London Irish

Zane Radcliffe, Bantam, 2002

Warning – Spoilers included…

Next in my Great Greenwich Readathon is London Irish which, despite the title, is largely set in and around Greenwich Market. It’s the very blackest variety of comedies – lots of laughs ( until you get used to the main character Bic he’s intensely annoying – the sort of wag that if you get next to him at a pub you find yourself chewing your arm off to get away from. Once you understand him, though, he’s very loveable) but plenty of gruesome, lots of grim and a big dollop of yeuch. It’s also a rather sweet love story.

The book toddles along quite nicely at first, the only bump in comedy proceedings being the big shock that Radcliffe inserts at the end of each chapter. Even when you start to realise that a shocker at the end of a chapter is just how he writes, quite what the shock is is always – well – a shock.

It’s set, as modern Greenwich books seem to be, in 1999, just before the Millennium (though it is, importantly, published in 2002.) Bic’s brother’s working (or not working) on the Dome, and the eye of the world is just beginning to crank round to South London for the celebrations. Of course this means that the eyes of international terrorists are also on Greenwich and the story revolves around mistaken identity, misplaced blame and misunderstood actions.

My biggest problem with the book – highly enjoyable though it is – is that it is centred around an event that never happened. Now, if this was a small thing that the world wouldn’t notice, I wouldn’t be bothered about it. Most stuff that happens in novels doesn’t in real life, and long may it continue to do so. But an international terrorist bomb that obliterates The ORNC, The Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market and several people that are big enough (even if fictional) to be missed? Hmm.

Of course it could be me who finds it hard to deal with something so huge that never happened. I spent most of the novel wondering how the evil plot was going to be foiled; what clever ploy Radcliffe would use to make it resolve so that it came back to what we all know really happened. When it wasn’t resolved and the terrorists succeeded, I felt somehow cheated – that Radcliffe had moved the metaphorical goalposts by changing History without letting the reader in on the joke. It’s the literary novel equivalent of a murder mystery where the author gives you a selection of suspects and then tells you that it was a totally different character that hasn’t appeared before (yes, Mr Allan Poe, I mean you… )

My other big ‘iffy’ thing was the use of coincidence – a series of events that are so unbelieveable that they would only work, ironically, if this was actually real life – those things where people say “You couldn’t make it up.” Too right. It’s really hard to include HUGE coincidences in fiction and get away with it. In some respects Zane Radcliffe almost does – his charm and joi de vivre as a writer get him off many charges. But in my humble opinion he pretty much literally doesn’t get away with murder.

Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a quick read – I couldn’t put it down. But ultimately it left me with a slightly empty feeling, a sensation that somehow he hadn’t played quite fair with me.

I know that other people here have read this book. What do you think? Am I being hard here? Should I lighten up? It is just fiction, after all. He made it up. That’s what novels are about. Or is the fact that The Old Royal Naval College, The Market and The Cutty Sark are still standing (well – only just in the latter’s case) make London Irish the comedy equivalent of The Murders in the Rue Morgue?

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