The Oddest Book Review in History?
Note – As of the 12th May 2018, this review is being published in instalments here. It is supposed to be a bad review. All I can say is that I wish I had more reviews like this one! The writer is going through the book a chapter at a time, with almost as much concentration as I put into writing it. He has only reached Chapter Three, and his review and the comments on his review have reached five thousand words. SIG
Being an entirely partisan review and analysis of The Churchill Memorandum – Or ‘Dirigibles, Acid Baths and Bullet-Trams, Oh My!’
In December 2017 I was scrolling through the entries in the Alternate History recommendations on the Kindle store, when I came across The Churchill Memorandum, an alternate history novel featuring a (rather bad) waxwork of Winston Churchill on the cover. It was written by Sean Gabb (who I recommend you Google) and was free, so I purchased it, hoping that I had found another hidden gem in the AH genre, so rare these days outside of Sea Lion Press.
How wrong I was.
Between December 2017 and January 2018 I fought my way through this tremendous* piece of fiction, having no choice but to highlight many of my findings to the denizens of the PMQs thread over on alternatehistory.com. Indeed, the phrase ‘Michael Foot’s acid bath’ entered into common phrasing in that thread as a result of my fevered scrawlings. Having the time to analyse it in more detail, I feel duty-bound to conduct a chapter by chapter analysis of the novel, bringing the highs and lows of it to the readers of this forum. It will be on a multiple-chapter per post basis, as they are quite short, but will take some time to undertake. However, I can assure you that the bounty is worth the wait
It’s London, but not quite as you know it.
It looks almost the same, except the neon display at Picadilly Circus advertises far, far more British companies, all of which are positively blossoming under the strong but libertarian hand of the British Empire, in this, the year of our Lord 1959. The cars look mostly as you’d expect them to, although of course there are far less of them in this reality, as the roads of the past have been forced to make way for the bullet-trams of the present. The people on the streets mainly look the same, although for some reason there’s a strong smell of curry in the air at times, which doesn’t make any sense, and indeed makes less and less sense the more you think about it. There don’t appear to be anywhere near as many foreign tourists, and absolutely no American accents you can hear; indeed, as you walk past a newspaper tout, the front page of the Daily Mail is shouting about the latest black helicopter raids on the multi-ethnic gangs that infest New York City. You buy a copy of the paper, and read about the death of some anarchist in the departures hall of Anslinger International, the main dirigible port on the east coast of the United States. Below the fold there’s a big advertisement for gold, and a comforting editorial expounding the joys of the gold standard and how it has brought about unheard-of prosperity to the British Empire.
As you cross the street, you notice more advertisements for the Gold Standard, and also a sign for a cinema. Intrigued, you purchase a ticket and sit down, just in time for the news feature from British Pathe. First up is an item about the latest diplomatic negotiations with the Third Reich, and you hear an older gent nearby mutter a Thank God for the fact that the Empire never went to war with the continental superpower. Then a more reassuring item from the subcontinent – Prime Minister Halifax and Foreign Secretary ‘Big Mac’ Macmillan are on screen, taking the salute with the Indian Ocean fleet, Royal Navy dirigibles proudly floating above the ships. Then an item about news from the home country, and you’re quite shocked as a number of people sitting in the audience start hurling popcorn and ice creams at the screen. You look up and see the infamous face of Michael Foot, leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain, his features screwed up in vitriolic hate as, in a whining staccato, he calls for Jewish working people everywhere to redouble their opposition to the ‘cancer of bourgeois-Teutonic Zionism’ around the world. Finally there’s a brief item from Minister Powell at the India Office, his moustachioed face providing a balm of comfort to the audience, and allowing their passionate rejection of Footism to come to a close. The newsreel closes with the national anthem, and then onto the film itself – some trashy alternate history film about a world war between the Allies (the United States, Britain and France, together?) fighting Nazi Germany and its own allies. Utterly preposterous, of course.
