Anything Goes


Ashley Barson-Garland had written seventy letters that morning. Seventy calm, placating and—though he said it himself—beautifully expressed letters. Letters to old ladies unable to understand the changes to the law on pensions, letters to unemployed layabouts who chose to blame the government for their lack of self-respect, letters from delirious fascists who thought Sir Charles Maddstone was Soft On Crime and letters from transcendently sad individuals who were determined to tell the MP about Christ.

So much noise from the populace. So much clamouring for attention. So much inadequacy and resentment. The life of a politician was indeed one of lying, lying and lying. Not the lying that people supposed, not the trail of broken promises and cynical denials complained about by newspaper and bar-stool sceptics, another kind of lying altogether. Allowing people to believe that their bitter and ignorant opinions were of use or importance, this to Ashley was the great lie. There seemed to be millions out there who could not understand that their problem was not this or that injustice or social ill, but the diminished sense of self that caused them to blame anything other than their own bitterness and rage: to bolster this delusion, that was the supreme dishonesty. There were people who believed that their opportunities to live a fulfilled life were hampered by the number of Asians in England, by the existence of a royal family, by the volume of traffic that passed by their house, by the malice of trade unions, by the power of callous employers, by the refusal of the health service to take their condition seriously, by communism, by capitalism, by atheism, by anything, in fact, but their own futile, weak-minded failure to get a fucking grip. Ashley understood Caligula's disappointment that the people of Rome had between them more than one neck. If only the British, he thought, had one backside. What a kick he would love to give it.

To his right on the desk lay the letters, open flat in their envelopes awaiting signature. They were elegantly typed on parliamentary writing paper, the green House of Commons portcullis above Sir Charles's name, each letter clean, unblemished and perfect. Ashley moved the four piles to the left of the blotter, a more convenient position for signing for when Sir Charles arrived. Ashley prided himself on these touches. He was the perfect servant, intelligent, thoughtful, thorough and discreet and for the moment, this contented him.

From the briefcase at his feet he pulled his diary. Only five and a half pages to fill before he would need a second volume. He wondered if he would be able to find the same book again. The shop in St Anne's Square where he bought the first had closed two years ago. Another colour would be ideal, but it must be the same book. If he found a source he would buy at least ten, a lifetime's supply. Would ten be enough, however? He made a rapid calculation. Twenty would be safer. 'The Invicta' it called itself grandly, the kind of Empire name that used to be bestowed upon everything from urinals to pocketknives. He riffled through, observing with pleasure the growth in confidence and style of his handwriting. The last entry had been made five weeks ago. There was much to squeeze into the final pages. He should pick up from his last sentence: 'For the moment I must put this obscene invasion out of my mind, for I have the School Address to concern myself with.'

July 30th

Can it really be only five weeks since the end of term? The Oration, of course, was a triumph of wit, knowledge, flair and—as you might say—address. As such, it was understood by no one in the hall, not even by those who could decipher the Latin. The assembled parents, staff and boys knew just enough to imagine that it was clever and treated me afterwards to the embarrassed, sympathetic and bravely smiling looks which the British habitually save up for those afflicted with terminal cancer or with brains, brains being by far the more unfortunate condition in their eyes. Most people, after all, can imagine having terminal cancer, they can't begin to imagine having brains. Ned introduced me to his father who came as near to bowing as one can these days.

'Your own parents not here today, Mr Barson-Garland?'

'My mother teaches, sir,' I said, liking the 'sir' and liking the fact that Sir Charles liked it. I liked too Ned's discomfiture and watched him trying to think of something to say which wouldn't draw attention to the idea of my mother or my family.

'Ah well,' his father said. 'She must be very proud of you.'

Ned delivered a feeble matey punch to my arm as they passed on. He knew of course what kind of teaching it is my mother does. He probably even guessed that I had told her to stay away.

'Very few parents come to Speech Day,' I had written to her. 'You'll find it a bore.'

What I had meant was, 'You dare turn up and disgrace me in a bright print dress, cheap scent and a loathsome hat and I shall disown you.'

I dare say Mother read all that between the lines because mothers do and I dare say that I had meant her to because sons do.

