Walking Back To Happiness
Sea Lion Press
What better way to come back to reviewing books after a break than by reviewing another title from Sea Lion Press, one of my favourite publishers of high-quality alternate-history titles (and who have now started a Patreon). This time the chosen title is Walking Back To Happiness by Liam Baker, which poses a distinctly intriguing, yet relatively obscure, Point of Departure (PoD) in British political history. In 1963 the Labour Leader, Hugh Gaitskell, died unexpectedly and triggered a leadership contest within the Party. Gaitskell had been a controversial choice as Leader, being very much part of Labour’s right-wing, and there had already been two leadership contests within the past three years from candidates on the Party’s left.
In our reality, Gaitskell’s death allowed Harold Wilson to stand as the left-wing candidate, and he won the leadership contest with a majority of votes. Wilson would go on to lead Labour to victory in the 1964 General Election, and remain as Prime Minister from 1964-1970, and 1974-76. However, Wilson was a controversial occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, to say the least; he has been the focus of long-standing conspiracy theories about his political allegiance (which actually led to one of my favourite alternate history titles, Agent Lavender, also published by Sea Lion Press), and many on Labour’s left believed that he failed to deliver his vision of a progressive, technocratic social democracy, and instead left only stagnation and broken promises.
However, in Walking Back To Happiness, Mr Baker posits a very different outcome to the 1963 leadership contest: in this timeline, the mercurial Wilson loses his nerve and fails to put himself forward as the left-wing candidate. Instead, his place is taken by Anthony Greenwood, an even more left-wing candidate who had already challenged Gaitskell in the 1961 leadership election; although he had lost, he had garnered more than 25% of voting MPs, clearly indicating that he was seen as a potential leader of the Party. Standing against the Deputy Leader, George Brown, the confident and charismatic Greenwood narrowly wins the contest and becomes Labour Leader. Greenwood then leads Labour to victory in the 1964 General Election, as Wilson did in our reality, but from there the two timelines diverge significantly; the changes are subtle at first, but rapidly lead to a very different 1960s and 1970s in British history.
When reading Walking Back To Happiness, one of the first things that stands out in the title is how self-assured Baker is a writer of alternate-history. It is clear from the start that he is well-versed in the history of the era – social and economic, as well as political – and as such the timeline that he portrays never feels forced or unrealistic. Although a more left-leaning Britain is the result of Greenwood’s ascendency to Labour Leadership and then Downing Street, the story never becomes one of left-wing dominance or some kind of unrealistic socialist utopia. The Conservatives remain the dominant party of Opposition, and are not always out of power, and historical events still take place as scheduled to which both parties must still react.
Baker paints an absorbing and well-written picture of a Britain that goes “slightly more to the left” than in reality, and the small and subtle changes he makes to British politics, as well as world politics, always seem to grow organically from the situations that develop, rather than as a result of the writer wishing for them to occur – a frequent problem in alternate/counter-factual historical fiction. Indeed, the only fault I can find is the abrupt manner in which Walking Back to Happiness ends; the story ends just as some of the most interesting (and perhaps controversial) developments seem ready to take place, although Baker does drop enough hints in the preceding text to allow the discerning reader to take an educated guess at what a modern Britain looks like. And finally, Jack Tindale continues his brilliant work with Sea Lion Press title covers, producing another minimalist yet instantly recognizable cover that I maintain will do much to promote the publishers titles.
In summary, I can only hope that a sequel to Walking Back To Happiness is in the works, and I look forward to the next title that the author publishes.