What's it about?
For New Labour Prime Minister, Edward Clare, the honeymoon period is definitely over. He is out of touch with the British people and becoming a liability. After a particularly humiliating moment during Prime Minister's Question Time, a plan is hatched to send the PM underground for a week to tour Britain and reacquaint with ordinary people. An effective disguise is called for, so Edward dons his wife's clothing and transforms himself into 'Edwina'. PC Jack Spratt, who guards the doorstep of number 10 Downing Street, is given the unenviable task of accompanying the Prime Minister on his travels. The black sheep of a family of petty crooks, Jack makes an unlikely travel companion for Edward. They're not exactly best buddies and Jack didn't even vote for him, but can some of Jack's down-to-earth wisdom and strong principles rub off on the clueless Prime Minister ? As if the PM hasn't got enough to worry about with touching up his Panstick so that his stubble doesn't show through, the tour brings him into contact with some of the more disturbing aspects of British life, such as hellhole council estates, drug dealers, petty criminals, NHS chaos and the decline of the English cream tea. Will Edward get through the week unscathed and undetected?
Back at home the PM's wife, Adele, an intellectual genius and author of such bestselling philosophy books as Arseholes in History and God is a Lesbian, has started hearing voices. Her increasing dependence on medication makes her a loose cannon, especially when she manages to spark a Fundamentalist controversy over the burial rights of amputated body parts. Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Malcolm Black, hovers in the wings, showing a keen interest in Edward's job. Will Edward learn anything of value on his travels - apart from realising that he's happier wearing his wife's clothes than his own? Will he hang on to his job and, more to the point, does he really want it? Is there a future for New Labour? More importantly, is there a future for the people of Britain? All will be revealed.
What I liked about it
I'm a big fan of Sue Townsend's work, having read and enjoyed all the Adrian Mole books and The Queen and I. What I love about her writing is her astute observations of social ironies. There are plenty of examples here, such as references to a care home being closed down and a breast augmentation clinic being built in its place, and a priest from Pretoria being sent to do missionary work on a housing estate in Leeds, which is described as being "like a lost civilisation."
Another thing I admire about Sue Townsend's writing style is the way she creates flawed characters but manages to give them a surprising dignity. There are characters you think you are going to hate when you first encounter them but quite often the character ends up winning your sympathy and grudging respect. Jack's mother, Norma, is such a character. Selfish, slovenly and never a candidate for Mother of the Year, even her pet budgie lives ankle-deep in seed husks and droppings. In spite of this, I found myself feeling sorry for Norma and protective of her when an unscrupulous crack dealer takes advantage of her gullibility. I think it is quite a feat for Sue Townsend to make the reader care for a character like Norma, who at first blush seems like a working class cliché. Similarly, single mum, Toyota, with her toddler, Tushinga, seems to be straight out of Jeremy Kyle, but Townsend brings out a different side to her, which although unexpected is totally credible.
I think Sue Townsend has a unique way of combining humour and bleakness to great effect so you're not sure whether you want to laugh or cry. Through the dry humour, we are encouraged to contemplate some serious questions about the disintegration of society and the gulf between those in sheltered positions of authority and those living at the thick of things.
What I didn't like about it
I quickly tired of the cross-dressing theme. I'm sure Sue Townsend is witty enough without having to dress a man up in drag to get a laugh. Not only did this stretch credibility, but I found myself squirming at some particularly silly passages, such as when Jack and the PM dance a rumba together at the pensioners' dance club and a series of episodes where some male attempts to chat 'Edwina' up. There's nothing new or original about this kind of humour and I found it rather tedious and dated.
It won't take the reader very long to spot that this is a satire on New Labour and not a particularly subtle one. (For Clare, read Blair. No prizes for guessing who Chancellor, Malcolm Black, is based on or the PM's very clever wife!) I don't have a problem with anyone criticising New Labour but I felt that the book was simply an attack on New Labour policies at the expense of plot and character development.
I didn't particularly warm to the main characters of Edward and Jack. Edward seemed just too dim and feeble to be true. It was hard to believe he'd ever been elected in the first place. Jack had the potential to be interesting but instead turned into a mouthpiece for political opinion. Each time he attacked the PM's policies or reproached him for being naïve, I felt as if I was being lectured in a rather patronising way about socialist values. Townsend's support for good, old fashioned socialism is no secret and she made it very clear what she thought of New Labour in one of the Adrian Mole books when it was famously described as being like cappuccino - " a little bit of coffee and a lot of froth." I just feel that the message could have been conveyed in a more creative way here. Some aspects of the novel that I felt required more attention to detail and build-up, such as an episode in Jack's love life and the PM discovering a family secret, were dealt with too speedily. The book ends rather suddenly and it made me feel as if I had never quite got to know the key characters fully. There were certainly questions I wanted to ask about how they had ended up, which were not adequately explained. This just made me feel that the author was more concerned with bashing New Labour than writing an in-depth novel about fascinating characters. I would have liked it to end on a more positive note too. I had read a great deal of criticism of the PM's New Labour policies but very little about proposed alternatives and how they would work in practice. It was a little unsatisfactory.
Would I recommend this book?
Although it isn't Sue Townsend's best book, it is still worth a read for her spot-on observations and dry humour. It may seem a bit dated now, set in 2002, but may be of interest to those who recall the Blair years and can remember experiencing that initial enthusiasm followed by disillusionment. This book was more sombre in tone than I'd expected and not as funny as Sue Townsend's other books, but it will appeal to anyone who likes social satire. I found it an easy book to get through and it wasn't slow moving. However, the main reason I kept turning the pages was because I was keen to find out what Edward and Jack would get up to next. In actual fact, the adventures they did have were rarely as interesting or amusing as I was hoping for. I feel that so much more could have been done with this book. There was great potential in the idea but it wasn't realised. It was just a rant about all that was wrong with New Labour disguised as a novel and I was disappointed that I didn't engage more with the key characters. (I don't usually have any problem engaging with Townsend's characters.) However, Norma and her wonderful, long-suffering budgie, Pete, saved the day for me. Townsend's understanding of working class culture is second to none and in Norma we have a great character who could rival Sharon Botts from the Adrian Mole books. If only Sue had written a novel about Norma and left out the cross-dressing PM, it would have been so much more entertaining! Number Ten can be purchased new in paperback from Amazon from £2.15. A Kindle version is available for £6.99.
A hilarious look at the imaginery residents of the most famous address in Britain. As alway Sue Townsend delivers a wonderfully funny and witty read. The book is narrated by Jack, the policeman who stands outside Number Ten, his observations on life and his famous charges allows a very ordinary and human look into the man with the (supposedly) most important job in Britain. Jack has come from fairly humble beginnings and is proud of his job and how far he has come but when the Prime Minister realises he is out of touch with his constituants he decides to go undercover and meet "real" people. So dressed in drag (as you do) the Prime Minister accompanies Jack to meet some of the most colourful characters in the countries roughest estates with hilarious consequences. I guarentee you won't regret it if you read this book, so beg, borrow or steal but make sure you get this book!
When the Prime Minister decides that the only way to get closer to the men and women on the street is to travel around the country incognito and find out what they really think, he enlists Jack's help.