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Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

The age of folded kit and woolly headgear

In his new novel, Mills examines the rivalry of two parties exploring unnamed and unknown terrain, heading in a vaguely scientific expedition toward the Agreed Furthest Point, and the tale owes as much to the 1950s comic novel The Ascent of the Rum Doodle as it does to Scott of The Antarctic. Tostig and his Nordic team are efficient, well-organised and forging ahead in the race. Johns and his party are riven with petty grievances and a sense of fair play that gently undermine their efforts. Tostig takes the easier route, following a dry river bed. Johns refuses to duplicate his rival's game plan because he's loath to retread the same ground. He ploughs on over loose scree, while his team-mates bicker and fret in gathering darkness.

Despite living out a Boys' Own adventure, the characters are obsessed with details that recall school days; the assignment of tents, porridge and malted drinks, a world of folded kit and woolly headgear. If the exploration stakes are high, the implications aren't appreciated by Johns's team. This is Mills's constant theme in his novels: the unbridgeable gap between public intention and individual ability. People are wayward - despite meaning well, they fail to fit into the grand scheme, wandering off, misunderstanding instructions, disobeying the simplest commands, not because they intend to disrupt, but just because they are hopelessly human, and more specifically, English.

Mills has spotted and identified a great particularity of humankind that seems to have been barely written about: the sheer impossibility of any utopian ideal, thanks to the inability of ordinary decent people to do what's best for them. The effortless banality of the prose belies its painstaking construction and cruel purpose. So stripped is it of time, place, social climate or anything that might signify deeper meaning, that the onus is on the reader to draw conclusions, and the ones we draw feel increasingly sinister. This is a tougher trick to pull off than it appears, and one that places Mills in a unique and rather wonderful canon. He's an original English eccentric.

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