Thursday, 20 June 2002

John O'Farrell: Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter 1979-1997 (1998)

Edition: Black Swan, 1999
Review number: 1098

Many tragic events can seem comic in retrospect, and in this book the depression accompanying being a Labour Part supporter in Thatcher's Britain is made very funny indeed. As someone mildly left wing (rabidly so by the standards of the place where I grew up, where even the Conservatives are too left wing to be voted onto the local council), I shared many of the disappointments felt by John O'Farrell, albeit in a less committed way partly dictated by being seven or eight years younger as well as by my own apathy. (I have only once been to a demonstration, against the Tiananmen Square massacre, and even that only involved a forty second walk.)

What Things Can Only Get Better consistently reminded me of was the series of Adrian Mole diaries; I liked this better because all the embarrassing social ineptitude which made me cringe with Sue Townsend's creation is missing. As a memoir of a time which I lived through from a point of view close to my own, it brought back a lot of memories. Of course, it is not altogether a tragic black comedy; all those who read it are likely to know that it will have a happy ending (at least for readers who share O'Farrell's viewpoint). And the story of the Labour victory in 1997 is told in an ecstatic, cathartic way, so the reader relives the triumphal feelings of 1 May over again. This is partly because Things Can Only Get Better was written before the euphoria wore off - after five years, many people are much more cynical about Blair's government. (It is noticeable how little the Conservatives have learnt from the internal difficulties experienced by the Labour party after Thatcher's victory in 1979 - history repeats itself with a vengeance.) I am not entirely sure what I think myself about them now, other than pleasure that the clip of Michael Portillo losing his seat is likely to appear in every TV compilation about nineties politics until the end of time. Any detailed analysis I could come up with would just be a dull catalogue of "on the other hand"s (and there is more than enough prevarication in my writing already).

Most people who are likely to enjoy this book probably already know about it (I've heard it serialised on the radio, for example). But if you have any interest in British politics recounted in an amusing way, particularly if you yourself were a Labour sympathiser in the eighties and nineties, I would urge you to read Things Can Only Get Better.

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