As you emerge into the daylight and continue to walk down the street, passing yet more advertisements – this time for brands of marijuana, which are of course entirely legal and immensely popular in this day and age – you idly try and remember your history lessons from school, as to what had allowed Britain to prosper, safe from the menaces of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union with its ten-month calendar, all of the months named after variations of Stalin. Was itthe death of William II, King of Prussia, on the battlefield of Kunersdorf in 1759? Or perhaps the invasion and conquest of the Isle of Wight by the Spanish? Oliver Cromwell going to the Americas; Ireland becoming a fascist state; the atomic bombing campaign and invasion of mainland Japan? No, nothing like that, no ridiculous scenarios from hack counter-factual history writers. In fact you remember that the history books were always rather vague about this, but you seem to remember it had something to do with the failure of that obscure politician, Winston Churchill, to drag the country into a war with Nazi Germany; he had failed, of course, somehow, despite the money he was taking from Czech Jewish interests. That money, of course, had immediately dried up once there wasn’t going to be a war.
Whistling happily, you pick up a bottle of root beer and return home, ready to have another session at the self-correcting typewriter and keep writing. Hopefully the Hotpoint Home Generator was topped up with enough reagent – five guineas down, the salesman had told you, and wave goodbye to gas and electric bills. Thank god for a peaceful and prospering British Empire, upon which the sun will never set.
Chapters 1 – 3: The Situation in the United States of Black Helicopters – “This is the British Empire – and this is the British Empire on marijuana” – Musings on the advantages of flying on-board a British dirigible – Bullet-trams, pavement heating and electric cars – Off to the Pub for a Pint and an Infodump – Ze Missing Luggage Mit der Giant Boobies
Okay, let’s do this! The novel begins with an Incredibly Important Note about The Gold Standard and Currency Rates for no real reason that I can see, but look I had to read it so I don’t see why you lot should be spared:
Following a return to the gold standard, the price level in this alternative 1959 has fallen somewhat below that of 1914. Whether we take the current price of gold, or the various cost of living indices, this gives a rough conversion of £1 to £200 of our own as of 2014. This makes 1s. worth about £10, and 1d. about 80p. A halfpenny, therefore, is worth about 40p, and a farthing and half farthing 20p and 10p respectively. There is no smaller coinage.
Then we’re into the novel proper. Our hero, Anthony Markham, is in a queue at an airport – Ainslinger International. Wikipedia tells me this is likely named after Harry J. Anslinger, a U.S. government official I’d never heard of before; however, as his article tells me that he was “…a supporter of prohibition and the criminalization of drugs, and played a pivotal role in cannabis prohibition…” then I’m guessing that this is supposed to be a clever Easter Egg for Libertarian readers that this United States is Not A Good Place. Oh, those wacky Libertarians!
Anyway, Markham is being bored to death by a fellow passenger rambling on about how the Americans don’t do dates properly, putting the month before the day; this is an incredibly tedious passage, though we are treated to the fact that the airport calendar is covered in dust and hasn’t been updated since January, despite it being March. I assume this is also meant to be an ominous point, but not actually? Markham has a ‘coloured’ porter dragging his luggage box next to him; this was actually the first indication (aside from the blurb) that Something Was Different in this timeline. The line moves forward, with the bore again rambling on about computers and what might happen to computers once 1999 turns to 2000, which is as fascinating as it sounds. But then:
There was a loud crash behind us. Fifty bored, impatient faces turned to see who’d got the double doors unlocked that led back out into one of the less derelict areas of New York. It was a whole squad of Republican Guards. In their regulation fedoras and trench coats, they paused at the entrance and looked round. Most carried hand guns. A couple had sawn-off shotguns. One of them pointed in my direction and held up a folded sheet of paper. Coming at a brisk march, they set out across the fifty yards that separated us.
An action scene, and so early in the book! So we can see that New York is fairly derelict, and that some kind of random government militia is here – another sign of the United States not going in a good direction. Markham is worried about their arrival, and the possibility that they are here for him – he bribed an official in the ‘Repository Office in Chiacgo’ for some kind of permit. However they move past him, and instead confront the man at the very front of the queue.
Alan Greenspan?” their officer snarled. He unfolded his sheet of paper. It was covered in typewriting, and there was a photograph in its top right hand corner. “You are Alan Greenspan—enemy of the people!” The little Jew in front of me cowered backwards and got out a few words in the sort of English accent you hear in Hollywood films from the old days. The officer laughed unpleasantly and took up the British passport the clerk had been in the process of stamping. Holding it in his left hand, he rubbed one of the pages between the thumb and forefinger of his right. He sniffed at his fingers and held them out to show how blue they’d turned. “Take him down,” he said to one of his men. He took hold of the Jew’s collar.
