a TV jungle out there
back here, too
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.
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'.
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'.
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
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.
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.
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 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'.
conclusion is weak, Speak for England raises important issues,
not to mention some laughs, along the way.
review was first published in the Guardian