In James Hawes’s 1997 debut novel, A White Merc With Fins, 28-year-old protagonist “Lower M.C.”—i.e., “Lower Middle Class”—sees a bank heist as the only exit from the numbing banality of modern British life. Eight years later, that archetypically “desperate” solution already sounds hopelessly quaint.
Speak for England is the story of Brian Marley, a divorced and halfway broke ESL teacher whose blazing ardor for one of his students feels like a cruel preface to its own inevitable fizzle. But this is 2005, and Irvine Welsh laddishness has ceded to a blank funk, so when Brian’s old mate from uni—a blowhardy “poof” of a TV producer—comes offering escape, it’s in properly updated form: a reality TV show.
Brian survives the requisite seven weeks in the jungle, but his rescue helicopters collide while angling for the best shot, leaving him to stumble onto a Golding-esque twitdom populated by survivors of a 1958 plane crash, Tory Brits anxious to hear if the Reds took London. These literal impacts thus set up a figurative one: the colliding of ’50s-era real hysteria—scornful of “Bolshies” talking socialist rot and a U.S.S.R. metonymed as “Ivan”—with its millennial twin, the hysterical realism of reality TV. It’s a strangely fruitful pairing; while most of the expats know the Isle only through nuke-heavy pamphlets, Brian’s Britain is hardly more tangible, seeking out its identity in absurd self-enactments. But try explaining that to this homesick crew. When the randy Georgina beds Brian, she lets loose an ecstatic recitation of textbook names that finally have a face: “Shepherd’s Bush, Holland Park, England, oh England!”