Not Forgetting The Whale by John Ironmonger
This book has been a joy to read and review. I heard about it, and indeed heard a few paragraphs of it, at the monthly Speakeasy literary salon at Drink, Shop & Do in King’s Cross. It features a Cornish village, not too far from my own 2015 summer holiday. And it features a main character, Joe, who worked as an IT specialist in an investment bank until the day his software forecast the end of the world. When I worked in an investment bank, every day certainly felt like it could be the last. It would have been a blessed relief from the thankless task of taking the organisation apart, one brick at a time.
So I had been looking forward to this for all those reasons, and because it fitted the (admittedly loose) theme of apocalypse at Speakeasy that night. It’s not a completely original scenario, cutting oneself off in a remote but pleasant village to wait for the disaster that will end civilisation as we know it. But John Ironmonger has written a very original and engaging story along those lines. It fits nicely with the banking crisis, which did sort of end life as they knew it for many thousands of unlucky bankers. But it also fits nicely with current themes around peak oil, renewable energy, trouble not at the mill but in the Gulf, and the near-magical ability of computers to predict the future with ever more creepy accuracy. Or perhaps it is timely because it shows just why software never really will be able to predict the future with absolute accuracy. Just as Douglas Adams showed us all those years ago, the best you can hope for is an array of possible futures with a probability, or improbabilty, attached to each one.
One day, one difficult day when he can no longer stand it, Joe jumps into his car. This immediately suggests he is a man of means, or quite possibly a lunatic, for driving a car to work in central London. He jumps into his car, which is emphatically not a sports car, and drives to the ends of the earth. Which in this case is somewhere in darkest Cornwall, so remote that even the locals are not totally sure where it is. He goes for a swim, certainly not attempting to take his own life, and is rescued improbably by a whale. And then things get even more interesting. Joe’s impact on the remote village is massive, taking him quite by surprise. The book is really the story of how he changes the backwards little village, and his own outlook on life in the process.
The one thing, and perhaps the most important thing I cannot attempt to capture with a review is the mood this novel sets. It’s amiable and involving but is never gentle or soft: there is danger lurking behind every paragraph, and there is a gritty underside to this book. It’s much better than a holiday novel, but very many people will take it on holiday with them. You should too.