EVENT REVIEW: John O’Farrell: Things Can Only Get Worse

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7th October

Palace Green Library

Review by Chloe Waterhouse

Being an acclaimed satirical writer for Have I Got News For You, a columnist for The Guardian, a political activist and an author of numerous best-selling novels, you’d think John O’ Farrell would have a superiority complex.

Surprisingly, O’Farrell embraced his audience with a warm charisma that immediately placed me at ease, quelling any preconceptions I had formed of him previously. He embarked upon his turbulent journey from being a procrastinating English student to being in the best-seller section at WHSmiths with a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek humour. His anecdotes caused the crowd to erupt into peals of tear-streaming laughter, from his merciless slaying of Tory ideologies to Ann Widdecombe’s retina-burning iron brassiere.

Things Can Only Get Better, O’Farrell’s personal memoirs as a common labour activist during Thatcher supremacy was released 19 years ago. It ended on an optimistic note, with the election of Tony Blair as Prime Minister and the future for Labour looking promising. Fast forward to 2017, and in the wake of Brexit demons and Tory domination, O’Farrell felt the need to document this into a sequel, where there’s suitably an ‘unhappy ending’ to this political turmoil.

During his talk, he read extracts from ‘Things Can Only Get Worse’, starting from where the last book left off, at the start of Blair’s run as Prime Minister. His feelings about conservative politicians like Iain Duncan Smith appeared collectively accurate, as he even likened him to Lord Voldemort (at least he was a recognisable figure).

My eyes were opened to the difficulties he faced when running for MP back in 2001, as he reflected upon his local Labour campaigning around the traditionally Tory area of Maidenhead. He encountered antagonisms from all walks of life (including former school delinquents), and even gave in to bribery which gained him a vote. He reflected upon these struggles with a sense of humility, taking pleasure in trying to help his community.

Some of the political jargon during O’Farrell’s recollections didn’t properly resonate with me, not being extremely knowledgeable about politics myself. He always, however managed to relate his political experiences to amusing every-day stories, providing a perfect balance of lightheartedness and grave political reality.

The most poignant part of O’Farrell’s talk came when he reflected upon his time chairing state schools, and had to work with Conservatives working in private schools. To some, as a Labour activist this would seem peculiar, but he justified this by declaring ‘you don’t build schools on politically charged hate’. This resonated with me for the rest of the night, and made me contemplate how different the world would be if we lived without hate, and instead lived with tolerance.

Overall, I left John O’Farrell’s talk feeling enlightened, with an abundance of questions I was encouraged to consider. Is Labour making a hopeful comeback? Will social media eradicate the need for print journalism?

Having been unfamiliar with O’Farrell’s written works before, I now feel the need to investigate his entire bibliography. His talk was compelling, captivating and downright hilarious.

Here’s to the power of satire.

Cuckoo Review is an arts journalism programme for young writers aged 15-23. Through the Cuckoo Reviewers in Residence programme at Durham Book Festival, young people have reviewed festival events and books, and have interviewed featured authors. For more information about Cuckoo Review visit