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#3 – Speak For England

May 7, 2007

i’ve been dreaming of a time when to be english is not to be banefulI liked this book, a lot, but it wasn’t meant for me. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation the entire time. I suppose the title should have been a dead giveaway, but this book was entirely about England, its culture and traditions and subtle nuances. I, meanwhile, use the terms “England” and “Britain” interchangeably, which in the context of Speak For England is apparently a cardinal sin. Consequently, I’d say about 40% of the book went completely over my head.

I’ve read one book by James Hawes before, A White Merc With Fins, his ’96 debut. That was about a group of English university graduates in their mid-twenties, who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives and are terrified, so they decide to rob a bank. The main character of Speak For England, Brian Marley, could have been one of those kids twenty years later – middle aged, still clueless about what he’s doing with his life, and slowly realizing that things aren’t going to turn around for him. The cultural references in White Merc are Reservoir Dogs and Radiohead; in Speak they are the Monetary Union and Aga cookers. One of these books clearly speaks to me; the other is very far removed.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, it’s well written and the premise is brilliant. Marley, broke and ready to give up on life, signs up for the most brutal reality show ever conceived and is leaft for dead in a Papua New Guinea jungle by Channel Seven. After weeks of wandering, he is rescued by a Lord of the Flies village, descendants of English schoolchildren who crashed there in 1958, and built a society based on post-war, pre-’60s life in England. This is, unsurprisingly, awesome – their village is orderly and efficient, and they’re led by a badass, RAF slang-talking Headmaster, whose reactions to Marley’s updates on global politics are the highlight of the book. (On the occupation of Iraq: “Yes, the Yanks never understood hearts and minds. And we got roped into this cock-up, eh?…Don’t suppose our boffins have come up with any damn clever new club for the bag that means we can play with the Yanks on level terms for once?” HARDCORE.)

The phrase “speak for England” is not mentioned in the text, or explained in any notes, so I had to look it up afterwords. A quick Google brought me to a reputable source which explained the awesome story behind the title. In 1939, after Chamberlain announced in the House of Commons that he was not declaring war on Germany for invading Poland, a member of the Labour Party, Arthur Greenwood, stood up to debate in the absence of the Labour leader, and declared that he would speak for Labour. Conservative Member Leo Amery, furious with the stance Chamberlain was taking, called out in reply “Speak for England, Arthur!” I love this story, and I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for the whole thing- I really liked it once I figured it out, but I’m pretty sure Hawes expected me to be familiar enough with it to get it right off the bat.

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