26/07/2010

To Hell in a Handcart - part I

So, 'To Hell in a Handcart'. Does it turn into Tolstoy after page 200?

No.

Writing this has actually proved to be really difficult and, in the end, actually made me feel a little cruel. Before I read the book, I'd expected to be making the odd grudging concession here and there about the plot's pace, the quality of some of the jokes or the comedic value of some of the absurd situations, but I won't be able to do that.

I'm struggling to think of something nice to say about it, and all I can think of is - at least he likes Greeks.



Littlejohn has created a dystopian novel that gives us a glimpse of what right wing blowhards were frightened of in the lead up to 9/11, like how the Mad Max movies show us what worried people in the 80s.

With Mad Max, we find out that people in the 80s were scared of societal collapse, nuclear war and crossbow wielding hoons in arseless chaps. 'To Hell in a Hadcart' shows us fear of gypsies, asylum seekers and a reduction in the speed limit. What Littlejohn has done is create a Britain in which his columns would actually make sense. It's a bit more pedestrian.*

The more famous reviews of the novel reveal the racist undercurrents, absurd sexual practices and how excruciating some of the gags are, but they don't really begin to scratch the surface.

None of them cover how much the plot is driven by absurd coincidences, how excruciating the writing is, how it reads like it's been cobbled together from rejected scripts for 'The Sweeney' and 'Minder', how the characterisation veers between the wooden and the grotesque, how bad the jokes are (they're actually capable of causing physical pain), how much the novel is used to childishly attack people Littlejohn doesn't like or how it hints at something worrying about his view of sex.

Did that last one make you shudder? You haven't read the novel.

There is so much to say about the book that I'm going to have to split the review over a couple of posts. Any less, and I'd be robbing you of too many 'Jesus Christ, really?' moments, and you'd have less of an idea of what it's like to read the thing.

This post will be about absurd coincidences and the most frustrating thing about reading the novel.

But first, the plot. Mickey is a salt of the earth ex armed police officer who shoots an asylum seeker breaking into his house and is targeted by Marxist plotters who have infiltrated the justice system, made it obsessed with racism and political correctness and skewed the system to favour criminals over victims.

Show and tell
If there's ever a joke or point that Littlejohn thinks might be a bit too subtle, he explains it in full afterwards. He seems to have misinterpreted the creative writing maxim of 'show, not tell,' as meaning, 'show, and then tell in as patronising a manner as possible, trusting your reader to understand nothing!' The trouble is, he's as heavy handed as Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men' in the first place so you have to endure some crap point twice.

Here's an example. The story proper opens with a radio news broadcast. The news broadcast is a familiar device of the dystopian novel, as it lets the reader know what sort of world they're reading about without clumsy dialogue exposition.

In this broadcast we learn that asylum seekers get meal tickets and are sent to Croydon to claim benefits and a free house when they're apprehended, the speed limit on motorways is 25mph, which causes massive tailbacks, the speed limit on the contraflow system is 15mph, which means the police can arrest hundreds of people and the Deputy Prime Minister has flown off to Venezuela for a nonsense fact-finding mission. "This is Madness," says the presenter, except he's introducing a record rather than commenting.

There, in less than a page, the scene is set. Crazy stuff is happening and it's madness. There's no need for clumsy exposition. That doesn't stop Mickey spending two more pages explaining the whole thing to his wife, Andi (who seems to exist purely to have things explained to, prove Mickey isn't racist because she's Greek, and to give blowjobs) for two further pages, just to mash that tack through the wall with a sledgehammer.

Here's another. Later in the story, Mickey's best mate Ricky (no, he isn't very imaginative with names), the radio presenter who reads out all those news stories about lorry drivers being arrested for eating Yorkies, asylum seekers being given fertility treatment on the NHS and gangs of Kosovan asylum seekers fighting pitched battles, gets mugged at a cashpoint.

Before the mugging, he's a bit of a liberal. We know this because he doesn't want dogs to be turned on beggars. After the attack, he's not so liberal any more. Just as we're thinking, "Oh my god! He hasn't turned another right wing cliche into another major plot point has he?" Mickey lets us know that yes, he has, by flatly saying, "A reactionary is a liberal who's been mugged." This has the same effect as Littlejohn grabbing you by the lapels, violently shaking you and screaming, "Get it? Did you? Did you bladdy get it! Coodernmaykidapp!"

This happens a lot. I spent most of the novel shouting, "We bloody know! We got it from the situation! GAAAH!" and thumping whatever was in front of me.

My, what an amazing coincidence!
The plot is driven almost entirely by implausible coincidences. This could work well if it was turned into a running gag, but it isn't. I don't think we're meant to notice.

This section will take the form of a multiple choice questionnaire. Pay attention, there'll  be a test later.

