Dark thriller in an Orwellian police state

Henry Porter Henry Porter (Jerry Bauer)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / February 7, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Henry Porter, political columnist for The Observer and UK editor of Vanity Fair, is the author of five novels including “Brandenburg Gate,” which was set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Porter’s new novel, “The Bell Ringers” is a dark counterpoint to that previously optimistic vision. This superb political thriller depicts England in the near future as a place where fabricated security threats, state surveillance, and antiterrorist legislation advance political ambitions and control. Porter spoke from his home in London.

Was this novel inspired by any particular incident or political development?

It was prompted more by the accumulation of laws that endanger civil liberties in Britain. I first thought of writing a book about ordinary people who had no idea - as most don’t - that such laws now exist. But I also wanted to write about the center of power; show how decisions could flow so easily from politicians to attack the rights of citizens and how laws such as the Civil Contingencies Act would be implemented.

I’m struck by the convergence between your fiction and current news headlines.

You’re quite right. I didn’t think that British police would be using drones yet, but they announced last week that they will use them to spy on innocent people. It is astonishing in the sense that there’s so little concern about it, although I think that’s changing.

Why set the novel in the near future?

It allowed me to escape the current political situation in Britain; I could invent a political landscape. I could also show how current laws may be used in the future. That’s the point; they lie like bottles of wine in a cellar, accumulating potency. Much the same thing happened in Weimar Germany after 1925 when laws were passed, which could be used against enemies of the state without any consideration of the civic values to which all free societies subscribe. That is what’s happening here and now. You have on the statute books all the apparatus for a very fierce surveillance state.

Did you invent . . .?

Not a thing. I didn’t invent a single legal measure. A few times, when I thought I had invented something, our delightful home secretary would introduce it for real; secret inquests, for instance.

As a political columnist writing fiction, what did you most want to reveal about politicians?

Having had a lot of contact with politicians, I feel a real duty to reveal that they are an entirely different species. They have this need to prevail, this extraordinary domineering energy, this amazing thick skin. I never hint which political party my characters belong to, by the way, because I don’t see any difference between them. But I sent the book to David Cameron, who may be the next prime minister, and he apparently thought it quite good. I was pleased about that because it is inscribed: “Essential reading for all Prime Ministers.”

And your connection to the intelligence services?

I’m not a spy, I hasten to say, because people always assume I am. But I’ve met a lot of spies and mostly got on well with them. They’re intelligent, charming, well-informed, and capable of extreme ruthlessness. I find it all quite attractive, which is perhaps why I used two former spies as the agents for justice in the novel.

The shadow of Orwell is inescapable, yet you leave us with hope?

As a novelist, I became convinced by the world I invented and wanted it to survive. It’s difficult to write a book like this without sounding like a pain in the neck but I avoided that by having a hero, Kate, who is extremely skeptical. This very sharp lawyer kept me in control.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at