Having endured the sickly congratulations and sherry of the headmaster, ('Ah, here comes our pocket Demosthenes!') I escaped after lunch to the cricket match, only to find myself forced to witness the spectacle of Ned Maddstone distinguishing himself with unquestionable style against the Old Boys. Every time someone talked to me, they kept half an eye on him at the wicket and I could smell their minds weighing his tallness, blondness and smiliness against my squat, dark seriousness. The stench of that drove me back to the house where I looked up Rufus Cade whom I found in his study weltering in his own mephitic fug—cannabis, vodka and resentment. Now here's an interesting thing. Whether to please me or not he professed a severe dislike of Maddstone. No, it cannot have been to please me, I had already sensed the fact and asked him outright. It had been instinct. And I was right. He loathes Ned. He is ashamed of loathing Ned, which makes him loathe Ned all the more. A treadmill of disgust and resentment I am all too familiar with.

Who should then turn up, flushed and triumphant in scarlet and green stained flannels, hot from glory in the field, but Maddstone himself? He invited me to dine with his father at the George. The transparent guilt in his eyes was almost hilarious. 'You may think of yourself as an outsider,' his eyes said, 'but I think of you as one of us.'

Balls. If he had thought of me as One Of Us he would have said, 'Ashley, bloody bore, but how d'you fancy joining me and my father at the George?' instead of which he got all flustered and asked Rufus to come too while managing to make it painfully obvious that he only asked out of politeness. Rufus declined on the grounds of intoxication, which I think embarrassed him into hating Ned all the more. I accepted with entirely sincere pleasure.

I wore my one suit.

'Very good of you to join us, Mr Barson-Garland,' said Sir Charles, shaking my hand in courtly style. 'How absurd of me, I can't keep calling you that. Ned hasn't told me your Christian name.'

'Ashley, sir,' I said, as Ned buried himself in confusion and the menu.

I talked a lot over dinner. Not so much or so greedily as to appear to monopolise the conversation or to boast, but enough to impress.

'You seem to know a great deal about politics,' said Sir Charles over the cheese.

I shrugged with open hands as if to suggest that, while I may have picked up the odd pebble of interest on the shore, like Newton I was all too aware of the great ocean of knowledge that lay undiscovered before me.

'I don't suppose this would interest you...'

There and then he offered me a summer job as his political researcher.

'A great deal of it is really not much more than a kind of secretarial work,' he warned. 'But it is, I think, an unrivalled opportunity to find out how the system operates. If it works out over the summer, I'll be happy to keep the place open for when you leave here in late autumn. Ned tells me that you are sitting Oxford entrance next term too.'

'Father, that's a brilliant idea,' Ned gasped admiringly (as if it hadn't been his idea in the first place! How big a fool can he possibly take me for?). 'I'm Pa's biggest disappointment,' he added, turning to me. 'Never could summon up much interest in politics.'

'Sir Charles,' I said, 'I don't know how to begin to thank you...'

'Tshush, tshush,' said Sir Charles, waving a hand. 'If you're as good at the job as I suspect you might be, then the thanks will be mine. Do I take it you accept?'

'Well, sir. I live in Lancashire. I don't have any...' Lancashire, indeed. I was used to saying that. Any 'shire' sounded better than Manchester.

'I'm hoping you will consider staying in Catherine Street. It's a small house, but has been a political one for over a hundred years. It has its own Division Bell, not that you will hear it ring much at first. The House doesn't sit over the summer. If you're still with us next year however, you'll get so used to its ringing that you'll want to sabotage the damned thing. Isn't that right Ned?' He waggled an eyebrow at his son in a way that suggested some private joke.

'When I was a boy I used to get really hacked off by that bell,' Ned explained in answer to my questioning look. 'The House sits at the weirdest times and it was always waking me up at two or three in the morning. So one night I wedged a piece of cardboard between the bell and the clapper. Pa missed a vote and got into a bucket load of trouble.'

'I passed a quarter hour in the Whips' Office that I shall never forget,' said Sir Charles.

Ned added to me in a pretend whisper, 'He still says that nothing the Gestapo did to him in the war came close.'

'It's true I tell you, absolutely true.'

Ned was letting me into his life. A life in which casual mention of Division Bells and sticky moments with the Gestapo came as easily as references to buses and episodes of Dallas came to my family. Had I not seen that little four-leafed clover flutter from my diary, such generosity should have warmed and enchanted me. Since I knew exactly where it came from I was not fooled for a second.

