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Quadrant review of Ross Fitzgerald & Antony Funnell, SO FAR, SO GOOD:AN ENTERTAINMENT

28 August 2018 No Comment

Edward Cranswick

The 1066 Committee and All That

‘So Far, So Good’

by Ross Fitzgerald & Antony Funnell

Hybrid Publishers, 2018, 214 pages, $22.95

I think it was Salman Rushdie who once opined that the Thatcher era was a great time for satire.

The whiff of ideology is a godsend for the able pen —satire the means by which we create distance from our partisan hallucinations. The same has not held true —or at least not true enough— in our own time.

If satire works by stretching a social or political tendency to its (preposterous) logical conclusion, then much of the time our political players have beaten us to the punch. It’s hard to land winning blows on millennial identitarian nitwits or Donald Trump when the genuine article is already a parody.

Perhaps it is for this reason that ‘So Far, So Good’ — Ross Fitzgerald and Antony Funnell’s new “entertainment” featuring Dr Professor Grafton Everest— is often funny but somehow not quite funny enough. It is the latest in a loosely connected series of comic adventures featuring our corpulent (“couldn’t see his cock without the use of a handmirror and a selfie stick”) anti-hero.

It’s the first I’ve read, and I’ll certainly be seeking out the earlier volumes, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that its zany plot was crammed full of too many targets to hit any one of them with full force.

Some time in the near future, the EU has disbanded and the US President has been assassinated.Grafton is apparently recovering from brief stints as Independent Premier of Mangoland (a thinly disguised Queensland) and as balance-of power holder in the Australian Senate. Having left public life to “regain some balance” of his own, at the novel’s opening Grafton is bored and restless: “These days, however, his phone never rang. And therein lay the problem … Reduced to double helpings of toast and one-sided conversations with his dog, Grafton couldn’t help but reflect that perhaps the scales had tipped too far in the other direction: he had pined for greener pastures but had ended up in a desert. The trouble was that he had no idea of how to tip them back again.”

Soon enough Grafton is granted reprieve in the form of an invitation to address the 1066 Committee, a fanatical sub-group of the British Conservative Party, whose enigmatic leader (and party chairman) Sir Alistair Mandeville is taken with a speech Grafton made in the Australian parliament in defence of animals. Sir Alistair’s loyal deputy is the chain-smoking Home Secretary, David Mayeux, who is baffled and exasperated by his master’s insistence on the involvement of Grafton in the committee’s shadowy plot to launch a neo-Norman conquest.

At the same time, Grafton is shooting to celebrity status owing to an effective social media campaign run by his sidekick (and his daughter’s former nanny) Neal — whose Twitter posts featuring Grafton’s gnomic pronouncements take all sides of the political universe by storm — leftists and rightists reading into Grafton’s words whatever they wish to hear. Our hero is tugged in all directions by political interests and travels between Australia, Britain and the United States — appearing on stages, radio programs and television to expatiate on a political philosophy he shows little indication of understanding himself.

The plot (both the novel’s and that of the nefarious 1066 Committee) comes to a head at the “Great Conference” organised by the ineffectual British PM Stephen Blight at the urging of Sir Alistair and the Home Secretary. The conference is ostensibly to re-launch Britain onto the world stage and solidify ties with all manner of Middle Eastern despots (those who share “our values”) since more congenial regimes nowadays decline offers of friendship.

Sir Alistair, who has been funding and fomenting civil unrest under the guise of free speech advocacy, sees the conference (and its surrounding chaos) as the perfect stage on which to launch a coup against decadent democracy and settle the waters with firm aristocratic virtues.

Along the way, the novel sends up most of the hot political topics one could think of: Tory nostalgia; Brexit; Australia’s educational system; a problematic cultural minority; concerns over artificial intelligence; the revolving door of Australian prime ministers; puerile leftist activism; and foreign interference in the democratic process.

