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The Leaky Establishment [Paperback]

David Langford
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Product Description


A comic novel with both verbal wit and comedy of situation, that owes something to the tradition of Tom Sharpe, and a great deal more to the Langfordian warped sense of humour. The Leaky Establishment has that quality belonging to genuine farce, best described as delighted frustration - frustration because Tappen is blocked at every turn, difficulty piled on impossibility, until it seems that the plot can never be resolved; and delight, because these impossibilities are comic, one has the immense and reprehensible satisfaction of seeing some other poor bugger in the mire. -- Mary Gentle, Interzone

A comic novel with both verbal wit and comedy of situation. -- Mary Gentle, Interzone

A splendid send-up. -- Daily Mail

An agreeable romp. (AWRE News, house journal of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (since renamed), Aldermaston, Berkshire, England) -- AWRE News

An agreeable romp. -- AWRE News, house journal of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment

I'd rank this book alongside Michael Frayn's The Tin Men, another neglected classic. I've wanted for years to see it back in print. It is one of those books you end up buying several copies of, because you just have to lend it to friends. It's very funny. It's very real. -- From the introduction by Terry Pratchett

The Leaky Establishment concerns the trials and tribulations of one Roy Tappen, a scientist at the Nuclear-Utilization Technology Centre at Robinson Heath, who discovers that sneaking the plutonium core of a nuclear warhead out of the centre is easy enough; the problems arise when he tries to sneak it back in. It's either a gloriously absurd farce or a sober record of The Great British System disguised as a gloriously absurd farce: whichever way round it's the kind of book you can give to spouses/partners who can't stand SF. -- Andy Sawyer, British SF Association, Paperback Inferno

From the Publisher

The Leaky Establishment was the first title I signed up for Big Engine. I had read it at university and found it frighteningly funny -- it’s more than just a knockabout farce in the nuclear industry, it’s plausible too, from its opening blurb of genuine British Admiralty bureaucratese (“…it will be seen to that the bottom of each warhead immediately be labelled with the word TOP”) to the closing line. Then I graduated and grew up and moved out into the real world, and found further proof of its reality at every line.

Part of Big Engine’s ideal is to keep the classics, the works that people need to read, in print. This is one such book. Anyone who grew up in the Reagan/Thatcher era can read it and thank their lucky stars they are still here today. Anyone from a younger generation, read it and see what your elders and betters went through …

Ben Jeapes,Big Engine

From the Back Cover

Smuggling plutonium out of a nuclear research centre is surprisingly easy. The difficult part is smuggling it back in again ...

The Leaky Establishment is an atomic farce whose author David Langford once worked in the gentle radioactive glow of Britain's nuclear weapons industry, and who hilariously satirises it from the inside. Black comedy overtakes the unfortunate defence scientist hero Roy Tappen when a "harmless" theft of office furniture lands him with his very own doomsday nuclear stockpile at home. Chain reactions of comic escapades follow, with disaster piled on disaster, leading the increasingly desperate Tappen to the borders of science fiction as he seeks a way out of the mess.

About the Author

David Langford is a luminary of the British Science Fiction community and editor of the regular Hugo-winning newsletter Ansible...He is also winner of the 2001 Hugo Award for Best Short Story with "Different Kinds of Darkness". He lives in Reading, which thanks to Ansible has more Hugos per capita than any other town in the UK.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Roy Tappen was always mildly amazed when the security police passed him through the high steel gates into the tightest of all Britain's research establishments, the Nuclear-Utilization Technology Centre, whose inmates alternately pronounced the acronym Nuts or vilely anagrammatized it. Not that he felt a suspicious character; indeed, he regarded himself as startlingly handsome and distinguished, tastefully average in height, appropriately kempt of hair and generally British through and through. The trouble was his security pass, with a photo labelled R TAPPEN SSO, but in fact showing an unshaven homicidal lunatic and child-molester with a crippling hangover and at least one glass eye, photographed after forty-eight hours' strenuous axe-murdering. How unfair that each morning the Ministry of Defence police acknowledged this apparition to be unmistakably Tappen, and agreed that his pleasant light brown hair was identical with the photograph's, which appeared to be plaid! .

