The Fall and Fall of Derek Haffman

M.J. Nicholls

(Sagging Meniscus, £17.99)

Seventeen years in the making, apparently, and M.J. Nicholls’ fury appears to have diminished not a jot throughout that time. The Fall and Fall of Derek Haffman is an angry, comedic political satire, which starts out at the Scottish Parliament and extends to encompass Britain’s political system, the venality of those who run it and the complacency of those who let them, its imperial past, its class system, the lies it tells about its history and, for good measure, The Cotswolds.

Derek Haffman, 54, is MSP for Linlithgow, and a man so unpopular that a petition among his constituents to have him replaced by a bag of sand has collected 2000 signatures. We find him lolling on a Premier Inn bed with Millie Currigan, an avant-garde rock singer half his age, with whom he is having a sexless affair. Only once Haffman has arrested his descent into “a spiral of vice and sin” will she consider actually sleeping with him.

Haffman has been disillusioned with politics since it became clear to him that someone who had been “elected to peddle hope” could never tell the truth. Bored and cynical, he questions why the liberal left always have to take the high ground. Why can’t they fight dirty too?

He devises a plan “to fight evil with evil and kindness”, roping in some sympathetic Parliamentary colleagues. The first stage is to rifle the wallets of as many MSPs as possible, max out their credit cards and use the money they make to pursue their future plans. Which are? Well, this is where Haffman starts to run aground. By his own admission, “I wanted to make a kind of vague political happening happen. It was sort of incoherent, undefined and non-specific...”


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Even if he did have solid plans, his attempt to transfer £3 million to an offshore account goes badly wrong, prompting Haffman to run away with Millie to Cadiz, where he’s tracked down by the dreaded Tory grandee Jethro Quiver. It says something about how long this book has been gestating that Jeffrey Archer is the model for Haffman’s nemesis. Still, Quiver serves as the repugnant embodiment of all that is depraved and sociopathic in politics, gleefully inflicting such degrading cruelties on his victims that they can never hope to fully recover.

At once whimsical and savage, Nicholls packs every paragraph with jokes, eccentric turns of phrase, scabrous slanders and bawdy imagery. It’s very noticeable, though, that everyone delivers their lines in the same mannered, ornate way: in long-winded, fluent, grammatical speeches pulling in archaic words, modern slang and freshly-minted neologisms. It’s a full-on style that allows Nicholls to showcase his cleverness and verbal creativity, but it can be exhausting to read.

Readers intrigued by the premise might find their attention drifting as the tight focus on Haffman’s fiendish scheme unfurls into a general condemnation of Britain and its imperial past. Nicholls loves to digress, and while earlier detours (like Haffman’s screed listing every single MSP by name and what he’d like to do to them) are impressive setpieces, by the point Haffman is experiencing a vision of being sucked into a new universe birthed by his hairdresser friend Nellie, the novel feels like it’s getting lost in its own absurdity.

And yet the very density of his prose means that there is no shortage of mischievously funny lines to be found. Its energy seems inexhaustible, and Nicholls’ honest outrage as he charts the futility of Haffman’s one-man rebellion and his subsequent public and private humiliation has cathartic weight.