Archive for August 3, 2022

It Couldn’t Happen Here

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2022 by dcairns

I read a ridiculous amount of Michael Moorcock when I was a teenager. With a certain unjustified embarrassment I realize today that I still like him. I can’t see myself rereading the sword and sorcery stuff, except maybe Elric, who always had a lot more character than the iron-hewed knights populating most of the “eternal champion” mythos… it’s Jerry Cornelius, his comic version Jerry Cornell, and the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy that still exert a pull.

So I was glad to pick up England Invaded, which I must have seen listed on some Moorcock bibliography — in his heyday he always occupied an entire man-long shelf at the Science Fiction Bookshop (“only fifty yards from this cinema”) — without knowing what it was. An anthology of early sci-fi dealing with invasions of the UK (generally not just England, but I admit Moorcock’s title sounds better). What got me most interested was the novel by Saki which eats up most of the pages, When William Came.

There’s a whole school of fiction dealing with “What if the Germans won WWII?” — I’ve read Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (I’m a dedicated Dickhead), and even “Sarban’s” The Sound of His Horn, a trashy, pervy alternative history set a thousand years in the future and with the distinction of having been written while the outcome of the war was still in dispute. I haven’t bothered with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, too mainstream for me, but maybe I should. I also haven’t seen Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (I definitely should) or the TV adaptation of the Dickand Deighton books.

(My brother, a bit of a scholar of military history, convincingly explained to my why a German occupation was never a realistic short-term danger — the Reich were surprised at their success in France and had prepared no scheme to effect mass landings overseas. And Dick’s postulate, of America conquered, was never on the cards.)

Anyway, Saki’s book isn’t one of those. It’s the only example I know of a “What if the Germans won WWI?” novel. But not quite, since Saki doesn’t predict depict conflagration, just a face-off between Germany and Britain in which the superior German airforce sinks our fleet and we’re swiftly blockaded into submission. The other thing about it that’s unusual is that it came out in 1913, so it’s not an alternative history, it’s a wrong prediction. (I like old sci-fi best, the stuff that hasn’t come true — there’s nothing cosier than an apocalypse diverted.)

Jemand für Tennis?

One trouble with this is, Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany isn’t as horrifying a baddie as Hitler’s Third Reich. But that makes the book rather fascinating, as the disaffected hero, who missed the whole thing due to a bout of swamp fever in Norway, wanders around looking at the street signs now printed in both languages, bemoaning the fact that London has become, horror of horrors, “cosmopolitan.”

Another trouble is that “cosmopolitan” is in this context a synonym for Jewish. Though an antisemitic doctor tending to the impotent antihero admits that “some of them have behaved well,” both Saki and his protagonist seem obsessed with their repugnance at Jewish social climbers taking a preeminent place in society. It seems weird at this historical distance for an invading German force to be considered less antisemitic than the British, but it may for all I know not be completely inaccurate. And so you get sentences like, “Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground.”

Saki also wrote The Unrest-Cure, a short story in which one of his placid young male protagonists, Clovis, I think, overhears a country gent on a train bemoaning the rut his existence has settled into, and so resolves to liven things up a bit, by impersonating an emissary from the new vicar, intent upon enacting a pogrom in the village. “And your house has been selected as the venue!” I always thought of this story as the product of pre-WWII insensitivity, its shocking premise adding a dash of discomfort to the hazy salad days setting, and I found it very funny in an appalling way — but now it seems much more sinister and malign. As it always should have.

There was a sadism to Saki that sets him decisively apart from P.G. Wodehouse, whom he influences and whose characters move in recognizably the same story world. This malice found its healthiest outlet when his stories slipped without warning from drawing room comedy to horror, and sometimes but not always back again (The Open Window).

The horror at a German Britain may well have motivated Saki — in reality a Scotsman called Hector Hugh Munro — to enlist when WWI broke out, even though he was 43 and officially over-age. He was shot dead by a sniper in 1916. Famous last words, supposedly: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”

Saki was also homosexual, which throws the novel’s homophobia, a recurrent sub-theme along with its antisemitism, into a different and more tragic relief. “In what way, he asked himself in such moments, would his life be better than the life of that parody of manhood who upholstered his rooms with art hangings and rosewood furniture and babbled over the effect?” Of course these are the thoughts of the painfully straight, rather sexless hero. It’s notable that the best lines in the book always belong to, or are aimed at, the languid aesthetes his wife hangs around with. “Larry’s father had been a brilliantly clever man who had married a brilliantly handsome woman; the Fates had not had the least intention that Larry should take after both parents.”

Moorcock in his short intro doesn’t address any of this, calling the work “a sophisticated moral fiction.” Um.