Sideways history is an odd game. After years of watching Margaret Thatcher beaten around the gills by any number of bleeding-heart-artistes from Roger Waters to Salman Rushdie, Sean Gabb, hardly a well-known Thatcher-fan, has turned Michael Foot into Ellsworth Toohey and introduced British politics to the world of South Park.
Well, The Churchill Memorandum is nowhere as dire as all that sounds. It’s a bit of a caper, really, a tiptoe through some pretty deformed tulips. And it is a testament to the author’s understanding of twentieth century history and well worth reading on that account alone.
Gabb’s use of “Victory Mansions” (for his hero’s residence) and “O’Brien” (for his hero’s British bobby) indicates not so much the influence of Orwell’s 1984 as its use as effluence. “Airstrip One” is notable by its absence, in a book that simply can’t bring itself to believe that the Wilsonian settlement of World War One was either ineffectual or benevolent, or Rooseveltism’s settlement of World War Two (the destruction of the British Empire, and a “world safe for America” guaranteed by any number of “freedom-froms” squashing a proportionately greater number of “freedoms-to”) made any sense at all. The latter, in the event, has been sidestepped here and we have a world order ostensibly governed by Great Power balances rather than agitprop at the UN.
Anthony Markham is a Churchill biographer fallen on hard times. He is completely gay, slightly (?) Asiatic, and as patriotic as the lads in The Riddle of the Sands. He lives in a decaying but hardly defunct British Empire – for which the author has as much sympathy as any devout reader of The Jungle Book, and here’s the peculiar character of this book, if you read it to any degree seriously you come to acquire some of that sympathy yourself. Though I have to say: I’m not about to abandon my fond illusion that Michael Foot was a benign old gentleman whose politics were no worse than those of Eric, sorry Tony, Blair – and under whose prime-ministership you might have seen the Falkland Islanders rebadged as Spanish without a word. (On the other hand, wasn’t Maggie responsible for Mugabe – and, of course, “climate change”?)
Anyway, back to Our Hero and the thickening plot. It is 1959. Owing to a slight accident to the Führerprinzip on a Czech road in 1939, Germany is now run by the two libertarian vons, Hayek and Mises; Goering is front-man. Yes, the Jews are on the Nazis’ side, Himmler is a rancid memory, and Ayn Rand (presently imprisoned under the natively American fascist regime described with more historical acumen by Jonah Goldberg than by Ayn herself) is about to have her Hitler-eulogy (no less) published by Markham’s own publisher. Foot is the leader of the Communist Party; Macmillan conspires to take the Prime Ministership from Halifax. And Markham is pursued around the English countryside on account of his erstwhile possession of the “Churchill Memorandum”, a document which purportedly, when fully published according to Macmillan’s plan, will change the face, and course, of relations between Britain, America and Germany.
Sideways-history though it often reads daft, very seldom reads comic. It would be a mistake to read Sean Gabb as daft, despite the persistent “Bulldog Drummond” surface to his tale. Here is an accomplished writer who knows exactly how comedy is to be used, and uses it in fiction that goes where the angels (the prim little Anglicans in Paradise Lost, not to mention the cuddly Roosevelteers on the West Wing) have no intention to tread. His plot-twists are generally unpredictable, which could merely mean that his train of thought is unusual, but you do feel that the last thing you’ll ever end up with is just a piece of silliness, or the usual weasel-words of political fiction (into which, I think, too much of late Le Carre seems to fall).
Too often unusual books – and this is certainly a most unusual book, right to the point of being a most original book, even by the standards of 1984, and one whose every word I cannot imagine too many people fulsomely “agreeing” with – are flicked aside on account of their limited market. So little vigour in the book trade today.
© 2014 – 2017, seangabb.
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