiting lists…the minimum wage, and pensioners getting free TV licences and the winter fuel allowance…peace in Northern Ireland… equality for the gay community…all the new schools…free entry to museums and galleries…” The list goes on (and on).

John O'Farrell, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Eastleigh

On the other hand, as O’Farrell admits, there are certainly grounds for pessimism. O’Farrell often felt conflicted defending the Blair Government as a Guardian columnist in the early 2000s particularly after Iraq. He had a bit of a laugh campaigning as the Labour candidate for the hopelessly Tory seat of Maidenhead in the 2001 second Labour landslide election running against an unimpressive Opposition frontbencher called Theresa May. But the disintegration of Labour under Brown and Miliband was hardly a joy to behold for him or anyone else who backed Labour. O’Farrell’s candidature in the 2013 Eastleigh by-election in which he came fourth, was less fun too with the Tory tabloids attacking him with out of context quotes from his first book. By 2016, with O’Farrell despairing of the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the Brexit result and the election of Donald Trump, the celebrations of victory night in May 1997 start to seem like a very long time ago indeed.

Thankfully, O’Farrell is always a funny writer, remaining upbeat even as when for others, things would only get bitter.

After all, even at their worst, Labour have never been as bad as the Tories. Yes, the Tories: a party who supported the Iraq War far more enthusiastically than Labour did (and indeed, whose support ensured it happened), a party who fiercely upheld Labour’s spending plans at the time (rightly) only to attack them endlessly (and wrongly) later, a party whose membership enthusiastically chose Jeffery Archer as its choice for London mayor and Iain Duncan Smith as their party leader.

This is an excellent book. And thanks to Theresa May’s calamitous General Election miscalculation, it even has a happy ending.

Sort of.

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Book review: A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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Teddy Todd is rather surprised to find he has survived the Second World War. The main character in Kate Atkinson’s tenth novel has, after all, had a harrowing war experience and like 90% of those who joined Bomber Command during the war might have expected to have perished.

Kate Atkinson fans (and there are many) will have met Teddy before. Her previous book Life After Life saw the main character Ursula Todd living numerous lives over and over again. Every time Ursula died, whether in infancy or as an adult perhaps during the same Second World War, Ursula returns to the original start date: her birth in February 1910. Teddy is her beloved brother (born around 1915) and, like her sister, shares multiple fates and outcomes throughout that book.

Don’t worry if you can’t remember Life After Life, in detail, however (or even if you haven’t read it although I would recommend it). This novel does not share the same structure. It does, however, jump around through Teddy’s long life I and indeed the last century in a manner reminiscent of Atkinson’s fondly remembered debut of twenty years ago Behind The Scenes At The Museum.

Teddy is, his war experiences aside, a plodder and a rather dull character in himself. But rest assured, the novel is anything but. Whether dealing with bombing raids over Germany, the experiences of Teddy’s unlovely daughter Viola on a Seventies commune, or the details of 21st century York hen parties, this is a consistently enthralling read.

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Published by: Doubleday.

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