Some excellent characterisation here – I’ve no idea what Alan Greenspan looked like – especially in 1959 – but we already know he’s a Jew – twice – in the space of a paragraph. Greenspan gets beaten savagely despite ‘squealing’ that he is a British subject, which apparently means he had a false passport. The official gets blue ink on his hand, which I assume means it’s a fake. The goons threaten anyone trying to stop them and drag Greenspan away, but not before we get this:
“Free Ayn Rand!” he shrilled quickly. “She’s been in solitary for a year now. They’re killing her with neglect.” He was taking in breath for another slogan. But a knee in his face sent him straight down on the floor. The officer snapped an order to his men. They pulled Greenspan to his feet and three of them began dragging him back towards the doors. “Restore the Constitution!” he managed to shout. “Anslinger’s a tyrant!” But that was it. With a last despairing wail of “A is A!” from Greenspan, the doors closed behind him and his keepers, leaving the rest of us in total silence.
Yep, the United States is definitely In A Bad Place, especially as it is openly persecuting Libertarians, who would appear to be Public Enemy Number One for what I’m sure will be explained entirely credibly at some point. Because he had been next to Greenspan in the line, Officer Goon randomly explains that “I can smell a Jew at five yards,” and harasses Markham, only for him to be saved by the Bore who explains that they are both British subjects. He even has a name – Major Stanhope, born in Cyprus but very much a British Imperial citizen. Then we get some rather odd exposition, which I think is supposed to once again show the colonials unfavourably to Decent British Subjects:
“I sit on the Veterans’ Relief Board in London,” he continued, pulling himself back to the main subject. “Not many Americans in the War, of course—came in too late for that. But they took quite a few casualties. All old men now, those still with us—some older than me. But American war pensions don’t buy much with all this inflation. We do what we can. You’d be surprised the difference a few shillings a week can make between want and dignity.”
“They fought in England’s war,” the officer said with quiet contempt. “It’s only right that England should look after them now.”
This refers to the First World War, but again as far as I can tell having read the book several times, the PoD is still entirely around Churchill and nothing else. Markham is interrogated, explaining he’s a historian researching Winston Churchill, and here the author is at pains to highlight just how obscure Churchill is in this timeline –
“I’m an historian,” I said, trying and failing to match Stanhope’s easy assurance. “I’m researching a biography of Winston Churchill. You—you may have heard of him. He was half-American—his mother’s side. He left all his later papers to Harvard. I was out here to consult them. I—I…” The officer had lost interest, and I trailed off.
Fortunately he’s allowed through departures, after bonus details about a statue of Anslinger, who we know see is the dictatorial ruler of this hellhole, and can board the Imperial Airways airship for the journey home (Union Flag proudly standing on each end of the dirigible), although he has to bribe an official to allow his luggage through, his argument that he is a personal friend of the British Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, cutting no ice with the official.
As we passed out of American air space, and the black escort helicopters turned back, the bar opened in the first class saloon.
Now that’s an interesting opening. I’m not sure the relative speeds of dirigibles versus helicopters, but it’s a rather odd image to portray – though of course we’re obviously meant to think about the traditional conspiracy theorist black helicopter mythology as another sign of how far the United States has fallen. Fortunately, Markham and Stanhope are now free of the dictatorial colonials and are on-board the finest airship Britain can provide. It will take approximately 75 hours to cross the Atlantic, firstly passing by Ellis Island and the Anslinger Monument; Markham mulls over the grim state of America and the Republican Guard, thankful that although
“…comic foreigners could jabber and gesticulate themselves black in the face. But England, safe behind the wave-swept grey of the Home Fleet, was the same England as always. The Queen was on her throne. The pound was worth a pound. All was right with the world…”
I assume you’re meant to have God Save The Queen playing continuously in a loop while reading this novel. Also, isn’t the expression commonly ‘red in the face’ and not, well, black? I’ll be charitable and assume that’s a typo. After some chatting, Stanhope begins smoking a pipe that has the smell of marijuana on it, and this is a sign that they are back in ‘proper’ civilization: now that American laws don’t have to be obeyed, weed can be freely smoked, and a piano quartet starts up with Non Più Andrai.
