I recently heard a Radio 4 program querying the lack of political satire during the Blair/Brown years. Several writers ( all men – what a surprise) spoke on the subject, opining that it was because most satirists are left leaning, so were ‘with’ The Project and didn’t want to say anything that might derail it, or rock the Blair boat.
May I put forward another opinion? There was no lack of writers ( including women) poking fun at the wilder excesses of Blair’s self-obsessed and sinister Government. What there was , however, was a severe lack of editors willing to publish what they wrote. Commissioners in every medium appeared uncomfortable and unwilling to air anything critical of New Labour – particularly in the early years when they still all believed the Emperor had clothes on.
As proof, I offer my own experience with my 2003 novel, Hard Choices, a dark and dystopian tale of life under a (mythical) Government in the (mythical) year of 0010. Despite a deluge of what he termed, “rave rejections”, my clever agent at Curtis Brown couldn’t find a publisher for love nor money for this story of Grace Fry Minister for Women, favorite girlie of smoothie PM Gideon Price, and her discovery of a nasty government plot . In the end I published it myself on a website – quite adventurous in those days – which provoked lots of people to write about it, and some to demand I do the same for their own political criticism. I was amazed – I thought it was just me, but here were some very well established authors who couldn’t get their rude and funny comments about Blair and his cohorts on radio, TV, film or in a bookshop. Conspiracy or cock-up? You decide.
Hard Choices was eventually published by Aurora Metro Press and is still out there – you can find it on Amazon, but here’s a little taste of what publishers and commissioners found so frightening:
Hard Choices: PROLOGUE
The piercing October sunlight struck Imre full in the face as he panted out of the copse. He winced and screwed up his eyes, momentarily blinded after the resinous gloom. Across the field, the distinct howls of the pursuing pack indicated the hunt was not far away and after a brief gasp at the stabbing stitch in his side, he set off in a stumbling run towards the bramble hedge beyond which, he hoped, was a road.
His back was to the sun now and his vision cleared enough for him to see the frost of his breath on the still, blue air. In the distance he could make out the splendid spires of Lord Ransome’s mansion. Sunbeams blessed the gothic grey with a touch of Camelot. In the other direction reared the chimneys of the Ossophate factory; a white cloud of smoke puffed innocently above them, as if from a picture-book train.
The field he crossed was sprout green from recent rain. A cow munching, raised her soft head and gave him an unconcerned glance, as though accustomed to seeing a man in fox skin, brush dangling, speeding by in the muddy grass. Raucous barks and the sound of hooves churning the sodden turf urged him on. The bramble hedge, still blackberried and spotted here and there with bright splashes of poppy, offered dense sanctuary. Imre threw himself headlong into the tangle and, oblivious to scratches and snags, crashed through to the other side.
A little further up the narrow lane, a chaingang was working. With dull regularity their pick-axes rose and fell, scattering chips as they hacked into the surface. A large hole had already opened and the leader stopped to wipe his brow. He and Imre made eye contact. Not so much as a flicker visibly passed between them, but a moment later Imre dived into the hole and the gang, without pause in their automatic labour, covered him with rubble. The pointed snout of his fox-head disappeared, just as the first foaming horse cleared the hedge and clattered onto the tarmac. Through a mosaic of chinks Imre watched the hunt dither, the flecked horses snorting and stamping, the dogs winding in and out, whining. Then with a great bellow of the horn, the Master gestured onwards. His chestnut leapt the gate opposite and in seconds, the whole heaving, hallooing mob had followed.
When all sound of it had gone and the day had settled back into a calm broken only by a skylark and the occasional weary grunt from a worker, Imre thrust an arm through the rubble and with the help of the leader’s sinewy grip, clambered out of the hole. No words were spoken, but the leader dragged off Imre’s pelt and offered him a tattered denim jacket and a bit of bread. Imre tried to say thank you – that, at least, he knew in English, but his throat was choked with tears. The leader nodded and thumped his shoulder, then watched as the refugee set off up the road. Where, he wondered was he going?
Imre too was wondering. His plan was to get to someone who would believe his story. Grace Fry, the Government Minister who’d recently opened the Re-location Centre, might. She’d seemed friendly -had taken his hand in a firm grip, but he had no idea how to find her.
The air had warmed a little now and the sky turned deep cornflower. The sun filtered through the russet hedgerows and cast charming, lace-like patterns on the empty road ahead. Even in his despair, Imre could not help noticing that October was particularly beautiful that year. A blackbird chucked. A church clock struck the hour. One might almost think all was right with the world…
The white skin of the Drome glowed, the seaside sparkle lending a silky gloss to the PVC, as Grace Fry hurried towards it. As usual she was late, there never seemed enough hours in the day for her small Women’s Unit to attack the work she deemed essential. She saw it as attack, for that was her nature. Today however, the first day of Conference 0010, she was late not because of her own over-packed schedule, but because Ransome Rail had encountered a cow on the line.
Other ministers had been travelling on the same high-speed, tilting train; all had groaned as it tilted to a standstill leaving them on a tipsy incline. To be delayed for Conference, of all things- the consequences hardly bore thinking about! These thoughts were kept private. It was not done to criticise Lord Ransome. The Drome, towards which they travelled, had been bought by his consortium after the Great Crash of 0000 and re-leased to the Government for a nominal sum. It was one of Ransome’s most famous loss leaders. The railways were another. The Government had many reasons to be grateful to him.
