Making Nice, by Ferdinand Mount, Bloomsbury, 248 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-1472994387
In his memoir Cold Cream, Ferdinand Mount told of being invited to run Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit at Number 10 despite having had no experience of the workings of government. Once he got over the shock of being asked, he said yes. “My reasons for accepting the offer are pretty easy to break down: wish to make a difference, fame and flattery and above all curiosity,” he wrote. “Whatever else it might be it was an unrivalled opportunity to see the workings of the machine at its core.”
He has let loose with that insider knowledge in Making Nice, a satirical fiction that sets about skewering people in public relations, politics and journalism. Mount’s CV includes eleven years as editor of The Times Literary Supplement as well as that stint as prime minister’s speechwriter, so who better to send up politicians and their special advisers (spads) and have a swipe at journalists while they’re at it? (The book is even dedicated to “my fellow Wonks and Spads, who have so diverted me over the years”.)
The book has numerous storylines but let’s just look at a few, and start near the beginning. Summoned to his managing editor’s office in London for one of those meetings where coffee isn’t offered, diplomatic correspondent Dickie Pentecost is told that his job has become obsolete in a digitally-transforming newspaper. With casual brutality he is fired, the explanation being that his reports are of no use whatsoever when “even the Foreign Secretary is tweeting like a bloody blue tit”.
In no time at all Dickie, desperate to find well-paid employment, has been enticed into a London public relations firm, one with a dubious client list and a sideline in “reputation management”, a service every bit as shady as it sounds. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, of course. The PR agency is headed by Ethelbert “Ethel” Evers, a cunning middleman with the sort of dishevelled appearance that requires very careful curating. Before you can say “Dominic Cummings” he is running Dickie’s life.
Ethel sends his new recruit to Africa, as a consultant to a tech firm that’s helping with the re-election of a political candidate. When Dickie voices concerns about his own suitability for the (suspiciously well-paid) assignment, he’s told: “Oh, the techies will handle all the data mining and message seeding. You’ll be there to inject legitimacy into the whole process ‑ you’ll have the UN guys eating out of your hands. Quite frankly, having a Brit as our campaign director is the ultimate cred boost.” Plenty of nods in this chapter to Evelyn Waugh’s innocent abroad in Scoop, and digs at the kind of relationships between journalists and big business that are just that bit too cosy.
When his first foreign posting ends abruptly (“Come on, Dickie, Africa was yesterday, it didn’t happen”) he’s dispatched to Chicago as principal political strategist for a Republican senator seeking the presidential nomination. The politician doesn’t need to be convinced that manipulating data and promoting content is how to win a modern election. “I’m pretty big on data myself,” he says. “That’s the way to get up close and personal with the voters. You can’t just wave to them from some godforsaken whistle-stop any more … you’ve got to find out about their bank balances, mortgages, health insurance, find out where it’s really hurting.” The US election interlude is humorous and incisive, but also revealing about the high-stakes world of an American election campaign.
Mount is clearly writing from experience about the workings of Westminster, where the ever-bewildered Dickie later finds himself a special adviser to the secretary of state. There are strong echoes here of the timeless Yes Minister, also a fictional satire that gave us credible insights into another world. And the point is made – it’s one often alluded to by writers with insider knowledge of the corridors of power ‑ that it always pays to be nice to your underlings. Andrew Mitchell, for example, in his recent memoir Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey, tells of the lessons he learned during his time as a Tory MP, including the importance of looking after department officials. By way of example, he recalls a minister who treated his officials so badly that, when reading out an important speech in the House of Commons, he turned a page to see just five words: “You’re on your own, minister.”
Every so often, in the midst of lies and subterfuge and when you least expect it, Mount surprises with a touching description. Pondering his family’s sudden realisation that he is redundant, Dickie takes a moment to imagine how their small cluster must look, “the five of us frozen in these postures of grief as in a baroque altarpiece of some much more profound sense of bereavement, the Crucifixion perhaps or the Pietà when all I had been bereaved of was a not very good job on a not very good newspaper, neither of which would soon exist if present trends continued”.