They found me a flat in Kensington which I share with a researcher from Conservative Central Office. Flats in Kensington seem to be a staple currency of this world. There is a lazy sense of—
Between the two sounds of the front door opening and the front door closing Ashley had swiftly returned the diary to his briefcase, opened a copy of Hansard and begun copying one of Sir Charles's speeches into a notebook.

He heard the sounds of people moving up the stairs and wondered if his not coming halfway to greet them would look strange. Could he pretend not to have heard their arrival? He decided not.

'Ned?' he called over his shoulder from his desk. 'Ned, is that you?'


Ashley was standing shyly at the desk with a look of pleased surprise on his face as Ned entered the room in the company of a girl and boy of about the same age, both darkly handsome and deeply tanned.

'This is Portia. Actually you've met.'

'How do you do?' said Ashley, with becoming gravity. 'We have indeed met. The Hard Rock Café, although you won't remember me—your eyes I think were elsewhere.'

'Of course I remember. Hi!'

Portia shook his hand. Ashley had not had time to wipe it against his trousers and he looked at her closely to see if she reacted to what he knew was the unusually moist clamminess of his palms.

'And this is Gordon, Portia's cousin.'

'How do you do?' said Gordon. Ashley registered with amusement the fact that English Portia had made do with 'Hi' while American Gordon preferred a formal 'How do you do?' It always amused him when people presented themselves as the opposite of what they were.

'Surprised?' said Ned, biffing Ashley clumsily on the shoulder. He too was tanned, but in that lightly golden style of the fair-skinned, as if anything more would be foreign and in poor taste.

'Well, your father did say that you wouldn't be back until tomorrow.'

'The trip, er, ended early in fact,' Ned's face looked troubled for a moment. 'We all decided to take the night train from Glasgow.'

'Really?' said Ashley, who knew this perfectly well.

'Anyway,' said Ned brightening. 'I was in London in time to meet the Fendemans off their plane at Heathrow. Not bad, eh?'

'What a pleasant surprise for them,' said Ashley.

Gordon was looking awkwardly around the room. Ashley had the feeling that he felt out of place. Indeed, the electrical sparks that crackled between Ned and Portia were little short of embarrassing even for Ashley.

'The old man been keeping you busy?' said Ned tearing himself away with an effort from Portia's smile.

'It's been fascinating. Truly fascinating.'

'You work for Ned's dad, right?' said Gordon.

'That's right. In fact I ought really...well, actually, here's an idea I don't suppose you'd like to come with me? I've got to go over to the House now. Maybe I could show you round?'

'The House?'

'Of Commons. Parliament. Of course, only if it would interest youÉ'

'Sure. That sounds great.'

'What a brilliant idea!' Ned grinned with pleasure. 'Ash, that's completely decent of you. I bet Gordon would love to see where it all goes on. The cradle of democracy and all that.'

'Very well then. I'll just get my briefcase,' said Ashley, prickling with annoyance at Ned's fatuous remark. 'Cradle of democracy' indeed. Did he not know that Americans regard Washington as the cradle of democracy, just as the French did Paris and the Greeks Athens, and no doubt the Icelanders Reykjavik, each with as much reason? Such typically casual arrogance.

'Er, we'll stay here, if that's okay,' Ned was saying. 'Portia has to be at a job interview at four. The Knightsbridge College. Thought I' know, take her there.'

'Something good?

'It sounds grand but it just means teaching foreigners how to say "This tomato is too expensive",' Portia said. 'It does pay better than the Hard Rock Café, though.'

She and Ned were holding hands now. It was apparent that every second out of each other's arms was agony to them. Ashley supposed that much of the agony came from a traditional lovers' quandary that they were too dull-witted to interpret. They wanted to conceal their passion but they couldn't understand why they also wanted desperately to show it off.

Ashley felt an intense desire to be violently sick.


'Thought it best to leave them to it,' he said, closing the front door and looking up at the top-floor window with what he trusted was a reasonable approximation of laddish worldliness. 'They'll be at it like knives before we've taken two steps.'

Gordon did not respond, but looked down at the ground with pursed lips. Ashley watched him curiously, was this American puritanism or something deeper?

Good God! The instant the possibility struck Ashley he knew it to be right. He could have laughed aloud at his perception. Cousin Gordon is in love with Portia, he told himself with absolute assurance.

