Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance and prolific author and commentator on British politics and society, has written a novel of mayhem, adventure, and alternate history: The Churchill Memorandum.
I don’t know Sean Gabb personally, but I have read other works on his recommendation (notably those of Richard Blake), so when the review copy of his novel arrived, I dove into it with great anticipation and devoured it in one afternoon, taking assiduous notes between incredulous outbursts of ‘He just… did he really just do that? WTF?’ Anyone who has read the novel will probably recognise this frequent reaction.
Even though this was several weeks ago, I waited to publish this review because I had a feeling, which turned out to be correct, that the novel would be somewhat controversial. In that interval, Gabb has been accused of being, variously, anti-American and an English national socialist, all because in his novel the United States is a fascist horrorville and Hitler wasn’t a mass murderer. As an American myself, I’m rather more sensitive than others to whiffs of anti-Americanism, and I didn’t get any as I was reading. I certainly don’t think Gabb is an apologist for Hitler or the Nazis. And I suspect that to make these sort of assumptions about an author based on the characters or settings in his novels is to indulge in more than one cognitive bias.
Sometimes, a novel is just a novel.
Or, in this case, a crazy drug-trip into an alternate universe where Hitler dies in a car accident in 1939, the pound sterling is still sound money in 1959, and Winston Churchill ‘did nothing big after Gallipoli.’ Be thankful for this back-cover exposition, because you, the reader, are a genius. If you know nothing about Europe of the Second-World-War era, expect to spend half your reading time delving around the murkier recesses of La Wik.
Our hero is half-caste Anthony Markham, historian of the feeble sideshow that is Churchill in this universe and unwitting possessor of a document that numerous plotters, including Germans and Indians who smell persistently of curry, desperately want to get their hands on.
Why do I characterise the book as a crazy drug-trip when others have described it as ‘Hitchockian’ and ‘noirer than noir’ (which I’ll also buy)? It’s hard to say without giving too much away, but here are a few bullet points to whet the appetite, or bring smiles to the faces of those who have read it:
- Chekhov’s Buttcheek.
- Alan Greenspan is shot within hearing of a bunch of air commuters, and nobody bats an eye.
- CS Lewis as archbishop of Canterbury.
- Goering is giving nukes to the Jewish Free State.
- Having been framed for murder, our main character goes on the run—and promptly murders someone. Not even an important someone, so this doesn’t count as a spoiler.
- Who the hell is actually behind this convoluted plot, anyway?
- Michael Foot’s acid baths.
The importance of the titular document is wholly drowned in the gunfights, the multi-transport chases and escapes, the sheer insanity of staid types you once knew and loved such as Harold Macmillan—who, incidentally, tries to corral the main character just as said hero has been mistaken for a Labour Party candidate in a town hall meeting and is delivering a triumphant speech:
‘Brothers, let it never be said that the Labour Party was at all exclusive in its welcome to speakers. You’ve heard me put the socialist case for our national future. If you want to hear the other side, be aware that our Foreign Secretary—Harold Macmillan himself—is standing just outside this room, and is waiting to answer all your questions in person.’
Cue the mob.
Markham’s publisher’s daughter and a mysterious Major who doesn’t officially exist are also part of the dastardly plot, and Enoch Powell turns out to be the shadowy badass whom all the plotters fear.
Y’all, this book is further down the rabbit-hole than Alice, and I dearly wish that instead of a review wherein I praise the author for his audacity and imagination, I was publishing verbatim the notes I took. You would not believe this book.
That said, there are some deep author-avatar moments, and without doubt Gabb can create characters who are horrifyingly realistic. Markham, protagonist and first-person narrator, is a remarkably unsympathetic character, callous and cowardly by turns and buffeted along by events entirely out of his control. His attempts to take refuge in a sense of loyalty or duty to his country are constantly shown up as stupidity by people who possess neither, and his actions neither drive the plot nor resolve it. Much like real people, in fact, warts and all. And the realism is necessary in light of the fact that most of the other players stepped straight out of a Bond film.
More importantly, the more you hear from Markham, the more you realise that despite having access to his internal monologue, you do not know this guy at all. There is no mention of friends, family, background, previous life, or romantic involvements (apart from whoever gave him Chekhov’s Buttcheek.) His thoughts revolve around two things: nebulous politics and immediate circumstances. He’s like a random guy in a pub telling you a random story, and when you stagger out you’re none the wiser.
To me, this makes him possibly the most unreliable narrator in fiction. This is what really makes the novel worth reading, though of course it is exciting and inventive as well. But I feel compelled to draw your attention to the fact that the insanity all starts in chapter six, and when you remember what Markham does at the end of chapter five, well…
…that’s my theory. And I’m sticking to it.