England is haunted. Everybody knows that. It's what explains the ongoing massive popularity of everything from Jane Austen's drawing rooms to Bertie Wooster's London clubs to the smell of tobacco still lingering along Baker Street to Patrick O'Brian's wooden ships and iron men. England is haunted by its history, its literature and its culture, by the memory of all that was and could be again.
Certainly Brian Marley is haunted --- with a name like Marley, he'd almost have to be. James Hawes's new novel, SPEAK FOR ENGLAND, begins with that haunting --- not with Brian Marley's miserable life, or the cultural excesses of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, or even with the fantastic tale of the survivors of a long-ago plane crash eking out an existence on the high plains of New Guinea.
Marley's ghost is that of a mean-spirited Army officer, a Coldstream Guards version of R. Lee Ermey, if you will. He appears to Marley from inside his head, a disembodied voice. Marley, you see, is stranded on a reality TV show, "Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million," a shameless rip-off of "Survivor" that plants its contestants in the New Guinea rain forest and leaves them with nothing but satellite TV cameras to illustrate their slow descent into madness. Marley is a 43-year-old divorced (and concomitantly depressed) teacher, the last person you'd ever expect to be prepared for such a thing, and he is dropped into the wilds without so much as a Swiss Army knife. The program --- Marley himself describes it as a "stupid, crass, moneymaking competition for idiots" --- turns out to be sadistic enough to make "Fear Factor" look like "Romper Room." Under any normal circumstances, Marley would run screaming for the helicopters that ferry out the losing contestants. This is where the haunting comes into play, and it keeps Marley alive --- although not what you would call sane --- through the show's filming, and past its disastrous end.
Marley eventually survives his ordeal and links up with the survivors of a 1958 plane crash who settled --- they call it "The Colony" --- on a high New Guinea rampart, safe from roving bands of savage aboriginal fighters. Here, the survivors have maintained a simulacrum of 1950s English society under the patriarchal rule of The Headmaster --- the Colony is run along the lines of Eton or Rugby, with side trips to kill the odd wild boar or nomadic native, all done with a stiff upper lip. As the colonists haven't been rescued, the general opinion of the Colony is that England has been destroyed in some nuclear exchange or other --- and that they are the only remnant of a lost civilization. When Marley wanders into their camp, delirious and amnesiac after his ordeal, the Colony is alternately overcome with hope at the possibility of rescue and frustration at his inability to communicate precisely what, if anything, has been going on at Home.
This brief plot synopsis makes SPEAK FOR ENGLAND sound somewhat grim. Not so! The novel is a comic gem, casting a satiric glance over the long range of modern English history, skewering everything from the Falklands war to soccer fandom to the BBC. Think Monty Python with a Tom Wolfe flair. The focus of the novel, of course, is Marley's story and that of the Colony, but the action frequently shifts back to conversations commenting on the whole thing --- from the oversexed television producers who started the show, to Marley's would-be girlfriend and her Argentinian war-hero father, to the back rooms of Number Ten Downing Street. Hawes has a great ear not only for dialogue but for the utter un-self-consciousness of the way people talk when they're sure they are not being overheard and don't give a damn.
The one turnoff for the American reader is the way SPEAK FOR ENGLAND absolutely wallows in nostalgia for early-sixties British pop culture --- understandable and arguably necessary. (It can be countered by inserting your own favorite pop-culture references from your background, no worries.) This is a fine piece of satiric craftsmanship, complete with a warning about the dangers of nostalgia and how even a beneficial haunting can be frightening.