DICKIE PENTECOST, a middle-aged diplomatic correspondent for a London paper, is “champing” — that is, camping in a church — with his wife and teenage daughters when he meets a charming young man called Ethel (short for Ethelbert), who casts the entire family under his spell.
It turns out that Ethel runs a PR company, Making Nice. So, when Pentecost loses his job on the paper (“we are reshaping our editorial capacity . . . who needs diplomatic briefings on Chatham House terms when the foreign secretary himself is tweeting like a bloody blue tit?”), he accepts a job with the company. Before he knows it, he finds himself dispatched to Africa and the United States to work on decidedly dodgy presidential election campaigns; later, he’s given a brief as a ghost writer and special adviser to an equally dodgy UK government minister.
Pentecost goes with the flow, and, despite his bumbling, appears to deliver results on his suspiciously vague brief. But what exactly is Making Nice up to? And is Ethel who he says he is? Only when he begins an entirely inappropriate relationship with Pentecost’s 16-year-old daughter does the spineless Dickie seem to hear alarm bells.
The plot rollicks along from one improbable scene to another, as Pentecost progresses swiftly through the murky world of special advisers and political spin. It’s all great fun: as the publisher says, imagine Evelyn Waugh meets Armando Ianucci’s The Thick of It. And, of course, this is a world that the author, Ferdinand Mount, knows intimately: he was head of No. 10’s policy unit under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and editor of the Times Literary Supplement throughout the 1990s.
So far, so much political parody. The book was written last year, and yet the timing could hardly be better: the spectre of Dominic Cummings hovers over every page. Seldom can a satirical novel have proved more pertinent.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
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