Friday, 19 August 2016

A Very English Scandal : Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston (2016)

I remember the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979 and this book, though brilliant and a real page-turner, lets the reader down in one big way. First, the good stuff. It's like 'breaking news in a book'. There it is, in print: The downright allegation that Jeremy Thorpe ordered the killing of Norman Scott. 

We may have all suspected that this was the case but this book's author, John Preston, comes right out and actually says it. Brave? Certainly, on the day of Thorpe's death in 2014, journalist Tom Mangold refuses to make the claim. 

Anyway, it's spine-chilling that such a distinguished person as Thorpe did the things he did and then was protected to get away with it. So, the book's brilliant. However...

I remember the trial and I remember the massive homophobia that surrounded it. No one was protecting Jeremy Thorpe at my school. If you were called Jeremy or Norman, you were gay. People accused others of 'biting the pillow' as a derogatory insult. This saying came out during the trial, attributed to Norman Scott. It was all revolting and the book doesn't look at this rampant hate-filled stuff at all. Maybe it wasn't in the book's remit but I certainly remember it and I think it's worth a mention at least. 

The reporting of the trial, and society's response to it, held back the gay rights movement in the UK. But that said, the book's a brilliant look at how an important person could get what they wanted and how the establishment looked after its own. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

I read this book just after the EU referendum result and all of the political turmoil that followed it. At first I felt guilty that I should be so diverted from reading the newspapers and then I realised that Robert Harris’s fourth book about the Romans, and his third featuring the life of philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator and political theorist, Cicero, actually accompanied the news. 

Breathlessly told, these books are page-turners. It certainly isn’t like reading an ancient scroll in undecipherable language. I haven’t been able to put down any of the books. But this one…This I think is the best. Because there’s so much intrigue, plotting, the lust for power, the holding onto power and the need for power; despite whether it’s good for the people or not. 

Just at a time when the Empire started to decline…and before the fall. Cicero hoped for a balance of power between important people but the urge to be the main person in charge was always too much for too many leaders-in-waiting. Absolute power corrupts absolutely but it’s also very moreish. 

And I’ve concluded that, almost two thousand years later, our politicians just aren’t as good at back-biting (or indeed back-stabbing in the case of Caesar or anyone else you may care to name) as those quaestors, aediles, praetors etc  in Rome back in the day. Mind you, it was pretty easy to leave the Senate, stir the crowd into a frenzy and then terrify your enemies with some well-stationed centurions camped in the Field of Mars. These days you have to live with 24 hour news, social media and things you said in the past that can come back to haunt you. Never is there the need to more subtle. But modern politicians are no Cicero. 

As I write, the political shenanigans following Brexit have calmed down a bit. But, just as in the Rome of Cicero’s times, you feel that the population’s best interests can often be back-burned because someone, somewhere, covets the top job and will do anything to get it. I want to be Emperor! 

Cicero though, I'm sure, would have told them all how to do it so much more effectively.