It’s now just three weeks till the publication of Barbarians – the debut novel from former Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student Tim Glencross. One of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year, Barbarians is a tiepin-sharp satire about a political family at the end of the New Labour era. And, like many great novelists, Tim has drawn extensively on his own experiences to create the world of power and privilege in his book. In this blog piece – first published on the John Murray Beagle – Tim tells of his time as a parliamentary researcher at the beginning of the century, and how the ‘clubbish’ (for which read ‘intoxicated’) atmosphere at Westminster has changed over the past few years.
The House of Commons has long been seen as a fusion of legislature, executive and louche drinking society. Clare Short famously accused Alan Clark of being ‘incapable’ – meaning drunk – while making a statement to the House. (For some the scandal was not the spectacle of a minister of the Crown slurring at the despatch box as much as Short’s bad form in drawing attention to it.) Only last year, the Scottish MP Eric Joyce was arrested for fighting in a Commons bar; in the Guardian report of the incident, ‘Joyce… accepted he was “hammered” on red wine during the brawl.’
I started work in the Commons as an MP’s researcher only a few months after coming down from Cambridge. As a consequence, the full extent of the place’s clubbish eccentricity – the central importance of the various drinking establishments; the fact that the parliamentary day only properly got going in the early afternoon – was probably slightly lost on me.
The work itself required some getting used to, however. On my first day with the then shadow industry secretary I was given a few hours to write a speech on the future of the Post Office. My boss would be opening the Opposition Day debate on the subject that afternoon. It’s fair to say that, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the fate of rural post offices; worse, I struggled to see how anyone might have strong opinions on the subject. To my boss’s credit, he ignored my shoddy script and somehow resisted firing me as soon as he returned from the chamber.
The culture of Parliament has changed significantly in the almost decade since I left to go to law school. Bellamy’s bar – with origins dating back to the eighteenth century – is now a crèche. The Commons has family-friendly sitting hours. Shadow ministers are less likely to spend their mornings billing clients at their second jobs in the City or the Inns of Court. As for the researchers, they probably have postgraduate degrees in political science, meaning they wouldn’t mistake an Early Day Motion for some unfortunate hangover-related ailment.
I’m sure it is a good thing that the era of the political amateur is on the way out. Still, a part of me can’t regret the suggestion that, on the Continent at least, the new Anglo-Saxon fashion for sobriety has not completely caught on. I recently had lunch at the Flemish parliament. The waitress seemed to take as a personal insult the possibility I might decline an aperitif (I didn’t) while my host inspected the wine list. Taking in the panoramic view of the Brussels skyline, I felt almost like one of Henry James’s naïve protagonists falling prey to the charms of Europe. But it was probably just the booze.
Barbarians by Tim Glencross is published by John Murray on 22 May, price £14.99. To pre-order a copy, please click here.