Grace was more anxious than most. One of the first events of Conference was the ceremony at which she was to receive the Woman of the Decade Award from the prestigious European Female Federation. Though she courted the media and loved publicity – her detractors said too much – she was a naturally a little nervous. It would be a theatrical occasion. Her own performance must be immaculate.
To save time she slithered sideways, particularly awkward in her customary high-heeled shoes, to change in the Elite class ‘Fresh ‘n’ Up!’ facility. At the end of the carriage a Happiness Warden had already begun an uplifting exercise class for the more eager travellers. Idleness was frowned on. Those taking part had stripped down to modest one-piece undergarments, having travelled in expectation, and were jerking earnestly to chants of,“ Meat is death”, “ Greens are good”, “Eat your nuts” and so on. Any moment they would break into songs of praise. Grace nodded to Naomi Lord, Secretary of State for Family, in passing. Naomi was leaping with set jaw and dogged determination. Grace knew it would be noted that she hadn’t joined in.
As she tottered along the corridor hanging onto the Teflon ceiling straps, thoughtfully provided for these all too frequent unscheduled halts, Grace glimpsed through the convex windows fields rolling away to the distant sea. A labourer was ploughing with a horse-drawn plough, churning up great curls of rich chocolate-coloured soil. Seeing his broad, smocked back and gaitered legs, braced against the powerful, tramping horses, Grace thought fleetingly of a peasant Ben Hur. Behind the plough came head-shawled women, scattering seed and trundling huge drums of Ossophate fertiliser to spread along the furrows. Apart from the vivid ‘Osso’ logos – she could just make out the slanting slogan, ‘Puts “body” on your table – it was a biblical image.
Less so were the hoardings, which reared from the track sedges, announcing,
‘MORE CEREAL. LESS PROTEIN’ and ‘VEGGIES “R” U’.
Grace sighed. She could barely remember steak. She ran her tongue over her lips – she was an unreconstructed carnivore and would sometimes bite them just to taste blood. Not the sort of thing to admit in public. Well – not while the eating of meat was forbidden.
She bolted herself into the silver loo capsule complete with Toobs vanity unit, Osso night-soil re-cycler and spouting fountain of Ransome’s water and ducked away from the port-hole window labelled ‘Warden-Watch’, clicking her teeth in exasperation. Really, it was unnecessarily invasive in Elite class, she hated to be scrutinised about her toilette. She ran a comb through her blond urchin cut, grateful as always she didn’t have the bother of a wig, and applied careful make-up, finishing with a dash of bright coral lipstick. Lipstick was power. It was important to look young and vibrant.
Now, an hour later, she clacked down the front in a stunning white sharkskin suit, mirroring, not entirely serendipitously, the shiny Drome. Though Grace was used to the sight – the Drome had been the seat of Government ever since the collapse of the Houses of Parliament, due to faulty underground infrastructure – it still filled her with awe. Drome had an almost animal aura and breathed white light over everything.
Grace put up a hand to smooth hair tendrils slightly ruffled by the mild sea breeze, simultaneously making a mental check she had everything necessary for the rest of the busy day. She straightened her collar and her hand fell to the simple gold locket she wore round her neck. She fingered it absent-mindedly, as though it had talismanic properties and the mere fondle could reassure. The touchstone obviously worked, for a moment later her brow cleared and her step regained its bounce. Grace was never down for long. Besides, she was aware that shortly, her image would be relayed to many screens. It would not do to look troubled when approaching a moment of triumph.
Outside the twelve foot steel fence, which cordoned the Drome circumference and separated Grace from the pebbly, wave-lapped beach, groups of National Security Wardens were stationed at regular intervals. Their presence had been worrying when they’d first been created to quell the panic riots in the National Emergency after The Great Crash. The appalling terrorist attacks of 0000 had created world wide hysteria and many countries had resorted to a similar watchfulness. Now, like so much else, the sight of the wardens in their grey Teflon boilersuits had become unremarkable. Only a few years ago these streets would have been littered with beggars, drug addicts, refugees. Now, there was no sign of disturbance in the neat town, which was gaily decorated with national bunting in St George’s red and white, and strings of coloured lights for the Conference. Even the security cameras, which hung on every Heritage lamp-post trailed jolly ribbons. The Ministry of Mode had, as always, done an excellent job. Ransome’s red and silver logo appeared on many of the Government posters – his company had sponsored Conference this year – along with the Drome symbol which always reminded Grace, to her guilty amusement, of an old-fashioned Dutch cap. Martha had been the only one with whom she could share such irreverent thoughts.
The pricking of her wrist-bleep urged Grace to a trot. As well as giving messages and time by the nano-second, it emitted small electrical shocks, which increased in sharpness the later its wearer became. No one knew quite how highly charged they were. High-ranking ministers, who wore more powerful bleeps, could often be seen careering across Millennium Green, but the unpleasant tingle they caused at warning level was enough to spur most to action.
A few seconds later, the whirr of a security camera marked her arrival, a little out of breath, at the giant reclining figure of the entrance. Encouraged by the huge banner which draped the creature’s breasts, proclaiming, ‘Creating Stability. Go with Gideon.’ and pursued by the swivelling lens, Grace hurried through the androgyne’s mouth and down its transparent throat towards the foyer of the huge saucer- shaped building.