At the beginning of the novel, Mickey is driving his family to Goblin's holiday camp.  It is called this purely to set up a blowjob gag later on. Suddenly, asylum seeker attack!
He could see the faces pressed against the glass, foreign faces. There must have been ten or a dozen, swarthy, olive-skinned young men with gold teeth in designer clothes, women in shawls and headscarves with babies in arms, thrusting their hands toward the car.
These zombie/foreigners smash the passenger window and one of them tries to stab Andi. Mickey gets the knife and stabs the bounder, Romanian gypsy Ilie Popescu who is on the run from the Russian mafia.

Later on, Ricky is mugged in a completely different part of London (see above). Are the muggers:
a) Random muggers
b) Romanian gypsy asylum seekers, because you can't move in London for gangs of gypsies
c) Ilie and his girlfriend

Answer: c. And b.

When they arrive at Goblin's, Mickey's family crosses paths with some young offenders who have been sent to a holiday camp instead of prison (I know - and yes, that this is a tired cliche that has been turned into an important plot point is explicitly drawn to the reader's attention in dialogue). One of the young offenders attacks Mickey's daughter. Mickey arrives in time to save her, but finds himself arrested and facing charges of conspiring to lure the young offender and beat him up for an earlier disagreement. This is because:

a) It's political correctness gone mad
b) Mickey and the kids really did plot to beat the young offender up
c) The young offender is represented by Justin Fromby, one of the two Marxists plotting to overthrow the system from within

Answer: c. And a bit of a.

Mickey reveals that he is in possession of evidence proving that years earlier, Justin Fromby and his accomplice deliberately removed evidence to get a young black man off with slashing the face of a skinhead outside a chip shop because his father might become useful if he's elected councillor. Curses! Foiled by another coincidence! Justin must get possession of the evidence. Does he:

a) Keep Mickey in custody and invent a spurious reason to search his house
b) Keep Mickey in custody and secretly break into Mickey's house
c) Release Mickey and then hire a guy to burn his house down who happens to be arrested for bag snatching on one of the Friday nights that Justin is working at a legal centre (which he only does on Fridays). This guy happens to be an asylum seeker. And a Romanian. And a gypsy. And Ilie Popescu

Answer: c.

When Ilie arrives to burn down his house, where is Mickey:

a) In Florida, with the rest of his family
b) In the local pub, the Keep & Bear Arms
c) In his house, late at night, cleaning his guns so they happen to be close at hand

Answer: c. But the pub name in b is real. You might want to groan now.

When does the Russian mafia finally catch up with Ilie:

a) Just before he approaches Mickey's house
b) Earlier that day, prompting an exciting car chase through the streets of London
c) Exactly at the moment that Mickey shoots him, allowing them to finish the job by firing two more shots that nobody notices and doesn't make the body jerk or have any other visible effects on it that Mickey never hears about until right near the end, where the news that Ilie was shot four times rather than two might just save his bacon

Answer: c.

Mickey is arrested and faces a murder charge. One of he pieces of evidence he has on the two plotters is a tape of a conversation he had with Roberta Peel and recorded somehow just as she was attempting to steal the other evidence years ago. Roberta manages to find the evidence and smugly informs Mickey, who tells her he has made copies of the tape. Fromby and Peel work out that Ricky must have a copy and they must get at it. Do they:

a) Invent an excuse to search Ricky's house by, say, pretending he's an accomplice
b) Secretly break into his house
c) Hire someone to break in, who just happens to be the young offender who set the whole thing off

Answer: c.

Roberta realises that she needs to get negative coverage about Mickey into the press. Does she:

a) Arrange a press conference
b) Anonymously tip off a paper by leaking information to a random journalist
c) Contact an old friend from college and fellow activist from the days before Roberta joined the police who is now a reporter for left wing paper, the Clarion, and has not appeared in the story at all up until this point except for it to be revealed that she is shagging Ricky, which he isn't proud of, and once offered Mickey a blowjob (which he turned down, repulsed)

Answer: c.

When the young offender has burgled Ricky, he blows some of his pay in an arcade. On the way home, he passes a house with an open front door. Who lives in this one house out of several million:

a) Roberta, the plotter who's house he's never seen
b) The Home Secretary
c) Georgia Claye, the grotesque drunk who Roberta tipped off with the story about Mickey, who then chases the young offender through the house, begging for sex, until she falls on a spike that pierces her heart, prompting the gag:
Georgia Claye's life ended, fittingly, like so much of her life's work.

On the spike.
which makes you wonder exactly how much Littlejohn must hate women

Answer: c.

That's enough coincidences. There are more, but you get the picture and now you know the basic plot. It's a fitting one to end on, since tomorrow's post will be ''To Hell in a Handcart' - Littlejohn has issues'.

Toodle-pip!

*There is actually a car chase in which a motorcyclist shoots out a truck's tyres, but he uses a gun instead of a crossbow and there's an arse to his trousers. No imagination, that's Littlejohn's problem.

