Sunday, September 17, 2006

Speak for England - James Hawes

It doesn’t take much of a jump to move from today’s selection of TV reality shows to imagine one in a few years time where six volunteers are dropped into a tropical jungle. And so starts James Hawes’ Speak for England which I should have reviewed ages ago.

Armed only with diminishing supplies and a satellite-transmitting video camera, they must survive in the unfriendly environment until the host returns by helicopter at the end of the week. The first person, and only the first, to step towards the host can escape home to food and comfort. The rest must remain another week. (Note the assumption that conditions are so bad that at least one person will want to leave each week.)

The book’s hero Brian Marley filled the space of someone who pulled out of the programme only weeks before it went to air. He’s divorced, ridden with debt and feels like life isn’t going so well. As the weeks in the jungle progress, he survives, never quite wanting to leave enough to make a dash for freedom. And it’s no spoiler to reveal that he ends up as the last contestant, made to spend one last week in the jungle on his own to prove he’s a worthy winner of the £2 million prize.

Marley outplays his rivals, and outlives the TV crew coming to collect him at the end of his final week. The two helicopters collide, leaving Brian and his wonky video camera in hell.
And so he stumbles over (well climbs up a cliff and falls over the far side to see) a community living within the jungle. They are the survivors (and offspring) of the crew of Comet IV, which crashed in 1958 while carrying parts and personnel for an H-bomb test. And so a concussed and confused Marley joins very English civilisation, preserved in such a remote location.

The newbie survivor joins the professional survivors!

Assuming that their plane crashed as past of an opening salvo of World War III, his new friends, led by the Headmaster, are anxious to hear how England is doing. Did the Germans take over Europe? Is there still a parliament in London? What happened to the Queen?

Being abandoned in the jungle makes Marley ponder the way of life back home? Ponder his life, and that of the nation. Now answering these questions to the jolly cricket-playing community he’s fallen into, he further questions what life in Britain amounts to. How can he explain that the Labour Party in power doesn’t amount to the Reds taking over the country?

The satire concludes with the rescue of Marley and the forgotten colony. Live TV covers the Prime Minister receiving a warm welcome (with a good caning rather than a handshake). In a curious twist, the Headmaster enters politics once back home, and leads a revival of traditional values and strict no-nonsense policies.

It’s this last section of the book that works least well. The story becomes too fantastical for my liking, clashing with the pace and quality of the earlier chapters. But it’s doesn’t ruin the book. Just removes some of the sweetness that would otherwise be left in your mouth as you turn over the last page.

So 6½ out of 10 from me. I’ll probably try and read some more James Hawes when I get through some more of the backlog. Now if I could only remember why I bought up the book in the first place … still haven’t linked it back to anything or anyone.

Update 20 April 2007: Andrew Davies has been commissioned to write a 90 minute drama version of Speak for England, described by the BBC’s head of fiction Jane Trantor as “offbeat satire on the state of Britain today”.

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