The essential truth that people always failed to understand about intelligence, Ashley believed, was that it allowed its possessor deeper intuition and keener instincts than those granted to others. Stupid people liked to delude themselves that while they may not be clever, they were at least able to compensate with feelings and insights denied to the intellectual. Drivel, Ashley thought. It was precisely this kind of false belief that made stupid people so stupid. The truth was that clever people had infinitely more resources from which to make the leaps of connection that the world called intuition. What was 'intelligence' after all, but the ability to read into things? The Romans, as so often, knew better than the Britons.

They turned and walked along Catherine Street towards Westminster. Perhaps feeling that his silence was brutish, Gordon began to talk. He confided to Ashley that at the airport his aunt and uncle had more or less forced him onto Ned and Portia.

'Why don't you guys take the bus into town together?' Hillary had said. 'Have a bite to eat somewhere. Maybe take in a movie. We'll take care of the luggage.'

Pete had slipped Gordon ten pounds and patted him on the shoulder while Portia bit her lip petulantly and Ned had done his best to look pleased.

'Just as well we did the tactful thing, then,' said Ashley. 'You really don't have to come to the House of Commons if you don't feel like it, by the way. It's most people's idea of hell. I'd quite understand.'

'Will they let an American in?'

'I just have to wave this,' said Ashley, flourishing his pass and trying not to look proud about it.

'You gonna be a politician?'

'Maybe. Maybe.'

'Like Ned?'

'I'm sorry?'

'Ned's gonna follow his father, right?'

'I hardly think so,' said Ashley, amused. An image came to him of Ned Maddstone in grass-stained cricket whites, flicking the golden flop out of his eyes and rising to speak from the government benches on the subject of currency fluctuations and interest rates. 'Politics and Ned don't quite go together.'

'Really? Only that's not what Portia said to me.'

'What do you mean exactly?'

'She said Ned had told her he was going to follow his father into Parliament one day.'

'Well, maybe he will,' Ashley said casually, while something inside him snapped with a familiar fury. Did Ned seriously imagine political seats could be passed on from father to son, like writing-desks and shooting-sticks? Well, perhaps they could, he reflected bitterly; this is, after all, England. Meanwhile of course, Ned's summer was too precious to him for it to be wasted on politics: too much fucking and cricket and fucking and sailing and fucking and fucking to be done, so why not let Ashley the Manchester carthorse do the secretarial work this year, eh, Pa old thing? Plenty of time for catching up after Oxford, don't you think, Daddy darling? And one day, when I'm 'ready to settle down' I could send for good old Ashley and have him for a political assistant. Poor Ashley would be so fact, why not get him in training for it now? Give him a bit of experience? Just the thing! We'll invite him along for dinner and put it to him, he'll be so grateful. It'll get that nasty business of reading his embarrassing diary off my conscience, too. We'll give him the old oil and have him typing letters and licking envelopes before you can say Arrogant Cunting Upper Fucking Class Arseholes...

'You all right?'

'Mm? Yes, fine, fine...miles away,' Ashley smiled vaguely at Gordon as if emerging from a gently eccentric daydream. 'So,' he said brightly. 'First time you've met the great Ned then?'

Gordon nodded cautiously. 'The Great Ned?'

'Forgive the promptings of a sarcastic heart,' said Ashley. 'He's very popular of course. Very talented, but...oh, you don't want to listen to me. None of my business.'

'Hey, if he's dating my cousin, I want to know everything there is to know,' said Gordon. 'Portia thinks his shit don't stink. But you're in school with the guy. You've known him longer than she has.'

'Well, let's just say I wouldn't like my cousin going out with him,' said Ashley. 'It's hard to define. Most people think he's charming and honest and everything that could ever be appealing in a man. Personally, I find him cold and arrogant and deceitful. Ah...' Ashley looked up as Big Ben began to chime the half hour. 'Twelve-thirty. If it's all right with you, we might stop off at that pub round the corner. Said I would meet a friend there for lunch. If we feel like it we can go on to the House afterwards.'

'Hey, look, if I'm in the way...'

'Not at all. You'll like Rufus. And he'll like you. Well, he'll like your ten pounds. You can buy a lot drink with ten pounds.'

'Oh well, if...'

'I'm joking. He's as rich as God. And I'm sure you'll find that you have a great deal in common.'
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Excerpted from Revenge by Stephen Fry. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Fry. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.