Commons People

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When I first started working at the House of Commons, back in 2001, Philip Hensher was still discussed in dark tones by my colleagues. He was the only employee in living memory to have been sacked. Five years before, he had written Kitchen Venom, a novel set in the Clerks’ Department where we worked, about John, a secretly gay, hunchbacked senior clerk who spends his workday afternoons sneaking off to see a beautiful Italian rent boy in Earls Court.

Hensher wasn’t sacked for the novel, per se, although senior management weren’t entirely happy about his depiction of clerks as workshy fops who have no respect for the MPs they advise and who ‘treat Members to their faces with civility, and behind their backs as inferior undergraduates who have mistaken their ambitions’. The sackable offence came while Hensher was publicizing Kitchen Venom. He gave an interview to Attitude in which he expounded upon how many Members were gay, how ugly most of them were and which ones he found attractive. He revealed he had always rather liked Gordon Brown’s ‘shagged-out look’.

My colleagues were primarily upset by what they viewed as thinly veiled poison-pen portraits of certain individuals, and, according to Hensher, in an interview in the Independent, by small details such as

the clerks sitting round composing lists of the 20 stupidest MPs in the House. It was just too galling to have someone say that Commons life is full of people playing stupid games. But then the point of the book is the interplay between ordinary human beings and the jobs they occupy.

When I read the book, I could vaguely recognize some traits of some people (others had since retired), but it was hard to understand why my colleagues couldn’t view the novel objectively and judge it on its literary merits.

Kitchen Venom is set in 1990, during the lead-up to Thatcher’s forced resignation. Thatcher appears herself at intervals throughout the novel, reflecting grandly on her power and the loss of it and sometimes acting as an omniscient narrator of the main characters’ stories. This lends the novel part of its off-kilter quality.

After a prelude in which the Prime Minister relates an anxiety dream about her loss of power, the novel starts with the funeral of John’s unpopular wife. Hensher relishes the social awkwardness of the occasion, detailing the hypocritical conversations a

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About the contributor

Rowena Macdonald’s first collection of short stories, Smoked Meat, was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. Her first novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in 2017. She still works at the House of Commons.

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