Among the many diverse and glittering authors heading for Hexham Book Festival this weekend is one who is new to the literary game. Nadine Dorries has just seen her first novel, The Four Streets, published.
The title, in the North East in particular, sounds vaguely familiar.
On a social messaging site someone nailed it, remarking wittily: “So it’s Catherine Cookson with 11 streets missing?”
It seems unlikely that the busy and multi-faceted MP for Mid Bedfordshire was influenced by one of the North East’s most prolific and celebrated writers because she’s a little shaky on the subject of Dame Catherine’s vast canon.
“So many people have mentioned Catherine Cookson,” says Nadine, sounding puzzled.
“So many people have said, ‘This is like Catherine Cookson’. My publisher told me they were selling it as being in the Catherine Cookson genre.”
The Fifteen Streets was published in 1952 and a film version came out in 1989, starring Sean Bean and Jane Horrocks. It doesn’t seem to ring a bell with Nadine although she ventures: “I think I did read some Catherine Cookson when I was a teenager... The Cinder Path?”
There was a film of that, too, starring Catherine Zeta Jones. It was released in 1994. “Maybe I saw the film,” muses the first-time author. “I don’t get much time now for reading.”
She does, however, profess a fondness for “classic fiction”, notably the works of Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen and Hilary Mantel.
“What I tend to do, because I have to drive a lot around my constituency, is buy them on audio book. For me that’s a good way of not wasting time driving.”
Nadine Dorries’ allocation of time has been an issue for the Conservative backbencher in the past. When, in 2012, she appeared in the jungle on ITV show “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!” the public were quick to oblige, booting her out at the first available opportunity.
Some Tory bigwigs and voters, urged on by elements of the media, thought she shouldn’t have been there in the first place. There was a spirited debate about the party whip, wielded – you might think ungraciously – by Conservative Chief Whip Sir George Young.
Was this whip withdrawn or just suspended? Either way, it can’t have been a very comfortable way for Nadine to re-enter civilisation after her jungle brush with Geordie rascals Ant and Dec and their vast supply of edible insects and marsupial parts.
“I have one regret,” says Nadine. “That I didn’t leave a note behind, briefing Jenny to say, ‘Parliament is on holiday and I’m not missing any votes or Government legislation. This is my holiday’.”
Jenny is the Dorries daughter – one of three – who works for her mother in a role she describes as case worker. Poor Jenny, it seems, had to face the flak.
“The thing is, I knew I was going to get out first,” says Nadine. “I think I’d have been worried if I hadn’t been knocked out very quickly but what I didn’t know was that the media were giving the impression that Parliament was sitting.
“I suppose the one thing I do regret (actually, the second) is that some of my colleagues criticised me for being there because MPs can be a pretty humourless lot.”
You wonder what Douglas Hurd would make of this. The one-time Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major – and now Baron Hurd of Westwell – is also at Hexham Book Festival tomorrow to talk about his new book, Disraeli: or The Two Lives.
Talk about different types of Tory! At least with Hurd his allegiance makes sense: born in Marlborough, latest in a line of titled Conservative MPs, educated at Eton and Cambridge, professional diplomat before leaving to enter politics.
Nadine Dorries grew up on a Liverpool council estate and far from backtracking from her description of the leaders of our biggest political parties, including her own, as “posh boys”, she is happy to reiterate it several times under my tentative questioning.
In fact, my first question about her book – something bland like: “What is it like to be a published author?” – reopens the floodgates.
“I’ve been published for just five or six days,” she says.
“I suppose I’ve been slightly surprised by the reaction of some of the mainstream media.”
She was delighted that one critic had compared The Four Streets to Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt’s bestseller) but says The Telegraph has “just been absolutely vicious”. Nadine says she had counted no fewer than six “nasty” articles about her novel and alleged that a positive review had been replaced by a negative one.
Innocently, I’d assumed The Telegraph was a Tory newspaper so why would it do such a thing? “They’re not a Tory paper,” asserts Nadine. “The Telegraph constantly attacks the Tory Party. They’re more of a Ukip paper.”
She goes on to claim that the upper echelons of the national media, like the political parties, are dominated by posh people who have been privately educated.
“It’s very hard for anybody else to break into. I’ve been trying to get a local journalist here onto one of the national newspapers. She’s a great journalist but she’s just not from that set and no-one will give her a job.”
The same prejudice applies in politics, it seems.
“I love my constituency and the constituency work because it’s there that I get the most pleasure,” says Nadine.
“I sometimes can’t wait to get away from Westminster to do my surgery.
“I am slightly disappointed with Westminster and its processes and how difficult it is to achieve anything. It’s almost as if everything conspires against you.
“The only people who have the chance to change anything are those at the very top, people like Ed Miliband, who got his job because Gordon Brown was a friend of his father, and Nick Clegg and David Cameron who went to the right kind of schools.
“The rest of us might as well be ants going around. We don’t achieve anything.”
There are two questions I’m burning to ask. Firstly, what is a Liverpudlian doing holding down a safe Tory seat in Bedfordshire? And secondly, why is Nadine Dorries an MP at all when, clearly, she can knock out a publishable novel and get a berth on a reality TV show?
Nadine, who trained as a nurse after leaving school, says: “I’m a Conservative because Margaret Thatcher gave my parents the right to buy our council house which changed our lives. I believe in freedom and unfortunately, for me, I didn’t see the Labour Party as the party of freedom.”
She says she recently went back to Liverpool and was shocked at the run-down state of some of the old streets. “I did think, ‘Well, you wanted Labour here and you got them for 13 years and this is what you got’.
“I’m not saying they would have been better if a Conservative government had been in power but what I’m saying is sometimes politics really fails the people at the very bottom, whatever the party.”
Nadine says that in 2020 she will have been an MP for 15 years and at that point she will decide whether to stand again. “You see people who have been MPs for 40 years and some of them have great wisdom but you wonder if they’re at their most effective,” she says.
By then she might be up there (in the literary sense) with the Jeffrey Archers of this world.
The Four Streets is set in a close-knit Irish Catholic community in Liverpool in the 1950s where, as she writes, “life was lived close to the cobbles”. There you will meet Maura and Tommy Doherty and their “brood of children”, and Jerry and Bernadette Deane who live across the road – Irish immigrants all and destined for some 300 pages of trials and tribulations (apart from one of them who only survives until page 32).
Nadine tells a tough tale of poverty and struggle in which people stick together to survive the hard knocks. One character, though, is not so nice – Father James, the “black serpent” of a child abuser.
Partly, says Nadine, she was motivated to write the book to counter the ignorance of colleagues. “A lot of MPs don’t really understand what it’s like to live in poverty because they haven’t experienced it.
“But what I really wanted to show was how, even in the midst of all that, people can respond positively. It can bring out the best in communities and individuals. I wanted to write a novel that would bring out some of the positive things.”
“Quite a lot” of what you’ll read in The Four Streets, she says, is based on things that happened to people she knew. “Every character is a mish mash of people I grew up with.”
Money, says Nadine, doesn’t necessarily make you happy and that is partly what she wanted to convey in the novel. But she is quite happy to tell me that she signed a three-book, “six-figure” deal with her publishers.
If and when she gets sick of being an ant under the posh boys’ heels, the books might be her escape route to a better-heeled future.
Book two, Hide Her Name, bringing back some of the characters that have “become so real”, is due out in December.
- The Four Streets is published by Head of Zeus at £10. Nadine Dorries will be talking about her book at the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, at 8pm on Saturday. Tel. 01434 652477 for tickets. For more festival details go to www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk