Monday 28 January 2013

Daft Dominion

Here are the facts. The year is 1952. In the east the German war with Russia, now eleven years old, shows no sign of ending. On a line roughly extending from Lake Ladoga in the north-west to the Caspian Sea in the south-east, the struggle is in stalemate, a contest punctuated by blows and counter blows which settle nothing.

In the west Britain, having made peace with Germany after the brief war of 1939-40, is governed by a crypto-fascist regime headed by Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the press magnate. Oswald Mosley, whose fascist party made substantial gains in the rigged parliamentary election of 1950, is Home Secretary, in charge of the normal police and black-shirt recruited auxiliaries. Enoch Powell is Secretary of State for India, where Britain is still fighting a rearguard action to retain the Jewel in the tawdry Crown. Under the Treaty of Berlin, which ended the western war, the Isle of Wight has been turned over to Germany as a base.

In Berlin, Hitler, suffering from increasingly acute Parkinson’s disease, is nearing the end. The future is uncertain, with no clear succession. There are those who want to end the hopeless war in the east; there are those, chiefly in the SS, who want to carry on the struggle against the Slav ‘sub-humans’ until that elusive final victory.

We are, of course, in past futures, a foreign country which did things differently; we are in the country of C. J. Sansom’s Dominion, a ‘what if’ novel along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton’s SS GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland.

The premise is a plausible one. The novel opens with a real historical scene, the meeting in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street on 9 May, 1940. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, has announced his intention to resign, discredited by Britain’s disastrous campaign against the Germans in Norway. The contenders are Halifax and Churchill. Halifax, the Foreign Minister and a noted appeaser, is favoured by Chamberlain, the King and most of the Tory Party. In real history he demurs. In this history he does not. After the German invasion of the West, and the disaster of Dunkirk, Halifax makes peace, entering into a treaty of friendship with Britain’s former enemy. Churchill withdraws, eventually to lead a Resistance movement against the new Vichy-style regime, headed in succession by Halifax, David Lloyd George and finally Beaverbrook.

Dominion is the first book that I’ve read by C. J. Sansom, though I’m told that he is well-respected for his Shardlake series, historical novels set in Tudor England. He has a doctorate in history; so, if that’s any measure, he is qualified enough to treat the subject with imaginative insight and a high degree of verisimilitude and empathy. Does he? Well, now, that’s the key question. At the risk of trying your patience I’m going to begin this review by looking at the justification for the premises contained in the novel, set out in a Historical Note at the very end.

Actually, if you are at all interested in the context, I would suggest that you begin at the end. It’s the key to all that goes before. It shows the author as a man with a mission. He has, in other words, a political intent; his novel is not merely for shallow entertainment. Rather it has a didactic purpose, namely to warn you against the dangers of nationalism and fascism in the real historical present by showing you nationalism and fascism in a fictitious historical past.

I suppose that this book might be compared, at least superficially, with It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel warning of the dangers of fascism in America. It could have happened here, that’s Sansom’s point. But could it have happened in the way he describes in Dominion?

You see, what he gives us is an Anglo-Saxon version of Petain and Laval’s Vichy state. It’s really all based on a shallow idiocy of perspective, if I can put it like that. George Orwell, who also feared a form of fascism in England, was altogether more subtle than the inept Mister Sansom, at pains to advance his left-wing credentials. “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially left wing intellectuals”, Orwell wrote, “is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.”

My own doubts were raised early. Beaverbrook, in real history, was a close friend of Churchill and an effective minister in his wartime cabinet. In Dominion this same Beaverbrook is a man prepared to hand over Britain’s Jewish community to the Nazis. In justifying his portrayal, Samson quotes Clement Atlee, the post-war Labour prime minister, who said that the press baron was the most evil person he had ever met. Really? Is this the same Beaverbrook that Michael Foot, a former Labour leader and respected leftwing journalist, describes with such warmth and affection in his essay collection Debts of Honour?

Then there is Enoch Powell, the bête noir of Samson and his kind. His real credentials were impeccably anti-fascist, an opponent of appeasement and a man who returned to England from a comfortable academic position in Australia specifically to fight against the Nazis. The idea of him collaborating with Oswald Mosley is laughably absurd. Samson has simply advanced beyond his fictitious present to a real future, to Powell’s 1960s warning over the possible effects of mass immigration. He has then projected back again; for, as we all know, concerns about immigration equals fascism.

Powell, who only entered Parliament in 1950, was an admirer of British rule in India, that much is true, but by the early 1950s his imperial convictions were weakening. The depiction of him in Dominion is, quite frankly, childishly inexact. By Sansom’s measure Churchill might just as readily have been Secretary of State for India in a Beaverbrook cabinet, given his own past political commitments, his past refusal to countenance any form of independence for India.

So, what is there to say about Samson’s imagined Britain? It’s a drab place, economically depressed, a country in debt, a country that is no more than a satellite of a Continental superpower, a country where independence is all but a fiction, a country with an uncertain future. This is Vichy Britain, the only model the author seems to understand, a country whose cowardly leaders are prepared to hand over some of its citizens to an uncertain fate.

But Vichy was not the only model to hand. In real history there was Finland, an ally of Germany in the war against Russia, but one that preserved its democratic polity and refused to play any part in the Holocaust. Then there is Denmark, the ‘model’ protectorate, a country occupied by the Germans but one that still managed to undermine Nazi policy towards the Jews.

It’s perfectly true, in a world of limitless possibilities, that Samson’s alternate is just as valid as any other alternate, but does it stand up to scrutiny? My alternate is that if Britain had exited the war in 1940, instead of 1945, it would not have accumulated the massive debts, particularly to America, that so crippled its post-war economic performance.

Even in Sansom’s world the country would surely have done much better. There is no objective reason why it should have been so poor. Although allied to Germany, it was not involved in the war with Russia. Why on earth would the Germans have erected tariff barriers against British produce when such produce, particularly in armaments, would have been vital for the continuing campaign in the east? Sansom’s model makes no logical sense.

The truth is that Sansom’s depiction of a sad, indebted, economically and politically dependant nation is far closer to our contemporary political realities; a grubby Britain, a country increasingly uncertain of itself, a country falling to bits, a country tied to the European Union, an organisation the author clearly approves of.

The Historical Note, incidentally, which starts off objectively enough, ends up as a carpet-chewing rant against nationalism in general and – would you believe it? – Scottish nationalism in particular! Nationalism and patriotism, in Sansom’s view, are close kin to fascism. We are back in the mental world of those 1930s intellectuals who, when it came to understanding fascism, understood exactly nothing

I’ve tried your patience too far. The historical stuff may be of no interest at all to you. You have one question only: what of the novel, what of the story; is it any good? Yes, well, it is in part, now and again a bit of a page turner. Ignore the political manipulation – unfortunately I can’t - and you might actually enjoy it. The problem is that it is overlong and repetitive. More than that, the whole superstructure rests on an astonishingly weak base. The core plot device, the heart of the story, is as weak as marshmallow.

It centres on one Frank Muncaster, a geologist, who has learned a ‘dreadful secret’ that turns out to be no secret at all. I’m not going to tell you what the ‘dreadful secret’ is, simply that the Germans are anxious to find out, though what earthly good it could have done them is anybody’s guess. Muncaster learns his ‘dreadful secret’ from his physicist brother, who happens to be working with the Americans. In the contretemps that follows, the said brother is pushed out of the window of Muncaster’s flat, while he proceeds to wreck the place (why?), all the time shouting about the end of the world.

It turns out that Muncaster is the sort of fellow that a goose would say boo to, so his actions, to say the least, are just a tad out of character. But on his hissy fit all else follows; the Gestapo follow, the British fascist police follow, the British resistance follow; Churchill himself follows. Quick, let’s find Frank; our war in Russia depends on his ‘dreadful secret.’ Quick, let’s find Frank; let’s discover the ‘dreadful secret’ or get him away safely to America.

I’m really trying not to laugh as I write this, but there is so much in Dominion that is laughable; the lost and found chase through a thick London fog, Keystone Cops-style, is particularly funny. Poor Muncaster, freed from a loony bin, is aided by an assortment of individuals – David Fitzgerald, a civil servant and member of the resistance who befriended the forlorn chap (oh, just how many times do we heed to be reminded of his rictus smile?!) while they were at Oxford together. He is aided by Ben, a nurse at a lunatic asylum and a homosexual Scottish communist, also a member of the resistance, ye ken. He is aided by, of all organisations, the Fire Brigade, an organisation with impeccable left-wing credentials, which rides to the rescue through the fog!

And so it goes on, from high tension to low comedy, a series of increasingly implausible encounters. The scene on the beach below Rottingdean on the Suffolk coast takes verisimilitude to the Senate House, the SS headquarters in London, and tortures it out of existence. In the end Frank takes himself and the ‘dreadful secret’ into oblivion, an action, if taken earlier, that would have saved several hundred wearisome pages.

As a novel Dominion is real boys’ own stuff, difficult even for boys to swallow. In almost 570 pages of text the only believable character, the only character with any real human depth, is the world-weary Gunther Hoth, the Gestapo agent on Muncaster’s tail. There would seem to me to be a spot of plagiarism here, for he is simply a more ideologically committed dimension of Xavier March, the detective from Robert Harris’ Fatherland.

Dominion is based on a bogus historical premise; it’s based on the character assassination of real people. As a novel it’s too long, it’s repetitive, the characterisations are weak, the encounters unbelievable, the narrative plodding, as thick at point as the London fog and the fog in the author’s mind.

