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A State of Denmark

A State of Denmark — Derek Raymond, £7.99, Serpent’s Tail: January 2007

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Derek Raymond is the pen name of British author Robin Cook. Born in 1931, Cook dropped out of Eton at the age of seventeen. After a spell in the army, and a spot of work selling lingerie for his father, Cook spent the rest of the fifties hanging out in the bohemian dives of Paris and New York, indulging a passion for fast cars, and smuggling art works across European borders. Returning to London in 1960, he fronted bent property and sex businesses for various gangsters. Cook’s first novel The Crust on Its Uppers, a fictionalised account of his experience of London low-life, was published in 1962. He proceeded to write five more books under his own name concluding with Tenants of Dirt Street which was issued in 1971. A State of Denmark was the fifth of these novels, and dates back to 1970. After a long hiatus, Cook began writing again in the early 1980s. He Died With His Eyes Open, issued under the pen name Derek Raymond in 1984, was the first of his neo-noir novels to be published in English. This was followed by five more books in the same series before Cook’s death in 1994. There is also an autobiography, a posthumous novel, and two books published only in French translation. Cook, who had a brilliant flair for publicity — claiming, among other things, that he liked intellectual arguments which end in violence — established himself as a cult figure in the 1980s; and as a consequence 1960s Robin Cook titles have been sparodically reissued under the Raymond nom de plume.

A State of Denmark is a dystopian novel in which a former Labour politician called Jobling has established himself as head of an English fascist dictatorship run by the New Pace party. Scotland and Wales have declared themselves independent states, all those branded racially impure (anyone of African and Asian descent) have been deported, and the trade unions destroyed. The narrrator is a former political journalist called Richard Watt who has been blacklisted by New Pace for his explicit criticisms of Jobling in the days before this demagogue ascended to power. Watt has fled England and is supporting himself as a wine grower in Tuscany. In the tradition of the realist novel, Watt’s interaction with those around him is clunkily depicted in small details. For example: “At about this time we suddenly got very broke. I was trying to pay the builder off for some work I had had done to the roof, there were heavy expenses on the land, the labourer’s monthly wages were falling due, and I had had to have a new main bearing fitted on the tractor.” (Page 101). The use of the word “had” four times in the sentence just quoted is indicative of what is wrong with much of the prose in this book. The first half of A State of Denmark creaks along as narrative; Watt feels safe in his new home and the shift in his circumstances as Jobling’s New Pace pressure the Italian government into deporting him is crudely but effectively realised. Likewise, memories of the suffering of Watt’s neighbours under Mussolini’s fascist regime is used to create parallels between actual dictatorships and the fictional scenario Cook wants to paint. The book is divided into two parts, and it falls to pieces towards the end of part one, when a long letter is used to shift the first person narration from Watt’s “voice” to that of his friend Stephen Fordham. Watt hasn’t been to England for years, and so Cook uses Fordham to tell us what it is like living under Jobling’s fascist regime in London. There is little difference in the tone of these two “voices”, and the shift in speakers is simply used to provide details of daily life in England. Handled sensitively this could have been used to create a jarring shock, or even to formalistic effect, whereas Cook’s bungling here reflects his inability to master the political material he attempts to tackle in this novel.

In the second part of A State of Denmark, Watt allows himself to be deported to England, despite having ample opportunity to go on the run. Once in “Blighty”, he proceeds to insult his captors by, for example, telling a guard in the presence of the New Pace representative he is “mocking” that this man is: “…just fibbing… He’s just a nasty little fibber!” (Page 144). Miaow! Both Watt’s resistence to New Pace, and the way this is worn out of him in a prison camp, fall dead from the page. Cook seems to believe he has an important political message to deliver: “The English were desperately naïve: ironically centuries of democracy had made them so. They thought that however greatly the world changed, they would never have to fight for their freedom again, that the country would magically remain the same…” (Page 182) Cook’s spiel is, in a nutshell, that we should fight to our last breath to defend the status quo; he ardently opposes revoltuionary activity precisely because it threatens the capitalist racket. It is a banality to state that capitalism adopts varying forms according to its historic needs, and that both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were capitalist states (as is evidenced by the fact that neither abolished money). Like other ‘liberal’ reactionaries including George Orwell, Cook attempts to tar and feather all revolutionaries by falsely associating them with the forms of pro-capitalist terror established in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. He even bludgeons the reader with this by having his narrator Watt identified by the number 1941 once he is inside one of Jobling’s prison camps. 1941, of course, proved to be one of the key turning points in World War II which led to the defeat of the Axis powers; this was the year in which the Nazis broke their pact with Stalin by invading the Soviet Union. Like Orwell, Cook is not a subtle propagandist and one can at least be thankful that in this he makes a poor apologist for capitalism. Another small mercy is that his bourgeois snobbery is not as grating as that on display in novels like 1984. Serpent’s Tail have also republished some of Cook’s later work, so try The Devil’s Home On Leave if you’re not familiar with his oeuvre; since this neo-noir work provides a far more satisfactory pulp read than A State of Denmark.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Over the past 25 years Stewart Home has worked across a variety of media including performance, music, film, writing, installation, graphics etc. Within these practices he has attempted to continually reforge the passage between theory and practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the private and the social.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 18th, 2007.