Review by Edward Dutton
in The Quarterly Review, Autumn 2011
Gift of the Gabb
by Edward Dutton
The premise of Sean Gabb’s novel is certainly imaginative. The year is 1959 but it is an alternative 1959. Hitler died in a car crash 20 years ago, there was no World War II, Churchill is dead and never became Prime Minister and England is the land of the free while the USA has become a totalitarian state.
Told through the eyes of independent historian and leading Churchill authority, Dr. Anthony Markham, Gabb has produced something between a political thriller, a nostalgic lapse into a happier past and a manifesto (buried within a novel, a la Ayn Rand) for a combination of libertarianism, conservatism and English nationalism. In this 1959, there is already some Third World immigration, Japan was never decimated, much of the British Empire is retained and, cleverly, there are inventions which didn’t develop in the real history and the absence of others that emerged on the back of the War. This is made all the more interesting because the eye of the story is far from a paragon virtue, at least by modem standards. Ever conscious of maintaining verisimilitude, Gabb’s lead character is a ‘racist’ (despite being half foreign), chain-smoking, hard drinking kind of chap. Seemingly having a bit of money behind him, he researches Churchill out of the love of it and only contemplates gainful employment through pure desperation. Despite this book being published by Gabb’s Hampden Press (which has produced his rather scholarly manifesto), anybody expecting a work of intellectual fiction will be disappointed. The Churchill Memorandum is, first and foremost, a thriller, indeed a comic thriller, and, as part of this genre, it does a reasonably good job. Alas, it starts rather slowly and takes getting into but once you are into it, it is a gripping read.
The reliance on surprise means that it is very difficult to review the plot without giving something away which will spoil it for the reader. But, in essence, Markham returns from the USA with some papers by Churchill which are not what they seem and which become part of an intricate plot to bring down the England of liberty and replace it with a totalitarian system.
Gabb also does a good job of making us laugh. In this alternative universe, Harold MacMillan is an evil Bond-style genius, Michael Foot is his crazed, homosexual sidekick while Enoch Powell is one of the few politicians of the time, along with someone else whose identity you can probably predict, presented as noble and patriotic. There is something quite emotionally satisfying, for anyone of a conservative bent, to see Foot convincingly portrayed as Gabb portrays him. Gabb certainly has comic skill.
The novel is at its best when it subtly uses its structure and narrative to argue for Gabb’s form of libertarian conservatism. This dimension of the novel could, potentially, have seemed contrived but it does not and nor does its justification of writing an alternative history, something also explored by one of the characters. Gabb uses the novel to advocate, in a sometimes moving way, traditional democracy and the need for ‘trust’ amongst an imagined community of compatriots. That he manages to do this so convincingly at the most dramatic moments of a political thriller is a testimony to his skill.
But, there are some stylistic problems. There are clichéd phrases and redundant descriptions. Examples include “sharp retreat”, “firmly shut”, “spidery writing”, “racing heart” and “he smiled coldly”. Hackneyed language might be justified if the book’s narrative, as with Bertie Wooster’s, was written as though it was being said, with a strong sense of voice, rather than simply being written from a first-person perspective. But, apart from a few occasions, such as him saying “iffy” or dismissing nonsense as “rhubarb”, Markham generally lacks this sense of voice, other than when engaging in direct speech.
Also, there are obvious similarities between Markham and Gabb. Both are libertarian, provocative, independent scholars with PhDs. Considering the book’s niche market, most readers will know about Sean Gabb and, accordingly, these similarities also make it more difficult to let go and enter the fictional world.
In the opening chapters, the author tries to convey too much information too quickly and the mechanisms he uses to do it, such as having people from different races sitting together at an airport, seem manufactured solely for this purpose. This is only a problem in the first few chapters but the earliest chapters are obviously important in encouraging the reader to continue.
Finally, there are problems with presentation. There are too many words missed out and the writing on the dedication page is bold and too large, considering that a dedication is not of great importance to any book.
Nevertheless, The Churchill Memorandum is well worth the read, as a thought-provoking, at times funny and generally gripping political thriller.
Dr EDWARD DUTTON is the author of Meeting Jesus at University 2008) and The Finnuit (2009)
© 2012 – 2017, seangabb.
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