He passed on into the sinister hinterland of NUTC. Its scatter of buildings, no two alike and not one of them likeable, huddled in a dingy corner of Robinson Heath resembling a cut-price setting for Macbeth. First came shiny new office blocks for administrators and typists. Then gaunt buildings like crematoria which were laboratories, workshops, plutonium-handling facilities or the canteen, until he reached the decaying wooden huts which looked like the worst and most squalid of post-war "temporary" accommodation, and were. These were the offices reserved for the highly trained scientists like Tappen who were the brains of NUTC.

The four-mile-long outer fence was electrified, bugged with microchip miracles which could very possibly detect a Trotskyist tendency a hundred yards off, and patrolled by guard dogs of amazing ferocity and incontinence. Security was so theoretically strict that there'd once been a move to have senior personnel wear standardized hats, in case Soviet spy satellites could spot their characteristic hair-partings and relay information about highly confidential movements within NUTC.

Later that day, at the heart of the establishment, a crumbling Terrapin hut (protozoic ancestor of today's Portakabin) which was the inner sanctum of Britain's nuclear research, protected from the general public by layer on layer of top security and barbed wire, Roy Tappen glumly leant back from the desk and picked his nose.

There were a dozen folders piled on the battered worktop. The most important concerned the major project which aimed at replacing all the warheads in British missiles with new improved Chevalines ("the latest super-duper ones with ten-year guarantee and built-in Space Invaders facility," as Llewellyn liked to say). As a long-term project, it was at the bottom of the stack. On top were the far more urgent draft minutes of the Nuclear Public-Image Working Party, which met every Tuesday. A warm, muggy, Thursday afternoon, and one page to go on the first draft ... With a sigh Tappen bent forward to the highly illicit apparatus on his desktop, and there was a tap on the door. His heart jumped. He flipped a wad of old computer printout over his guilty secret just before the Security man stepped in.

"Afternoon just a routine inspection records say you are in charge of a valuable piece of electronic equipment subject to regular inventory checking under regulations ..." said the unwelcome visitor all on one note. Tappen sighed, hunting out the decrepit calculator which must be worth all of fifty pence; the almost equally decrepit security man noted its serial number on three forms and had Tappen sign each one twice. Thus a jealous government guarded its funds against the wanton ravages of greedy scientific civil servants.

Alone again, Tappen uncovered the incriminating portable typewriter and began to tap out that last page. "The Press Officer proposed again that since public hysteria and apprehension are too easily inflamed by scare-words like 'plutonium', this element be renamed, e.g. as 'Element 94', 'Ingredient X' or 'Superfuel' ..."

Knock. Knock.

"Afternoon just a routine reminder records say you are in charge of a cupboard with security lock and it's time for you to change the combination and notify Security of the new one if you can just spare a minute please." The safe-and-cupboard Security Policeman was even more withered and ancient than the electronics one, and his neck stuck out of the dark-blue uniform collar like a well-dried Bombay duck. Tappen breathed deeply, stood, and manipulated the cupboard lock for several minutes. All he usually kept there was the typewriter and his supplies of tea and coffee; the combination switched regularly between his wife's birthday and ﷓﷓ if only to see if Security would ever notice ﷓﷓ Josef Stalin's. 21-12-18-79, he wrote on the proffered form, twice, and signed, three times.

As the door slammed and neatly bisected a lackadaisical "Thank you Sir," the typewriter emerged from cover again.

"An alternate proposal was to classify the word 'plutonium' under the Official Secrets Act and to make knowledge or use of the word illegal. The Chairman pointed out that the name appeared on every copy of the Periodic Table of the Elements and that it might not be politic to classify this document. The Press Officer asked why not, and ..."


"Afternoon just a routine inspection records say you are in charge of a valuable piece of calculating equipment subject to regular inventory checking under regulations if you could spare a moment please."

Tappen had almost forgotten that on moving in he'd inherited, along with the cupboard, the desk, the woodworm and the cockroaches, an elderly slide rule possibly used by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. After some research in dusty corners he produced it, and there was a further dispiriting rustle of forms. "Thank you Sir ..."

With sinking heart Tappen eventually finished typing the draft minutes, locked away the machine (diverted in defiance of regulations from the NUTC scrapheap), and began the grimmest stage of the afternoon's work: copying out the draft legibly in longhand.

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