BOOK REVIEW / Sharp points of Sellafield satire: 'Radio Activity' - John Murray: Sunk Island, 7.99

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The Independent Culture
JOHN MURRAY'S first two novels, Samarkand (1985) and Kin (1986), established him as a distinctive and idosyncratic chronicler of a region that has scarcely been written about since the days of Hugh Walpole. Rambling, discursive, tethered to the fading industrial belt of north-western Cumbria both by language - Murray is hot on dialect - and history, they sidestepped the drab realism common to the genre in favour of a whimsical dreaminess.

Radio Activity, Murray's first published work since the short story collection Pleasure (1987), is a yet more protean and tricksy beast, in which the faithfully evoked regional background is barbed by a willingness to deal out every card in the post-modernist pack. The novel purports to be a transcript of the winning entry in the 1986 'Biggest Liar in the World' competition, an event held annually in the village of Sefton Bridge, a few miles down the road from the nuclear plant at Sellafield. And the transcript was supposedly confided to the author by a local potter of Germanic descent, the mysterious 'E J Ansbach'.

Even stranger is the identity of the winner. In place of the usual garrulous septuagenarians, with their stories about Barrow boggles and iggly- wiggly-worms, steps forward Tommy Little, an ageless shepherd from a remote hamlet that no one can subsequently locate. The ensuing four and a half hour monologue, presented in five 'emissions', and, apart from a few choice dialect phrases, put into standard English, concerns a technical college lecturer named Edward Stapleton, who by means of a magical radio valve shuttles himself back and forth from Tangier to a mission for the local radio station interviewing two British Nuclear Fuels publicists about a recent leak.

All this comes interspersed with Ansbach's musings over his relationship with his father Klaus, lately dead of a rare blood cancer: it is here, rather than in the more straightforward burlesque of the BNFL publicity machine, that the heart of Murray's satire resides. Klaus, it transpires, was a Sudentenland Czech, turned into a Nazi by the accident of geography, leading his son to observe that 'nations, communities, autonomies and, for that matter, individuals only exist in brokered power relations to each other . . .' From here it is only a short step to the poisoned chalice of Sellafield: 'this generous gift which provides most of the substantive work around was placed here by the cunning of absent mandarins, all safely 350 miles to the south.'

Simultaneously a biting send-up of the north-west nuclear industry in the aftermath of Chernobyl, a rumbustious comic novel, and a repository for local dialect ('yah great lyeurg was juss a laat bit powkin oot further till t'left than t'yan on t'reet' runs a description of Stapleton's asymmetrical ears). Radio Activity falters only slightly in its labyrinthine story within a story within a story structure (or rather hoax within a hoax within a hoax). In the end, though, the obliquity seems a small price to pay for the sharpness of the political point.

This is Sunk Island's second full-length publication (based in Lincoln, they also produce a literary magazine, the excellent Sunk Island Review). The first, Robert Edric's novella On Hallowed Ground, sold in handfuls and was blithely ignored by the nationals. It would be a shame if the same mistake were made with Radio Activity, which is one of the funniest - and certainly one of the strangest - novels I have read this year.