I first read Chris Mullin’s famous first novel, A Very British Coup, about Harry Perkins, a left-wing firebrand in the late 1980s, who becomes Prime Minister only to be deposed by the establishment, after watching the brilliant Channel 4 adaptation starring Ray McNally. Getting hold of the original novel the series was based on, I was surprised by its brevity, more a novella than a novel. Reading the book, I was also thoroughly disappointed, for unlike the series the novel suffered from clunky dialogue, paper thin characters, and just didn’t do the story justice.
The Friends of Harry Perkins is Mullin’s sequel to A Very British Coup, something people have asked for years whether he was going to write and which he had no real intention of doing. With Brexit he changed his mind and well here we are. Like the first novel, this is a very short book, just 192 pages. Set a few years after Brexit, the story tells of Fred Thomson, Perkins’ former aide, re-entering politics. Winning Harry Perkins’ old seat for Labour, Thomson rises up the greasy pole and has to contend with the far right, the ongoing damage caused by Brexit, the Tories, all the while with a war brewing between the United States and China. All within what is really a novella rather than a novel.
Unlike A Very British Coup, I found The Friends of Harry Perkins to be very well written. On the whole the dialogue was convincing rather than clunky (though there were occasions of exposition) and the characters while not as developed as they might, were convincing. The Thomson family suffers a very personal tragedy during the narrative, and this was portrayed very powerfully, I don’t mind admitting that this section had me shed a tear. Similarly, the parliamentary machinations are handled adeptly, not surprising seeing as the author was himself a parliamentarian for many years.
That all said, this novel suffers from two related problems. The first is one that afflicted A Very British Coup – the brevity. It’s been a few years since I read that title, but the concept was relatively simple: a left-wing firebrand become Prime Minister, only to be deposed by the establishment. But despite its simplicity, the shortness of the novel just couldn’t do it justice, there just wasn’t the space for the narrative to breath. The plot of The Friends of Harry Perkins is more convoluted and nebulous, and thus the brevity of the narrative is even less satisfactory.
The second problem is that while A Very British Coup dealt with a historical issue, The Friends of Harry Perkins is much more current. A Very British Coup was apparently inspired by the idea of what would happen if Tony Benn became Prime Minister, something which was never going to happen (unlike now when Corbyn became leader of the party). The idea of MI5 and the establishment undermining a Prime Minister harked back to conspiracy theories which suggest they did just that to Harold Wilson. But the fact is it was never likely to happen at the time was and pure speculation. Now Corbyn might become Prime Minister, the novel has gained renewed currency.
The Friends of Harry Perkins, however, deals with Brexit and by necessity the narrative has to make predictions as to what might happen. But with Brexit-related events changing by the minute the risk is that the narrative will be taken over and made redundant by events rather than be seen as prescient. Again, the brevity of the text makes this danger greater for if the author had taken the time to flesh out his scenario, he might have made a convincing alternate universe that even if overtaken by events would give an insight into how things might have been. Unfortunately, he just gives us a skeleton of a scenario, the bare ones of one, and thus it is easily forgettable.
All in all, The Friends of Harry Perkins is perversely better written than A Very British Coup but much less compelling as a story. That said, it will sell well on the basis of the author’s reputation and the success of the original. But I have a prediction: Just as A Very British Coup was snapped up for television and the television show was much better than the original source material, I imagine it won’t be long before history repeats itself and the same occurs for The Friends of Harry Perkins.
James Pierson 3/3
The Friends of Harry Perkins by Chris Mullin
Scribner UK 9781471182488 hbk Mar 2019