THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 608, February 20, 2011
The Churchill Memorandum, by Sean Gabb
Attiribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
Let me begin this with a disclaimer: Sean Gabb, the author of The Churchill Memorandum is a friend of mine. Author, lecturer, TV and radio personality, Sean is what used to be called a "man of parts", intelligent, principled, and tough. Through perspicacity and dogged determination, he has become the face and voice of libertarianism in Britain.
He is also more than a fair hand at fiction, having created the most interestingly offbeat hero I've seen in a novel in a long time, groping his way through a highly-textured and devilishly complicated world of spies versus counterspies in a 1959 shaped mostly by the fact that Adolf Hitler expired before he had a chance to set the world on fire, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was cut down by an assassin's bullet.
World War II never happens. Britain reverts to a metallic monetary standard, minimal government, and low taxes (followed by Germany) and she grows wealthy and healthy both as a nation and as a people in the process. Pearl Harbor is attacked, and the United States loses Hawaii and the Philippines to Japan, although Britain defends America's west coast.
What follows is a positively Hitchcockian story that will remind the reader, by turns, of The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Winston Churchill, in this branch of history is a drunk who died in relative obscurity, leaving his private papers to Harvard University. Anthony Markham is an historian working on the second volume of the old boy's biography at the behest of his family.
The opening chapters are thrilling, as the biographer is trying to get through security and out of a thoroughly fascistic United States, ruthlessly controlled by the dictator, President Harry Anslinger (with the enthusiastic help of subcreatures like Richard Nixon). Look him up: in our corner of probability, it's arguable that, of all political figures in the 20th century, Anslinger may be more responsible than any other for transforming America into the police state it has become today.
What Markham doesn't knowyetis that, among Churchill's many papers is a document that may have an explosive effect on the balance of power in 1959, and the relations between Britain, Germany, and America, and that there is no safety for him back at home in England. He becomes the pawn and target for differing groups who want to use him and the Churchill papers for all sorts of different purposes.
The novel is so tightly-knit that it's hard to say anything about it without giving too much away. Sean writes in a manner that has you smelling the surroundings (not always a pleasant experience) and feeling the grit of asphalt and concrete under your feet. "Noirer than noir" might be an accurate description, but somehow, it's never depressing.
The novel as a whole is agreeably full of sound and fury, but there is a particularly splendid action scene on a train. Thanks to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Harry Potter, Americans are familiar with British trains, and that familiarity comes through even when the train in question happens to be bulleting along at 300 miles per hour, levitating above magnetic rails. It made me realize that a struggle on the railways is the British equivalent of an American car chase.
A couple of words to American readers. Sean has chosen to present the details of 1959 to us the way it really wasor would have been, and that includes the language. Words and phrases that are politically incorrect were a part of common conversation sixty years ago, and even today, in my own experience, are uttered more often in Britain than America.
In addition to Harry Anslinger and Richard Nixon (also Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, and Nathaniel Branden), Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayeck also figurea bit shockinglyin the action. I absolutely love stories like this, which is why I write them, myself. And there are many other characters who will mean more to Sean's countrymen, people like Enoch Powell, Harold MacMillan, Michael Foot, and Lord Halifax. It can't hurt, as you accompany Markham on his adventures, to keep Wikipedia open at your side. Sean is a great teacher, and this book has a lot to teach us in his painless and often extremely funny way.
Buy it, read it, tell your friends. I guess it's my privilege to welcome Sean into the ranks of sideways time travel writers the way that Robert Heinlein once welcomed me. The genre is richer for his presence.