We are now treated to a nice infodump on the state of America. We are informed that Dictator Anslinger has banned “anti-American” music in favour of nothing but “mournful folk songs” and hymns, and Markham observed trucks carting away discarded gramophone records and parading offenders with placards around their necks. A “decrepit Jew” had been observed to sing some Irving Berlin pieces in Lindbergh Square, but hadn’t been tackled by the Republican Guard for some reason. So far, so generic overwrought, Cromwellian-dictatorship.
Markham and Stanhope fall into conversation, and completely coincidently Stanhope has read Markham’s first volume of Churchill’s biography. You know, that hugely obscure politician no-one has really heard of – how fortunate! Stanhope explains that Churchill isn’t much liked in India by ‘the natives’ because of a speech he gave in Birmingham in 1943; what exactly this speech was about is never explained. Markham explains his luggage contains a selection of material from the Churchill Collection that the politician stored at Harvard, after much begging and scraping for funds to do so; fortunately it survived the “student uprising” that turned the entire area into “an imitation of Ypres circa 1915”
Strangely, Stanhope seems to know a lot about Markham and his parentage (Foreshadowing) and his personal habits – including looking at Markham’s fingernails for some reason (Foreshadowing) and despite Markham’s best efforts, he can’t avoid Stanhope following him around the airship (Foreshadowing)
It was three days later. A favourable wind had got us in early, and I stepped off the bullet tram at Victoria shortly after 1pm. From here, I walked through a light drizzle to The Drivers’ Arms, just off Regent Street. The pavement heating was still on at full pelt, and the resulting clouds of steam had given London the appearance of an old-fashioned fog. If the kerb lighting hadn’t switched itself on, I’d surely have fallen under one of the newer and more silent electric cars.
Now, of course, the thing we’ve all been waiting for – bullet trams! What, exactly, is a bullet tram? Absolutely no idea – in fact, I must regretfully inform @Guernsey Donkey that this is the one and only time they will be mentioned in the entire book. However, given that we also see pavement heating and electric cars I think we can see what’s going on here.
It’s often said that warfare is the driver of invention, but obviously they’ve never heard of the Gold Standard and Appeasement. For without entering into a beastly war with the Third Reich, technology has been driven to unheard of heights thanks to the dividend of peace and the non-dissolution of the Empire.
This was the first indication that something was terribly awry with this novel – that it wasn’t just a pulpy, right-wing alternate history novel, but that it had an AGENDA in bright, gold-coloured letters. I can just about buy that without the Second World War, some kind of delay in decolonisation might happen, but the airships? The electric cars, the bullet trams, the pavement heating? No, here we have a very clear sign that A Point Will Be Made, and believe me it’s only just starting.
Markham arrives in London and goes straight to a pub in Regent Street to celebrate not having to be in America any longer. Unfortunately his ruminations on the joys of safe old England the cross-section of society in the pub – even the actors who make so much noise, especially the queer ones – are disturbed by the news, which is being relayed by a new TV, which is both in colour and with stereophonic speakers.
Brace yourselves – it’s time for an I-I-I-Infodump! This passage is so long I fear to quote it all, so instead here’s a nice summary:
Home news – A man has had a successful lung and heart transplant, which is so successful he’s off to France to play golf.
This is exactly 33% of the time that France is mentioned; the second time will be how France has fallen as a great power, the third time someone’s childhood in France.
Now onto the ever-grim international news. By the time Markham had landed, the terrorists who had bombed the Tokyo Metro had been handed over by the Dalai Lama to the Japanese authorities. As a result the crisis had passed, the 3-7 million strong (Markham isn’t certain for some reason) Japanese army being withdrawn from the borders of Tibet. British bombers had returned to Peshawar and stood down, and “the more lunatic writers for Lord Beaverbrook had given up insisting that this was an opportunity to see if atom bombs really would set fire to the atmosphere”
So, no nuclear weapons have ever been used in this timeline – another fantastic benefit of peace and Appeasement!
