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Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell

1 October 2007

A political book that isn’t based around the life and times of a particular politician? Now there’s a change in my reading habits.

Things Can Only Get Better by John O’Farrell

Things Can Only Get Better is subtitled ‘Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter’, so you get three guesses as to which 18 years he was talking about (and the first two have already been cut from the budget to reduce the number of civil servants administrating them). O’Farrell was one of the writers for Spitting Image, the satirical sketch show of the scary-looking puppets, and this book is the story of his work for the Labour Party in south London during the years when Margaret Thatcher and John Major were in power.

O’Farrell was very active in local Labour politics in Battersea and in the neighbouring areas in the 1970s and 1980s, and the back cover of the book describes it as the ‘confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level’. Reading Things Can Only Get Better is indeed very much like reading a confession…though more often it’s a denunciation of the people and events that seemed to conspire to keep Labour out of office for so long. (Not surprisingly, O’Farrell doesn’t exactly stress the fact that in some ways, one of those ‘conspirators’ was the Labour party itself). Granted, he does get in a few good lines along the way, as in his opinion of the Falkland Islands:

It just wasn’t fair. Why did Margaret Thatcher have to go to war against a fascist dictatorship? Why couldn’t we have a straightforward goodies and baddies war, where Margaret Thatcher was the baddie and the People’s Democratic Socialist Republic of Narnia were the goodies?

Good for a chuckle, at least. But to have to read pages and pages where the main message is one of ‘Death to Thatcher, death to the Tories’ rapidly gets tiresome, and eventually off-putting. O’Farrell takes potshots at anyone whom he seems to think helped keep Labour out of office — there’s a rather savage attack on David Owen and the SDP; O’Farrell essentially calls them all traitors and backstabbers for jumping ship when Labour seemed to be sinking beneath the waves. I’m far from being a Thatcherite myself, but I honestly don’t buy the theory that for two decades Labour was unjustly crushed under the Iron Lady’s heels, or that the Liberals and the SDP and the Monster Raving Looney Party were in league with the Tories in a grand plot to keep the left out of office, or — and this sort of thing really turns my stomach — that British voters were just too stupid/greedy/lazy to really understand what a menace the Conservatives were to the country. Sorry, John, but even I know that that’s not the way to convince anyone that you’re on the people’s side.

As the personal story of a grassroots political activist and a man who genuinely wanted to make things better for the people of the area he lived in, Things Can Only Get Better is an entertaining book. But it’s not always easy to wade through the knee-deep anti-Thatcher polemic to get to the story, or even to the funny bits. Even so, I did find the book a welcome change from the more official sorts of biographies.

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