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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Speak for England

James Hawes

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To purchase Speak for England

Title: Speak for England
Author: James Hawes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 338 pages
Availability: Speak for England - US
Speak for England - UK
Speak for England - Canada
Pour le meilleur et pour l'Empire - France

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Our Assessment:

A- : nice dark humour, fairly successful in its (many) ambitions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/1/2005 Alfred Hickling
The Observer . 23/1/2005 Clemency Burton-Hill
Scotland on Sunday A 2/1/2005 Andrew Holmes
The Telegraph . 13/2/2005 Toby Clements
The Telegraph . 13/2/2005 Max Davidson
TLS . 25/2/2005 Roly Allen
The Village Voice . 26/8/2005 Theo Schell-Lambert

  Review Consensus:

  Most not entirely sure about it, but find aspects very appealing

  From the Reviews:
  • "No one is better than Hawes at articulating the dull, existential glumness of encroaching middle age. (...) (F)or all his new-found maturity and assured, comic tone, Hawes is still less able to conclude his speeding narratives than to crash them. But Speak for England is, for the most part, an assured, clever, raffishly inventive work. The boy racer has developed into a surprisingly adept chauffeur." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "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." - Clemency Burton-Hill, The Observer

  • "Speak For England is a tour de force of kitchen-sink writing. As in ‘everything but the kitchen sink’. It’s part-satire, part-farce, part-love story, part whatever else you fancy. Literary allusions, biting social commentary and two-dimensional stereotypical characters rub shoulders with the brilliant, acutely rendered protagonist, Brian Marley. It all adds up to a great whole. (...) The overall effect is like Tom Sharpe and Jonathan Coe in a brawl." - Andrew Holmes, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Hawes is a rather heavy-handed humorist, relying on the accretion of grotesque layers of exaggeration for his comedy, and his satire is not exactly sly, but he is constantly inventive. His themes are surprising and he is happy to wrong-foot the reader on any occasion, so that it is almost impossible to draw any conclusion about which of the three dystopias on offer he thinks is best." - Toby Clements, The Telegraph

  • "There is a thin line between schoolboy humour and grown-up satire; and in Speak for England, as in his earlier books, he zig-zags to and fro across that line like a drunk.(...) It is frivolous stuff, in all honesty, but Hawes writes with enough brio to give it a patina of charm." - Max Davidson, The Telegraph

  • "James Hawes's fifth novel is an ingenious if patchy satire on the relationship between Britain and England, past and present, the media and real life, constructed from the clash between a hermetically sealed version of 1950s England and the less certain present. (...) (H)is book is long on target but short on laughs." - Roly Allen, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The hapless hero at the centre of Speak for England is Brian Marley, a divorced father of a toddler who really hasn't made much of his life and is barely earning subsistence wages teaching English to foreigners in London. As the novel opens it looks like his luck is about to change: he's in Papua New Guinea, the last contestant on an ultimate-survivor show, Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million and it looks like he's made it and is about to reap the sizeable rewards of this horrific endurance challenge. But even when success appears imminent, things have a way of not working out for Marley -- in this case rather spectacularly. But, as the show proved, he's at least a survivor, worn down, battered and beaten, but at least alive -- remarkable enough in Papua New Guinea.
       The locale is ideal for this type of Survivor-show, with contestants dumped there and a helicopter only coming once a week to pick up whoever wants out most desperately. There are no games -- and no amenities. It's just man against man -- and jungle. Marley is about as far away from civilisation as it gets (or so it would appear), but when the show's finale goes wrong that proves to be quite the problem. Until he finds that he's not the first to find himself in this predicament -- and not quite so far away from civilisation (or what passes for it) as expected: a British plane carrying a group of schoolchildren crashed in the area as they were on their way "to the big Commonwealth Public Schools jamboree in Adelaide" almost half a century earlier and the survivors (now into a third generation) have made themselves quite comfortable. They've built themselves up quite the community, but have had no contact with the outside world (beyond the local tribes, who are pretty out of touch too). While relatively safe and comfortable (especially compared to the jungle below), the high plateau they found themselves on also effectively prevented detection by any planes flying by, leaving them in semi-splendid isolation.
       The novel begins with this bang, but also moves back in time, describing Marley's sorry existence and small ambitions, and how he wound up on the TV show. The few people in his life -- his son, his mother, the girl he's interested in -- also come into it; all in all, he really wasn't doing very well before he set off. After Marley has been lost there is a rescue mission -- all televised as well -- and the narrative moves back and forth between the different locales, and how various people are reacting -- the girl who thinks she's lost Marley, the TV producers, even the British PM, unnamed but clearly Tony Blair. Most of the story, however, follows Marley, as he learns more about this small society he's found himself in.
       The world the plane-crash survivors have built for themselves is a miniature England stuck in time -- with a few necessary twists, given their situation (such as marrying the girls off when they come of age, but only after making sure they're fertile). It was a school expedition that crashed, and not surprisingly the society has been formed much along the lines of an English school. The Headmaster is definitely in charge, and his approach to governance is strictly headmasterish. Still, there's more than a little Lord of the Flies here -- a lot, actually, though that twist is only eventually revealed to Marley.
       What's sustained this lost group is also the dream of England -- though in their imaginations it's quite different from reality, and they have a hard time believing some of what Marley tells them has happened in the meantime. They do, however, prove remarkably adaptable .....
       Hawes has some fun with the insanity that media-spectacles have become -- like the deadly game-show, the final rescue is (only just) beyond belief, at best a step or two away from what already is found on TV nowadays. But the novel is more about changing times and social mores and, especially, Englishness (it's no coincidence that Marley teaches the language to foreigners). The media satire only goes so far, but the social and political satire snowballs quite effectively once England has been reached again, the Headmaster disappointed by what he sees -- and certain he knows how to fix things.
       Much of Speak for England is bleak -- as life around Marley tends to be bleak. The lost plateau-community on PNG appears to be an idyll of sorts (and Marley even gets the appealing girl), but even that turns out to be only a more refined and structured version of the jungle below. England, too, is a dystopia, whether beforehand, when Marley can barely makes ends meet, or after, when he's been screwed out of his money and the Headmaster has begun to set things right.
       The worlds Hawes describes are disturbingly believable -- whether the jungle of PNG or the variations on England (past, present, and future). Little is pleasant -- though Marley does maintain that fighting spirit -- but it seems very real, with only some elements too summarily and simplistically presented (the TV producers, for example). The political satire can seem a bit broad at times, but Hawes is clever in his invention and it, too, seems plausible. And all of the novel is (very darkly) amusing.
       Ambitious but not too obvious, Speak for England is good entertainment that's also a bit more, the absurdities on offer hitting just a bit too close to home for comfort. Recommended.

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Speak for England: Reviews: James Hawes: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       British author James Hawes was born in 1960.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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