[Schmidt, H. D. (1953). "The Idea and Slogan of 'Perfidious Albion'". Journal of the History of Ideas. 14 (4): 604–616.]
As the UK trembles endlessly on the long drawn-out brink of Brexit, Sam Byers’ new novel Perfidious Albion imagines what might come after. His well-observed contemporary/near-future satire is set partly in the fictional English everytown of Edmundsbury (Bury St Edmunds perhaps?), and partly in the digital world, from the shallows of Twitter to the murky depths of multinational tech companies. It’s both a biting farce of political exhaustion and social collapse, and a subtle investigation into the slippery, ever-evolving relationship between words and deeds.
Sleepy Edmundsbury is under pressure from outside forces: global tech giant Green is quietly insinuating itself into the town’s infrastructure, while building company Downton is strong-arming the last remaining residents out of the crumbling Larchwood housing estate with an eye on redevelopment. And then a van draws up in the market square, and masked men calling themselves 'the Griefers' – a sort of atrophied Wikileaks - stage a happening that appears to hold residents to digital ransom, displaying tantalisingly compromising screenshots with the slogan “What don’t you want to share?” As a demonstration that “the cosy little box we’ve all fashioned to pour our IDs into isn’t as secure as we thought”, they ask that one person from the town step forward to offer up their web history, or victims will be exposed at random.
Apart from frail, elderly Darkin, stubbornly clinging on to his squalid Larchwood flat, every character has online secrets – and even the increasingly baffled Darkin becomes a pawn in their online games. Many are drawn from the chatterati for whom “leaving London was the new moving to London”, including Robert, an opportunistic blogger who finds himself making the traditionally decades-long journey from left to right on the political spectrum with dizzying speed, and his researcher girlfriend Jess. Jess and her friend Deepa both work – or perhaps play – “at the blurry interstice between the real and the virtual”, Jess creating free-floating online personas and Deepa searching out the real women behind the anonymous images “folded into the scenery and libidinal economy” of the web.
Then there’s bumbling rightwing columnist Hugo Bennington (a thinly veiled Nigel Farage) and his ridiculous political adviser, productivity guru Teddy. They are hoping to bag the seat of Edmundsbury for UKIP-alike party England Always while struggling to keep the emerging fascist militia Brute Force under control for fear that it “makes the ‘proper’ right look bad”.
At the heart of the tightly sprung plot is Trina, who lives on the Larchwood estate and works at Green managing 'microtaskers': insecure home workers whose labour is so atomised they have no hope of unionising or even knowing what they are working on. In a cast mainly made up of scathingly ventriloquised grotesques, Trina has the virtue of being, as one 2D tech-bro admiringly remarks, “a fully functioning human being”. But as a black woman who responds to Bennington’s claim that white men are being sidelined with the unwise tweet “#whitemalegenocide.Lol”, she makes a lot of angry white men even angrier. Her tweet is weaponised by those with a vested interest in real-world conflict, and real-life consequences ensue.
Though there are fleeting references to “street-level violence and creeping intimidation”, Byers is not so much projecting a specific post-Brexit future for the UK as exploring, with a cold and horrified eye, what we are only starting to discover about the reach and control of global tech companies, and the political and individual effects of internet saturation. The novel is horribly pertinent in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, as well as online misogyny and #MeToo.
Throughout the book, Byers highlights the hollowing out of public discourse. “Hatred equals hate-clicks, so, you know, win,” says Robert’s obnoxious editor Silas when Robert angsts about the abuse he’s getting below the line. “Like, dislike. What’s the difference?” Byers also delights in writing the kind of sentence that would have been gobbledegook a decade ago – “Jess popped to the toilet to tweet”; “I’m calling a huddle”; “their maps had failed to update” – as well as spotlighting the contemporary euphemisms of real-life domination and control: kettling, decanting – a sort of modern day tech ‘Newspeak’ (and the Orwellian reference is unlikely to be coincidental here).
The Griefers invite one scapegoat to digitally submit their online records: when the mob chooses Trina, and surrounds her house screaming “submit”, the word regains its ancient analogue menace. The logic and language of the digital realm leak, inevitably, into the physical world, and characters waver with queasy alienation between the two: the East Anglian woodland Jess drives past appears to her “not so much as nature but as a glitch in her optical experience of nature - a screen-smear”.
Byers is interested in the intimacies of relationships as well as in broader social satire. Jess and Robert are living through the death of love, unable these days to argue or to look each other in the eye. Having channelled her negativity towards him into an online persona, at home Jess is guiltily sweet: the donning of a digital veil leads to real-life disguise. The fatal loss of authenticity between them is a mirror of the book’s wider world. As Byers himself states elsewhere, they are “slipping into the digital world at the expense of the human.”
The comic elements can be familiar – reminiscent of the hipsters of Nathan Barley, the corporate insanities of W1A, Black Mirror – but Byers ramps up the stakes with expert control. The novel is extremely funny at times, yet it’s also a careful exploration of the contemporary dichotomy between self and interconnectedness. The way social media put each of us at the centre of our own personal web (for Robert “the world was his world only. Everything else was just context”) is set against the deeper truth that everything bleeds into everything else in an endless chain of consequence – there is no decision as simple as yes/no, leave/remain.
Byers dedicates a great deal of time to pricking the self-regarding pretensions of the commentariat, still babbling away when, as Jess puts it, “all the while, outside, in the world they claimed both to consider and depict, events were occurring that shrunk their fears to irrelevance”. They are an easy target, but perhaps that’s the point.
In this brave new online world, we are in uncharted territory – a point made in the slightly frustrating conclusion of Byers’ novel. No-one knows what is coming next, or indeed if anyone else knows or cares. In a sense that is the point of this book, for this is the level at which Brexit infects the book: as a nebulous anxiety about the approaching future, “so rapid in its occurrence and uncertain in its shape”.
A pertinent, telling and bittersweet book to end on then. Ten years ago I left a diverse, vibrant country coming to terms with its past and taking real steps to forge its own identity in an increasingly global world. The England I return to is one which has looked outside itself and rejected what it sees; retreating into a faux nostalgia, a sense of superiority for a world that never truly was. Ironically, as it pulls up the drawbridge of physical borders, it continues to open its doors to international technology companies that are doing far more to erode any sense of culture than an imagined ‘foreign invasion’ (even the US has drawn the line at opening its citizens’ data up to Chinese data and surveillance company Huawei, whilst the UK has opened its arms to a deal embedding their technology in its 5G broadband network).
And so my journey ends, somewhat fittingly, at a time where the very notion of country is being challenged by isolationists and threatened by the online global web. Perhaps in another ten years the very idea of travelling between physical countries will be irrelevant.
For myself, born in the 1970s, it’s a sad thought, but that’s how nostalgia works – we instinctively reject change and see it as a negative. But there is much to be embraced and much potential for good in an interconnected world; it depends how the dice fall and whether the citizens of the world are willing to seek ownership of this direction or remain as bystanders and consumers.
As for me – with a sense of satisfaction, optimism, pessimism, relief, sadness and hopefully a little more insight - it’s time to close the book on this particular narrative (or rather, a sign of the times, to switch off my smartphone’s reading app!)
I truly hope the unknown turns out for the better for the next generation; and that – amidst all the media chatter, Netflix bingeing, instagramming, torrents, tweeting, consumer messaging, facetime and WhatsApps – they still find the time to read a book.
“The problem with books is that they end.” [Caroline Kepnes, You]