Tom Black & Jack Tindale
Sea Lion Press
1975. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, sits in No. 10 Downing Street, anxiously watching a speech by the Soviet Foreign Minister to the United Nations. His colleagues are baffled by Wilson’s anxiety, and particularly his obsession with the colour of a certain piece of clothing worn by the Foreign Minister during the speech. The speech ends, and Wilson suddenly takes his leave of No. 10 – neither his colleagues, the Cabinet or the nation itself are aware that he will never return…
Pause. Stop. Back to our reality for a moment. I’d like to think that I know a fair bit about post-war British politics, hopefully more than the average reader, but until I started reading Agent Lavender I would have been hard-pressed to write more than a sentence about Harold Wilson. Labour leader: check. Prime Minister: check. That pipe: check. But anything more than that is pushing at the ragged edges of my knowledge of post-war Labour politicians who aren’t Attlee & co. In fact, the only reason I really know anything about Wilson and his time in office is all down to the fantastically wild, slightly-too-credible-to-not-be-worrying conspiracy theories that continue to pop up around him. These range from Wilson being a Soviet spy, with the aim of destabilising the British government and economy, to allegations that hard-line elements in the military, intelligence services and British business believed him to be ‘suspect’, whether a spy or just too pinkish-red to their liking, and plotted to launch a coup against him in the mid-70’s.
In reality, the most damaging thing that Harold Wilson ever did to the UK was appear in that Morecambe and Wise sketch after he left office. But…what if? What if the Prime Minister had been a Agent Lavender – plant, mole, and a long-term Soviet agent with the express purpose of undermining the British establishment? And not just any Prime Minister, but a Labour Prime Minister governing during the 1970s, one of the most tense and difficult decades in post-war British history? It’s a fascinating counter-factual scenario with a huge range of consequences, both for the UK and the wider world; but also one that requires a huge amount of detailed knowledge about the political and social culture of that period, and the ability to condense all of that that into something readable. In lesser hands this wouldn’t have been achievable, and I can well imagine another version of Agent Lavender that rapidly descends into turgid prose and reams of character-led exposition. Fortunately, Agent Lavender was in fact co-written by Tom Black and Jack Tindale, two experienced alternate-history authors who have produced some of the best counter-factual fiction I’ve ever read, including President Ashdown Is Retiring, Shuffling The Deck and Zonen – all published by Sea Lion Press. In their hands Agent Lavender becomes an engaging and original political thriller, which excels in using great writing, tight plotting and a formidable wealth of knowledge about 1970s British politics to engage the reader and make a potentially ridiculous scenario (The Prime Minister is a Soviet Spy!) entirely plausible and even engrossing.
Agent Lavender won eight Turtledove awards in 2015, and it’s certainly not difficult to see why as you read through it. From Harold Wilson’s initial flight from No. 10 and botched attempt to flee to Soviet Russia, to the fall of his Labour government, the fall of the replacement Conservative government, and the descent into riots, strikes and class warfare, the plot never lets up even for a second. The hunt for Wilson as he desperately evades detection is brilliantly paralleled with the disintegrating social and political conditions in London and the wider country, and the entire narrative is disturbingly realistic, showing the authors have done their research well; the way in which the country staggers from government to government to virtual military dictatorship is brilliantly portrayed, and there’s never a moment where a character seems to act out of requirement to an external plot, rather than as they naturally would given the pressures they are under.
The writing is upto Black and Tindale’s usual high quality, and the plotting is detailed and flows well; but it’s the characters that really make Agent Lavender shine, and in the process elevate it, in my opinion, from a good novel to a great one that deserves to be on the shelves of mainstream bookstores. There’s a fantastic array of supporting characters that pop up throughout the book, from bit-players like the long-suffering Joe Haines, Press Secretary to Harold Wilson, to more central characters like the Earl of Mountbatten, the old war hero desperately trying to hold together the country while simultaneously trying to ignore the poisoned whispering from the cabal of civilian ‘advisors’ gathered around him, and even Enoch Powell; the novel’s afterword says that Agent Lavender’s portrayal of Powell is likely to be somewhat controversial. Perhaps this is true, but the fictional Powell still came across as realistic and even somewhat sympathetic at times, which is hardly an easy thing to do for such a controversial historical character.
However, by far the greatest character in Agent Lavender is the agent himself, Harold Wilson. Despite the fact that he is actually a long-term Soviet mole, who has brought about untold disruption to the United Kingdom and its allies, it is difficult not to be sympathetic towards him. Black and Tindale paint the picture of a well-meaning man who genuinely believes in the cause of socialist revolution, but who is often almost forced into further betrayal and treacheries at times; a man who would have been happiest teaching at Oxford or Cambridge and occasionally trying to recruit eager students for the revolution, rather than conducting assassinations, for example, or sabotaging UK involvement in certain foreign conflicts. Wilson is given the lion’s share of the best dialogue in Agent Lavender, perhaps none more so than the line he utters just before an unexpectedly Bond-like fight scene: ‘Motherland, comrade?’ he spat, ‘I’m from Yorkshire’.
Agent Lavender is a fantastic piece of writing – by turns a Ludlum-like thriller, an incisive political commentary, and a brilliant romp through a worryingly plausible period of alternate history. I’ve read it several times now, and will surely come back to it again, and it’s also created a fresh interest in me for the UK in the 1970s, and a desire to find out more about that pipe-smoking, Yorkshire lad who became Prime Minister.