‘What’s in a name?’

Lingua Franca by William Thacker

lingua francaWilliam Thacker? That name sounds familiar… a little digging and he was revealed as Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill. Whether William Thacker, author likes sharing his name with the film character, I’ll probably never know … but this William Thacker is a name to watch out for, especially as he, to quote his website “is the co-writer behind Steven, the feature-length Morrissey biopic currently in development”.

As you’ll know if you follow this blog, although I’m not a fan of music of The Smiths or Morrissey, I am fascinated by the preening Mancunian for some reason, so I hope this film will make it into production and not remain in development hell. But who will play Morrissey? A question for another day. Let’s turn instead to Thacker’s second novelLingua Franca.

The cool ARC cover

Miles Platting awakes in hospital, pulled from a shipwreck. He has become the most hated man in Britain, founder of naming rights agency Lingua Franca…

I first conceived of Lingua Franca at a post-colonialism lecture in Wonga, the county town of Worcestershire. The guest speaker, Kendal, gave  presentation titled ‘Geographicl Renaming from Abyssiia to Zaire.’ (p12)

He asks the nurse where his wife, Kendal, is. She won’t reply. Every time he tries to speak, he is blanked or shushed. This is indeed a strange hospital.

The narrative develops in two time-frames. Present day in the hospital, and also a couple of months previously, as they unveil the new name of Barrow-in-Furness.

The slogan says:

Birdseye-in-Furness: The promise of a Brighter Barrow.

[…] ‘As you can see, we’ve matched Barrow with a brand that recognises its maritime history. The naming rights will cover all maps, road signs, transport timetables, public buildings, digital media and more. … Yes, there will be a certain amount of residual anger. The typical cooling off period for the public is six to eight weeks. A critical mass should begin referring to the new town by its brand name after about three years. A unanimous transferral of loyalty from one name to another can take generations. With the right brand, though, it can happen a lot sooner.’ (p21-22)

I was already screaming at Miles in my head by this stage – how could anyone possibly think branding and renaming Britain’s historic towns is a good thing?  Said towns’ Councils – of course! They get millions to spend on redevelopment from their new brand-partners. Unlike them, Kendal has voted with her feet and moved out of their marital home. Miles now has to have a minder, Darren, a street-kid who takes pride in his security job. “Even now, eighteen months after Milton Keynes became Stella Artois, many of the townspeople would like to make my life as difficult as possible.”

Miles and his business partner Nigel employ a small team to do telesales and the strangely named Eden is the best. One day, on page 41, he announces he’s going for a smoke, and the event that turns Miles from hated to a total most hated pariah happens.

Meanwhile in the present Miles is watching the weather report on the television from his quiet hospital bed.

I put on my headphones and realise it makes no difference because everything’s been muted. The weatherman is talking aloud but the words are subtitled. He points to South West England, to Allianz, where temperatures will drop to within nine degrees celsius. In Pfizer, Surrey, there’s every chance of rain. The Environment Agency has issued a warning about driving conditions in Cath Kidston. The nurse adjusts the room temperature. I raise a thumb.

To be more specific would be to spoil the novel for you, but the we will eventually get to the shipwreck, and Miles will realise what he’s in this weird hospital for.

This novel was quite surreal yet, simultaneously, you can imagine it happening in a town-at-heel town near you. The early scenes of office life as a telemarketer and the vacuous false earnestness of the sales pitches all sound horribly real – the level of parody doesn’t have to be extreme to make you grimace and laugh. Just remember, Arsenal called their new stadium after its sponsors; the Highbury replacement is not called Holloway or Ashburton Grove, but Emirates Stadium. Can Thacker’s vision be far away?

I would have liked a little bit more of linguistics expert Miles the blinkered marketing man he surely was prior to the novel’s timelines. As the earlier timeline opens, he has already begun to become disillusioned with the monster that he has created. Because of that, it’s difficult to hate him enough at the beginning for him to redeem himself as we hope for, but we do begin to feel sorry for him – in the same way as we end up pitying John Self in Martin Amis’s Money.  Kendal, however, is rather an enigma for much of the novel – her motives for moving out, but not leaving him remain clouded by love. Aah.

I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’s England, England which I read pre-blog. In it a megalomaniac businessman decides to make the whole of the Isle of Wight into a English theme park. With all tourists diverted there, England can revert to its former rural idyll. Although this is almost the opposite of Thacker’s premise, we can still ask the same questions about the real England.

Thacker’s novel is as you’d hope, linguistically clever as well as hilariously funny, but it manages to have painful moments too.  There is no room in this novel for excess words, the author keeps it short and sweet – my proof copy had just 177 pages. This social satire was fun and thought-provoking (and I’ve ordered a copy of his first novel now too). I know I shouldn’t use this phrase, but if you enjoy novels with a high quirk factor, you’ll love this one. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you!

William Thacker, Lingua Franca (Legend Press, May 2016), paperback original.

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