Onwards, to the second and third parts!

'To Hell in a Handcart' - Part 2: Littlejohn has issues 
'To Hell in a Handcart' - Part 3: doesn't even make any bloody sense

13 comments:

atomicspin said...

You're a brave man. Lesser mortals would have cracked by now, I'm sure.

The scary thing is that all this - the main character being a blatant insert of Littlejohn, the bad guys being ethnic stereotypes, the story being a mess of all Littlejohn's favourite talking points together, the grotesque misogynistic parodies of left-wing women who for some reason hate men but want to fuck/be fucked by Totally-Not-Littlejohn-Honest, the perfect encapsulation of pre-9/11 right-wing paranoia - is almost exactly like Bill O'Reilly's "Those who Trespass", from about the same time.

Though O'Reilly's book has horrible, brain-scarring sex scenes, which is one thing I hope - pray - Littlejohn's doesn't.

splinteredsunrise said...

Sir, I salute your indefatigability. For an encore, will you be doing Garry Bushell's "Face"?

Five Chinese Crackers said...

atomicspin:

The main character's best mate is who Littlejohn says there's some of him in, but he clearly wishes he was the main character instead.

splinteredsunrise:

I thought about it, then thought, "Fuck off!"

Anonymous said...

He's a funny one, Littlejohn. By funny I mean a complete cunt who uses this weird technique of projecting his own screwed-up deeply unsettling, borderline violent personality onto made-up characters, as if in doing so he gets to spit out his vile views while simultaneously distancing himself from them, thus nestling in the comfortable middle-ground where he can go either way depending on the reaction.

You deserve a medal for reading that, I can only imagine that it was just slightly less enjoyable than snorting cooking oil through a straw.

Ray said...

"Roberta Peel", really?

Julaybib said...

How to describe this book? It's almost as if Littlecunt has pulled down his pants, photographed his own syph-infected cock, and then published it on Flickr. Except that would be genuinely funny, of course.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Ray:

Really. I shit you not.

I was railing against this novel to my wife, but I hadn't mentioned Roberta's surname.

My wife asked, "D'you think he might have called her Roberta as some kind of play on Robert Peel?"

When I told her the surname, her disbelieving face and shout of, "ohmygod that's rubbish!" almost made it worth reading the book.

Julaybib:

Steady. I'm sure Littlejohn doesn't have a syphilitic cock.

Christie Malry said...

Very impressive. I put myself through this horror about 8 or 9 years ago, when my then housemate found a copy in the Works for the exorbitantly overpriced sum of 99p. In part 2 of your excellent review, please talk about the frankly masturbatory way he talks about cars. I still remember with some revulsion his descriptions of 'slipping the Ford Scorpio into Drive'. Urgh. I seem to remember he talks about guns in the same way, too.

One question though: did you think the bit where one of the evil Marxists fucks herself with a bust of Karl Marx was a bit too subtle? I wasn't sure I got the point there. If only Mickey could have come along to explain it...

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Hi Cristy,

I did write up some extra stuff for you about cars and guns, but it just made the post way too long. I've kept it, and might post it separately when I've finished.

Hope you like part 2 anyway.

Ray said...

Dude, your wife has awesome powers of shit-detection. Could it be, and I just throw this out there, that Littlejohn is the world's biggest prankster and one day he'll come clean and we'll all look like fools?

Mr Larrington said...

"He could see the faces pressed against the glass, foreign faces. There must have been ten or a dozen, swarthy, olive-skinned young men with gold teeth in designer clothes, women in shawls and headscarves with babies in arms, thrusting their hands toward the car."

Quite apart from the fact that Littlejohn is a bell-end of the first water, who in the name of Satan's undercrackers allowed a sentence like that to appear in a published work? The gold teeth were in designer clothes? Do not Harper Collins employ editors, FFS?

Also the first review of this pile of cack on Amazon is absolute comedy gold.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Mr Larrington:

That is an excellent point. If his editor had been doing his job, the novel would be half as long and half as shitty.

But still shit, probly.

Matt said...

As so often with these things Stewart Lee has something to contribute. I'm thinking of his routine where he asks how far Littlejohn would go to make his point that the 5 victims of the Ipswich serial killer were "no great loss" because they were "drug-addled street whores".

Lee imagines Littlejohn, undercover of darkness, tapping away with a hammer and chisel at the gravestone of one of the women: tap, tap, tappety, tap, tap, tap: "prostitute"; tappety, tap... (at great length): "not someone who worked as a prostitute"; tap, tap, tap: "A prostitute"; tap, tap, tap, tappety: "Yours sinerely"; "tap, tap, tap, tap": "Richard Littlejohn"; tappety, tap, tap: "cunt"; tap, tappety, tap, tap, tappety, tap (etc for about 2 minutes): "not someone who works as a cunt".