Ferdinand Mount has had a varied and fascinating career – head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy unit, columnist and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement. So he probably knows a thing or two about politics and journalism. And in his latest novel Making Nice he turns that knowledge with a decidedly satirical eye to the world of politics, PR and big data.
Dickie Pentecostas is a foreign affairs journalist. When the book opens he is on a camping holiday with his wife and two daughters. There they meet the mercurial Ethelbert a charismatic young man who quickly strikes up a relationship with the family. When Pentecost loses his job, Ethel (as he likes to be known although it turns out this is not his actual name), who has already ingratiated himself with the family, offers him a position with his PR firm Making Nice. Dickie has no idea what he is doing but it being used as a British figurehead for the firm which has some decidedly dodgy clients and some dodgier business practices.
Over the course of his employment Dickie will be sent to Africa to support the campaign of a corrupt politician, to the States to do something similar for a Trumpian candidate (although it turns out as a dry run for an even more Trumpian candidate), and then back to the UK to be a ghost writer and then policy adviser for a Government Minister. At every turn he is manipulated and soft-soaped by Ethel who stays in the background when things go badly. But he, much like the public, consistently buys what Ethel is selling, particularly when it comes with a healthy pay check. Dickie, despite all of his experience, is a babe in the woods in these new circumstances, not seeing the train that is bearing down on him until it has already run him down.
Making Nice is that particular brand of British satire that is both subtle and incredibly broad but with a purpose. Mount is not backwards in coming forwards about the underhanded and illegal data practices and cult of personality that underpin modern election campaigns and the bankruptcy of government policy making. The comedic and farcical elements of the plot and a characters are there to make a very bitter medicine go down. But Mount mainly gets the balance right – making readers laugh, shudder and think at the same time.