Speak For England, James Hawes, Jonathan Cape, £12.99
JAMES Hawes’ fifth novel is about what happens when the mythical Albion of the Eagle comic and Enid Blyton meets Britain today: the Blairite, celebrity-obsessed me-culture we’ve come not only to accept, but even to celebrate.
Speak For England is a tour de force of kitchen-sink writing. As in ‘everything but the kitchen sink’. It’s part-satire, part-farce, part-love story, part whatever else you fancy. Literary allusions, biting social commentary and two-dimensional stereotypical characters rub shoulders with the brilliant, acutely rendered protagonist, Brian Marley. It all adds up to a great whole.
The tale is set during Christmas; and given that past, present and future are all themes, the hero’s name - hinting at Dickens’ A Christmas Carol - seems apt. Marley is a 40-something teacher of English as a foreign language: a figure of thwarted ambition and curdled hope.
Early in the novel, he collects his son from school then travels up the motorway with the poor child desperate to go to the toilet: a superbly, skin-crawlingly real and quite brilliant piece of writing. The incident provides the catalyst for Marley’s decision to volunteer for a reality TV programme set in a hostile jungle in Papua New Guinea.
This neatly segues into the novel’s second phase. While in the jungle, alone and near-dead after a helicopter crash, Marley finds himself rescued by a colony of descendants of survivors of a 1958 plane crash. They are straight out of a Boy’s Own adventure, having survived on old editions of the Eagle, good old English pluck and common prayer. They include a headmaster named Quartermain and a tomboyish love-interest called George (ne Georgina), presumably named in homage to the most alluring member of the Famous Five.
Meanwhile Hawes also sketches the Prime Minister, some genuine English chavs, a PR guru and various newspapermen: a set of up-to-the-minute Noughties stereotypes who match the 1950s versions Marley encounters in the jungle. What would happen if they all met?
That is the novel’s third act. Marley has been seduced - quite literally - by the Lost World he has encountered. But as conduit between the old land of Jerusalem; and the new one of media overload, Pop Idol and X-Factor; how will he cope when, for example, new girlfriend George gives his son some 50s-style parental admonishment; or even worse, when the colony encounters the new multi-cultural society they find in the modern world?
The overall effect is like Tom Sharpe and Jonathan Coe in a brawl. Even during the wincing, laughing and sometimes head-scratching confusion, you never want to stop turning the pages. Yes, the approach is undeniably scattershot and almost frustratingly random at times; but when each page is as funny, sophisticated and soul-wrenchingly accurate as this, to complain just wouldn’t be cricket.
Andrew Holmes’s latest novel is All Fur Coat