Samson does not write badly; he just doesn’t write very well. If he were not already Mister Shardlake I am convinced that this book would have gathered rejection slips rather than accolades from the likes of the Guardian and the Independent. Quite frankly, it’s a shallow and immature book, no more than a vehicle for the writer’s political prejudices. If you like alternate history and political thrillers go to Fatherland instead. It’s infinitely superior.


  1. Alternate history, what could have been, would have been, should have been, the opportunity for a near perfect world was forever lost.

    1. Alas, Anthony, the pursuit of perfection is the slippery road to hell.

  2. Thanks for the warning.

    I do so tire of the socialist worldview. It is so depressingly unimaginative. Of course, that is the whole point of statism and central planning: to limit possible alternatives and create permanent stasis - guaranteeing that wherever it succeeds it fails. One really must be an over-educated moron not to see the flaws at once. No shortage of those, of course; academia is full of them.

    Britain and the USA had 3 options: the two not chosen were neutrality and alliance with the Axis. Either of those would have seen Russia quickly crushed. It was a closer contest than most admit even with material help from the West, and the Axis fighting two fronts. With Stalin and the USSR crushed, the next 50 years would have been very different. How long would Hitler and the Nazis have lasted without a perpetual enemy? Would the Axis have allowed the wild expansion of the Japanese Imperium into India and Australia?

    Dominion sounds like 1984 without the happy ending. I give it a miss.

    1. Good questions, Calvin. One thing often overlooked is that the so-called 1000 Year Reich was nothing of the kind. It was Hitler's Reich and would never have survived his demise, given the anarchy of overlapping centers of authority that he himself had allowed to flourish.

  3. If Halifax had become Prime Minister I am sure that there could have been quite different outcomes although in this instance I am not sure that there would have been. In fact history is littered with what ifs and of course we can never know what those outcomes would have been. It appears to me that your doubts that Britain under Halifax would have been as this author, Harris and others perceived it is well founded. As for Britain signing a treaty that amounted to a surrender of sovereignty I doubt that would have happened and they would have fought on and Churchill would have eventually become Prime Minister anyway. In an earlier article of yours I made the comment that without Britain engaged in WWII the Germans and Russians would have fought each other to exhaustion. You corrected this to a hope that it would be to extinction. However this article made me think that perhaps we were both wrong and that Germany would have won. Think VI, VII, Jet fighters and even the atom bomb. Germany had produced or were in the process of producing these things and more and I do not believe the Russians were matching them or had the capability to match them. The outcome as I perceive it is if Churchill had had to wait a bit longer to become Prime Minister the outcome in the end would have been the same, although far more costly.

    1. Antisthenes, so far as the super weapons are concerned, that is a point touched on by Samson. The Germans could launch rockets into Siberia but they could not find effective targets, simply because Soviet arms production was so widely dispersed. The stalemate scenario in Dominion is virtually the same as in Harris' Fatherland.

  4. Superb review Ana. Definitely a book to avoid like the plague!

    On the other hand, Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" is an excellent read, and I enjoyed the film that was made of "Fatherland".

    Your mention of "It Can't Happen Here" made me smile - I don't suppose you've ever seen the controversial film about a German occupation of the UK called "It Happened Here"?

    This was an amateur anti-fascist film with amateur actors, made in the early 1960s, and that ended up being sold to United Artists. The controversy was that as part of the movie they even filmed some genuine British Fascists airing their beliefs.

    It's certainly an interesting take on what might have happened - and a lot more realistic than Sansom's rubbish.

    1. Thanks, WG. No, I haven't seen that. It sounds interesting. I'll try and track it down

    2. German technology ( The envy of the world ) would have eventually prevailed without American intervention.

    3. The Germans were ahead on rocket technology, that's true, though they were way behind on nuclear physics, the real cruncher here. Even if they had discovered that it was possible to create isotopes of uranium, they were still years behind the Americans.

    4. Not by that much and it was not the "Americans" but expat German and Hungarian Jewish scientists working for the Americans. Atomic material was sent to America from Scandinavia by Germans making secret deals for themselves as the war was winding down, at wars end Germany had two operational aircraft that could make the round trip flight to NY.

    5. Yes, just as they had lots of rockets that could hit London. The truth is by that stage of the war the so-called wonder weapons made little practical difference.

    6. Too late for changing the wars outcome but the Russians, Americans and British were hot after all the technology, scientists and research that they could capture for their own use.

    7. In the pacific theater some Japanese doctors experimented with British and Chinese prisoners of war by infecting them with diseases to study the results and after the war they were not prosecuted as long as they shared the research with the Americans. All kinds alliances are made out of self preservation , some Iraqi military leaders made agreements with the Americans not to resist the invasion in the second Iraq war, similar situations happened in Europe near the end of WWII.

    8. Americans too. There is a lot to make one weep.

    9. One big grey area, you have to look at the bigger picture in the scheme of things.