A State of Denmark: by Robin Cook

In this camp, not one man has gone mad yet, at least not since I arrived, hanged himself or attacked a guard. I think it is because everyone has been robbed of his tenses, as I certainly have. Or, to be accurate, robbed of two tenses; the present and the future. The present here never changes and so has become what amounts  to a historic present: in other words, part of the past. And there is no future. I have heard of no-one even being interrogated yet, let alone standing trial. I have questioned the guards: yes, interrogations are on the point of starting. Next week, next month. But they never do.

Richard Watts is a once eminent English journalist living in exile on a small working vineyard in northern Italy. His crime had been to interview on television and make rather a fool of a leading left-wing politician, Jobling, on the eve of the election in which Jobling won power in Britain. Richard subsequently travels to America on business and prudently decides it would be unwise to return to England until the nature of the new regime makes itself known - there are already rumours circulating of mass-arrests, and even of executions. Using his American savings and investments, he buys the vineyard in Italy and settles there with his partner, Magda, to wait it out.

As time passes, the news from England is scarce and not at all good - Scotland and Wales have seceded, a fact that shocks Richard but does not appear to unduly concern anyone else. In fact, the Scots and Welsh governments have sealed and mined their borders to prevent English refugees from entering - later Richard discovers the English often clear these minefields by marching political prisoners through them. Elections have been ended and the class system has been replaced by a card system which exactly replicates a class system, except that it now permits a form of social mobility to a whole new swathe of bureaucrats and officials who are on the right side of the new regime. Non-whites are deported en masse. The few English visitors who come Richard's way are unwilling to discuss what is happening to England; it is obvious that they are frightened and unsure just how far the regime's arm is apt to reach. But their reticence is also a show of loyalty - they parrot phrases about sacrifice and national interest, as though they have persuaded themselves of the value of a murderous interim: (Janet: "They should all be locked up or drafted into labour gangs! We've got to have law and order! Students who won't conform have got to be bounced and cut right down till they do what they're told..."). Whatever actual information Richard can glean from this hysteria betrays a country in terminal decline, sliding into the usual totalitarian muck.

Richard is summoned to the local police station where he is warned, in friendly terms, that there have been inquiries about him from London, as well as some talk of extradition. The English government, having cleaned up at home, has decided to undertake housekeeping abroad. He is advised to take up Italian citizenship, and is admonished for not having done so already. The paperwork is duly despatched but it is much too late - several weeks later an official from Her Majesty's Revenue arrives on the vineyard to inform Richard that his affairs are not in order and that he must return to England. This interview is conducted entirely at the point of a gun, and Richard later bitterly regrets not shooting the official. For the vineyard is seized and deportation papers are served. With English diffidence, Richard decides too late to resist; on the boat, in fact, where he is beaten and tortured and his few remaining belongings thrown into the sea. He is separated from Magda upon arrival in England - he never sees her again - and is transported by train to a concentration camp in north-east England. And here Richard plays out the rest of his short life in some bewilderment - there is no confrontation with Jobling, just occasional pleasant chats with a minor official. When a man begs to be interrogated, you know you have him where you need him to be. For a brief time he attempts to recreate his Italian idyll by growing vegetables on a patch in the camp; they grow surprisingly well. Then it's over.

A State of Denmark was written in the mid to late 60s and published in hardcover by Hutchinson in 1970 - there was a later 1973 imprint in paperback from Panther and a 1994 edition. If I have one gripe with the dystopian/totalitarian scenarios dreamed up by mid to late 20th century authors, it is that their imaginations are restricted to the procedurals of Nazism or Stalinism; the Stasi or the Gestapo; the concentration camp or the Gulag, etc. None of them appear to have imagined the horrors of an ideology such as neo-liberalism; they could not foresee a form of capital flow so lazy that it requires people to voluntarily immerse themselves without coercion - to the point of ruin and death. Still, all that aside, A State of Denmark is an artful book. The writing is excellent and captures the Italian idyll brilliantly; the conclusion is detained by dystopian cliches, but there is enough force of character to make it as poignant and chilling as necessary. And Richard is, in many ways, my favourite kind of Englishman; a kind of last gasp dissident.

Robin Cook is probably better known as Derek Raymond, author of the acclaimed Factory crime novels. He led a very interesting life, from 50s beatnik to Foreign Minister in a short-lived anarchist government in the late 60s. A State of Denmark appears to have been well-informed by his life, which was one searing turn of events after another.


  1. But why is the title 'A State of Denmark'?

    1. Sorry, I should have added - at the time of reading I thought the author was suggesting that Watts, an admirable character in many ways, was no Fortinbras.

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