Even when Fitzgerald and Funnell’s satirical pen wanders off from the main thrust of the plot, it does turn up some winning descriptions. Take the description of the Prime Minister, Scott Braggadocio, formerly “Minister for Select Immigration, Forced Repatriation, Coal Extraction and Punitive Justice: “Braggadocio had the look of a dullard: with flat brown eyes and a spray-tan complexion, his face looked like a couple of rissoles thrown into a sand pit … The only thing the Braggadocio administration had going for it was the leader of the opposition, the eternally unimpressive Stephenson — a man so insignificant in stature and impact that even his mother had forgotten his first name.”
Whether or not “Stephenson” is intended as a stand-in for “Shorten”, one couldn’t do better than “eternally unimpressive” as a description.

The book’s comic effect suffers, however, from a tendency to over-explain its own humour. For example, an acquaintance of Grafton’s explains the state of the university: “Our VC is trying to clear out all the old lefties and move the university to an industry support model.” She leant in close and whispered into Grafton’s ear: “Basically using public money to fund the research that companies don’t want to pay for themselves.”

The clarifying explanation takes the sting out of the initial ridiculousness of pondering higher education as simply an “industry support model”.

Sometimes the authors’ haste to make a point comes at the cost of humour altogether. Here is a condensed version of a sermon Grafton delivers when he finds himself on a panel with ideologues Right and Left to discuss the parlous state of education: “The one sober voice in the ever-maddening crowd was Grafton’s. Trigger warnings, he said, risked becoming a form of censorship, how could they not. They were the sort of over-the top middle-class soft-left indulgence that only succeeded in irritating fair minded, ordinary people. But he also distanced himself from the right-wing reactionaries on the panel by pointing out that profit-driven education had increased debt and disenchantment among the young … if you turned universities into businesses, education into a product, and students into fee-paying clients and customers, you shouldn’t be overly surprised if people started going to ridiculous lengths to pander to the interests of that consumer base. I would have thought that was self-explanatory,” he said.

Yet the authors explain it. While it’s unfair to measure this effort against the likes of ‘Lucky Jim’, it’s hard to imagine Jim Dixon being so heavy-handed. The tendency towards over-explanation may be illustrated with another comparison, this time from P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘The Code of the Woosters’. Near that book’s opening, Bertie Wooster sees that he has annoyed his butler, Jeeves. Bertie narrates: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled, so I tactfully changed the subject.” Here the wordplay is plainly delivered, and the comic effect heightened by the extra work the reader must do pondering “gruntled”.

Compare this with a similar attempt made near the beginning of ‘So Far, So Good’: “I wonder why people talk about being dishevelled, but never shevelled?” Grafton mused aloud. “Or feckless or reckless? We still use the antonym, but not the original word. No-one talks about being ‘feck’ or ‘reck’ or ‘whelmed’. Why is that?”

Not quite the same, is it?

While I’m on the subject of ‘The Code of the Woosters’, it’s worth pointing out that in that book there is no trade-off between humour and seriousness. Much as in ‘So Far, So Good’, the action revolves around the machinations of a would-be fascist dictator — the imperishable Roderick Spode and his army of Black Shorts. Spode’s aura of masculine authority is eventually dispelled when it’s discovered that his wealth is derived from his talents as a designer of lady’s underwear. Here a serious point is concealed in a ridiculous plot development. Without spelling it out or distracting us from the inherent absurdity of the plot, Wodehouse gestures to the link between the emasculated and the over-masculine in fascist politics. The denouement of ‘So Far, So Good’ lacks quite so finely made a satirical point.

In any event, to say that ‘So Far, So Good’ is only half as good as the best of Kingsley Amis or P.G. Wodehouse is still to say that it is quite good indeed — and I don’t imagine its authors would mind being regarded in that light. Parodying political developments that already seem to be parodies cannot be easy work, and the authors have made a good attempt at many of them without necessarily hitting any one square on.

But our cultural discourse today hardly suffers from a surfeit of wit and irony — and deflating the humourless pretensions of political fantasists is a job that’s never done.

To this end, I do hope that Dr Professor Grafton Everest soon returns to the scene.

Edward Cranswick is a Melbourne writer. He tweets at @edwardthecran.

QUADRANT MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 2018, pp 84-86.

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