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Tory Heaven

by Marghanita Laski

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An illustration from the US jacket of Tory Heaven, used as a 'bellyband' on each copy of our edition


WITH A PREFACE BY DAVID KYNASTON
216pp
ISBN 9781910263181

Tory Heaven (1948) was Marghanita Laski's third book, another satire after both Love on the Super Tax and To Bed with Grand Music, PB No. 86. The period 1945–8 can now be seen as one of some extraordinary achievements, the most important being the creation of the NHS. But for many of those living in Britain it was an age of austerity, punctuated by regular crises. Wartime rationing not only continued, but its range was broadened. The 1945 Labour victory was based on a broad popular wish to transform the equality of wartime sacrifice into a fairer peacetime society. But the combined effects of rationing and of income tax meant that life for the middle classes was far more austere than in the 1930s, while working-class living standards were higher. And successive crises highlighted divisions in the government and cast doubt on its competence, whether in running the coal industry or the whole economy.

The plot of Tory Heaven is as follows: five people return to England in August 1945 after having spent several years on a desert island (cue the 1946 Miss Ranskill Comes Home, PB No. 46). As they approach England ‘our hero’ James Leigh-Smith (think Jacob Rees-Mogg) prays, ‘“God, let it be as it might have been. Alter the clock, fix the election, do it any way you please, but let me see the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.” He raised an anguished face to the heavens and at that moment a loud clap of thunder was heard over his right shoulder.’ His prayer has been answered.

When they arrive at the port it takes him quite a while to work out what is going on. But the nub of it is that ‘the whole population has been formally divided into the five classes that it naturally comprises. He is an A; ‘the B’s represent the middle classes’; C’s are the servants of A’s. They are people who’ve chosen to wait on A’s just to be in touch with them – waiters, hairdressers, butlers, housekeepers, and agricultural workers on big estates.’ D’s are Trade Unionists (‘don’t you have a lot of strikes? ‘Hardly, since all strikes are illegal’) and E’s ‘comprise the odds and sods. No privileges at all, of course. Tramps, casuals and, of course, any such Intellectuals as the police may happen to pick up.’

Advertised in 1948 as ‘amusing and gay... an exquisite fantasy’, Tory Heaven, subtitled Thunder on the Right, ‘had a clear political agenda – being aimed squarely at those in the middle class who by now were starting to long for a return to the familiar Tory certainties of social hierarchy, of rigid class distinctions, and of almost unquestioned privilege for those born on the right side of the tracks’ (writes David Kynaston in his Persephone Preface). ‘Like the best satirists Marghanita Laski leaves it entirely to others to draw out the lessons of her story.’

The response to Tory Heaven in the UK was positive: (‘wickedly amusing’ Sunday Times, ‘wittily told’ Manchester Guardian). But when it appeared in the US (as Toasted English) the Atlantic Monthly said: ‘With unfailing wit, Marghanita Laski has fashioned a scorching indictment of a hierarchical society’, while the Chicago Sun called it ‘a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift.’ There are many acutely painful scenes: one that stands out is when the electoral system is explained to James. There is no more universal suffrage and Parliamentary seats have been redistributed in accordance with the conditions existing before 1832. ‘We got the Boundaries Commission onto that, and really they did a most satisfactory job. Manchester, for example, returns no member now, while our host Lord Starveleigh owns two. One is returned automatically by a gazebo in the garden while the other will be elected on Saturday.’ In the tradition of 1066 and All That, the book pushes the system to its logical absurdity: the Tory heaven is realised on earth today. There was a time when we thought a book like this was pure satire. Now we are not so sure.

 

Endpapers taken from 'Transport', a 1945 dress fabric in printed rayon crepe designed by Feliks Topolski for Ascher Ltd © V&A Images.

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Categories: Men (books about)    History    Humour    Politics    WWII   
 

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