Shuffling the Deck
Jack Tindale & Tom Black
Sea Lion Press
I recently penned an extended review of President Ashdown is Retiring by Jack Tindale and Tom Black, which also described my excitement at finally finding Sea Lion Press – a publisher who specialises in counter-factual history (and good counter-factual history at that). I tore through President Ashdown is Retiring in a few hours, and then took the opportunity to download a slate of other titles from Sea Lion Press. One of them – A Greater Britain by Ed Thomas – was a novel-length title that I have just finished reading, and will be reviewing shortly. Several others, however, were shorter titles that I think could be turned into a series of shorter reviews. Therefore, up first on the reviewing block is Shuffling the Deck:
I’ll readily admit that I picked up this title both for the intriguing premise (take all of the historical Prime Ministers since 1940 and place them in a slightly different order) and the cover image, which is another example of the fantastic art used by Sea Lion Press for all of their titles. All of Sea Lion Press’ titles have a different Point of Departure (PoD) to mark the beginning of their counter-factual content, and in Shuffling the Deck we see Winston Churchill killed by an unexploded shell on Salisbury Plain in late 1942. With Churchill deceased, his place as Prime Minister is taken by Anthony Eden – and thus triggering a butterfly effect on modern British politics.
I’ve been fascinated by Churchill’s career since childhood, raised on a diet of Pathe newsreels, Commando comics and other media that created a simplistic, one-sided portrayal of Churchill as Man of Destiny (for a fascinating explanation of how this has occurred since 1945, I cannot recommend strongly enough Man of the Century: Winston Churchll and his Legend Since 1945 by John Ramsden. As I grew older and began to read more widely, particularly more academic histories, I became more aware of Churchill’s flaws and follies, including the shabby treatment of his political colleagues – perhaps no more than Anthony Eden. Churchill continually kept Eden as ‘successor-in-waiting’ throughout the War, and then for ten years afterwards, refusing to retire. The Eden who took power as Prime Minister in 1955 was a tired, ill man, a mere shade of the political dynamo he had been in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In Shuffling the Deck, Tindale and Black allow Eden to succeed to No. 10 at the height of his power and giving him the political legacy he truly deserves – successfully ending the Second World War and winning the 1945 election from Labour due to a far greater focus on the Home Front than his predecessor – ultimately becoming “the right man at the right time”.
With the Conservatives winning the 1945 election, and Eden stepping down in 1947 to be replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, Labour do not win an election until 1955, causing no end of internal Labour strife and resulting in an aging and tired Clement Attlee taking office – much like our historical Eden, Attlee only lasts two years. From then on, Tindale and Black deftly paint a picture of British politics that is still broadly familiar, but has enough differences to create a significantly different political landscape. We see an outmaneuvered Harold Wilson, an incredibly popular Edward Heath, the short and unremarkable term of Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and such is the calibre of the author’s writing and research that they even manage the feat of turning Tony Blair into a nerdy, likable and popular Prime Minister by the end of his term.
The authors greatest feat, however, is their reinvention of John Major – on a par with how The Onion have spent eight years recasting the US Vice-President as ‘Diamond Joe Biden’, beer-swilling and free-loving uncle of the nation. Instead of the historical Major, who has a (I believe unwarranted) reputation in the public eye as a grey, slightly boring and bookish figure, we instead get ‘the corrupt charmer who united his party and filled his boots’, to quote directly from the counter-factual Major’s chapter heading. This is a scandal-riven, heavily corrupt ‘smiler’ Prime Minister that the authors obviously had a great deal of fun writing – one who barely escapes arrest after resigning his office, and now lives in exile in Dubai because it is one of the few countries where he cannot be extradited back to the UK.
A fun ride, full of fascinating ‘what-if’ scenarios and quirky asides to the reader, and once again demonstrating the breadth and depth of the authors’ knowledge of modern British politics, Shuffling the Deck deserves a place in the bookshelf of any counter-factual fan.