Making Nice also takes notice of the reality of being made redundant when middle-aged, of having to repackage yourself and compromise. It holds up a mirror too to middle class parenthood, its particular satisfactions and disappointments. Here’s the forlorn Dickie, caught up in yet another underhand assignment, remembering a ballet performance by one of his daughters: “It had been so heart-stopping to see the child you knew so well fly into this magical other world of which you knew nothing.” Mount does that a lot: surprises the reader with a sentimental moment. He did it to great effect in Kiss Myself Goodbye as he peeled back the layers of his aunt’s invented life; and frequently also in Cold Cream.
Throughout Making Nice, there are truths that the author may well have learned through personal experience. As when Dickie voices reluctance about having to ghostwrite a politician’s autobiography ‑ because the man is so thoroughly repellent ‑ and his wife tells him: “But, darling, that’s the whole point. Much more fun to be ghosting a monster than ploughing through all the great achievements of some famous goody-goody. Robert Maxwell or David Attenborough? No contest surely?” Likewise when an American analytics director explains to Dickie how a sense of humour is the rarest quality in a political candidate – Ronald Reagan being the exception cited ‑ and one that cannot be faked. (When writing in Cold Cream of his own experiences with Margaret Thatcher, Mount noted it was well-known that she was resistant to humour and that she often had to have jokes explained to her.)
And if all of the above isn’t enough excitement, there’s a reality shift near the end, which I’m not sure works, a whimsical sequence with Ethel, who has made the classic mistake of thinking he is the story, acting out the vengeful Pied Piper. There are suggestions of darker sensibilities but it all gets too fanciful. Perhaps the author was enjoying himself a little too much writing it.
So yes, some of the storyline is absurd, but it’s worth going along for the ride. For many of us, the book will provide an engaging education in practices such as data mining, big-tech venality, high-tech election fraud, oh and some fresh hell called astroturfing (in this case it’s the PR agency mobilising youngsters to write glowing reviews about second-rate hotels). On the broader stage, the tabloidisation of political campaigns, and the reach and capabilities of global digital platforms are offered up.
We are certainly living in interesting times: the author presents the carry-on of the main players, especially those involved in the spin industry ‑ or, if you prefer, news management ‑ as mainstream and commonplace. We’ve come a very long way since special adviser Jo Moore’s 2001 email suggestion that 9/11 was a good day “to bury bad news” (leaked, unfortunately for her, while the towers were still burning) caused such widespread repulsion and calls for her sacking.
Moving easily between comedy and tragedy, Making Nice has memorable observations. Of his oncologist wife, who comes across as somewhat aloof, Dickie thinks, “She is not the first person I would choose to tell me that from now on it’s palliative care only.” Mount, such an elegant writer, can make you want to read a description more than once. For instance in this scene, set in a Chicago jazz club, just as the show was about to begin: “The elderly jazzmen shuffled onto the little horseshoe stage, wrinkled tortoises joshing each other as they settled their instruments over their bent shoulders for the opening number …”
But most of all, Making Nice is about the kind of people who have no interest in the common good, those to whom lying comes naturally. Caught in the middle is Dickie Pentecost, forever out of his depth and content to wait it out. By the time he is dropped as a minister’s aide, yet another post for which he is clearly unsuitable, the slave is happy to be free, or as free as he ever will be. “The truth is I take quite kindly to being boxed in,” he muses at one point. “If I had been a prisoner of war, I would never have joined the escape committee.”
Anything that throws a light on how politics actually functions must be welcomed, even if it leaves us with uneasy thoughts about how easy it is for unelected elites to guide affairs of state. If Ferdinand Mount’s intention was to alarm readers with shrewd observations presented as satire, then he has succeeded. A clever mockery that entertains and challenges? Definitely. Far-fetched? Maybe not.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.