Unfortunately as the Japanese had been distracted by Tibet, their “puppet Tsar” in Ulan Bator was now calling for a Crusade against Moscow. Actually, Markham’s not sure why – another story flashes up about India, and, er, actually I think I will quote this bit without further comment:
I couldn’t quite make out the nutter from the Moslem League. But he seemed to be claiming the Tsar had converted to Islam and was preaching jihad against the British in India. Although he was making his usual call for moderation, the man from the Indian National Party looked equally insane, with his dry lips and swelling eyes.
Then an item about Prime Minister Halifax and the Indian Ocean, with shots of the Indian Ocean Fleet and their accompanying dirigibles. He’s going to a conference via the Suez Canal – still British – but Markham notes how old and doddery he’s getting.
The price of gold has fallen – Markham is very sad about this
And now, onto sports. Again, I feel like I need to quote this section without comment to ensure I’m not biasing anything:
It was Jamaica vs. Sudan for the Vickers Cup. Through some technical marvel that involved rockets, film of the previous day’s match had been rushed in from Wellington, and was now being broadcast as if live. I’d have had little trouble watching that—assuming I enjoyed the sight of coloureds running about in the sun. Some of the theatrical set did, which is why the pub had fallen into comparative silence. “Once you’ve tried black,” someone shrilled, “you’ll never go back!” There was a little shriek of laughter.
And that’s the end of the news, although watching TV has once again given Markham flashbacks to his trip to America – in a ripoff homage of 1984, we learn that everyone in America must pause for 15 minutes at breakfast and shake their fists at the names of the latest traitors being denounced by the Anslinger regime. We also get this fantastic description of life in America:
I hadn’t been prepared for the smell of burst sewers, and for the burnt-out cars and no-go squatter camps that filled the wider streets. No point telling her about the endless turf wars between Italian and coloured and Jewish gangs that had kept me awake night after night until I was used to the sound of gunfire. Nor any point telling her about the black helicopters that hovered by day above the streets, and that only ever came down to snatch pedestrians, seemingly at random, off to probable torture and death in one of the Fellowship Camps.
Is it just me, or does this version of fascist America sound really fucking cool? The hell with Gold Standard Britain with its electric cars and Marijuana pipes, I want to be fighting with multi-ethnic street gangs and dodging black helicopters dropping troops with sweet uniforms. It’s like the Homefront that should have been.
Emerging from the pub, Markham is stunned to find Stanhope outside, reading an English-language copy of the latest Völkischer Beobachter, replete with photos of Herr Hitler because of the coming anniversary of his premature death. Markham worries why he’s being followed, assuming he’d lost the bore at Croydon when he left the airship, and so he flees through the rain, once again thankful he doesn’t have to dodge sweet-ass helicopters and ethnic gangs, the absolute fool.
Then we come to one of the more baffling, @KingCrawa anger-inducing sections. This will make (a little) more sense later on, but here we go – as he’s sheltering from the rain, a stranger appears and accosts him randomly:
“Iss it true, my friend, zat ze Archpishop of Canterbury is not a priest?” he asked with slow deliberation in a very thick German accent. He waved at the central book on the display. It was the defence of the Thirty Nine Articles that had come out to such acclaim just before I left England. I watched as the stream of smoke I let out was dispersed in the wind and gathered my thoughts.
“It was a controversial appointment,” I replied in German. “But C.S. Lewis was, of course, ordained before the position was formally offered. And I don’t think anyone can doubt that he has been a success by any reasonable measure. It isn’t every day that a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and a dozen other Romish priests are converted in the course of a public debate.”
The Stranger Mit Der Cherman Accent is very, very curious as to where Markham’s luggage is at the moment, but fortunately he is able to escape from the Totally Not A Spy and find refuge in his publisher’s office.
Next Time on The Churchill Memorandum – Richard Nixon’s Career – Randolph Churchill’s Whitewashing – Churchill and Jewish Money To Warmonger – Churchill Turns On The Jews – Ayn Rand: Biographer of Hitler – Churchill’s ‘Piss-stained descent into the gutter’ – Churchill Was Corrupt – Churchill Was A Deathbed Catholic? – Casual Misogyny – Chamberlain Street and Victory Mansion – Roy Hattersley, Mansion Porter – Dr Pakeshi And The Smell
To be continued…. [or so I devoutly hope]