Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 32 | February 4, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Special Feature
   Straight Talk
   Food for Thought
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home


Book Review

It's a TV jungle out there

and back here, too

Clemency Burton-Hill

In the latest reality TV extravaganza, Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million, contestants are dropped into the last unexplored jungle on earth with nothing but salt, water and a legal disclaimer waiving any liability by the producers. No cute T-shirts with their names emblazoned on the back; no cute Geordie presenters to keep the spirits chipper. For the point of the programme is that while it plunges competitors into some of the most extreme conditions on earth, they are some of the most mediocre people on earth.

Hence the participation of Brian Marley, a divorced, depressed, middle-aged teacher who has 'never risked his life for a friend, his heart for a woman or his health for an adventure'. He is acutely aware that 'at his age and with his CV, there was no spectacular retroactive justification of his life waiting just around some nearby corner'.

After seven weeks of jungle hell, Brian finds himself the sole survivor and winner of £2 million, waiting for him in London just as soon as the helicopters arrive to pick him up. When said helicopters, having arrived, crash into each other, wiping out all crew, emergency supplies and equipment with them, Brian realises he has no choice but to die. Back home, Channel 7 rakes in the millions and whips up a tabloid frenzy for Brit Pluck 2: The Rescue Mission. Even the Prime Minister, a supreme photo-opportunist, puts in a guest appearance in the jungle after his press officer points out that 'they had 27 million viewers last night ... that's about twice as many as will vote'.

Brian, meanwhile, wakes in a heaven whose ambient soundtrack is the unmistakable clunk of willow bat on leather ball; whose reading matter consists of the very stuff he devoured as a kid - Boy's Own, the Eagle annual; and whose inhabitants include girls named after Enid Blyton heroines and a plummy, cane-wielding 'Headmaster'.

In fact, Brian has miraculously survived, and the foreign field he finds himself in, though technically deepest darkest New Guinea, is actually as forever England as they come. In 1958, a plane carrying 'a jolly gang' of public school boys and girls was shot down, and, assuming themselves to be the first casualty of a third world war, the survivors founded a rather spiffing colony, complete with cricket, Union flags and the Beano. It falls on Brian to explain that England has not, in fact, been vapourised by an H-bomb,and enlighten them with a picture of their beloved country as it is now.

Initially, Hawes's fifth novel is tediously self-conscious in its bid to make witty points about contemporary culture. And while calculated stereotyping is presumably Hawes's intention, the dismal cliche of his dialogue is a pity, because Speak for England gets progressively more amusing and intelligent throughout.

For all the faults of character voice, the tone of the narrative is pitch-perfect. And if its reliance on caricature seems unsubtle at first, this tactic enables a very sophisticated thinker to make an increasingly salient point. For Hawes's most impressive achievement is the political satire which kicks in towards the end.

Led by the sinister Headmaster, the Colonists arrive in England determined to win a general election with a clutch of reforms: ID cards, neighbourhood patrols, instant withdrawal from the EU and joining America as the state of 'Old England'. Abhorrent as these may be to anyone left of far right, it is hard not to take the point as the Headmaster scoffs at the idea that 'a Labour government ... hates trade unions and only taxes the top chaps at 40 per cent!' Hawes's nightmarish vision may also offer a salutary lesson: '83 per cent of eligible voters' turn out to back the party pledging to 'sort things out'.

If its conclusion is weak, Speak for England raises important issues, not to mention some laughs, along the way.

This review was first published in the Guardian


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004