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Ellis Sharp: Walthamstow Central

Another unashamedly postmodern novel from Sharp, this one takes a science fiction story, throws in a detective novel story and then tells it in postmodern style. The science fiction story concerns a planet, Menzara, well into the future. The planet, as a good science fiction planet should be, is run by a ruling oligarch but the ruling powers are threatened by a group of renegades, known as Anarchs, led by a woman called Mirando Mirando. The planet has discovered time travel. Mirando Mirando seems able to travel backwards and forwards through time but the officials of the planet have found a way to travel back in time but not to return. They have trained a group of people – young, single, unattached – who are sent on missions to destroy Anarchs who are living in the past but who may disrupt the past in a way that affects the future. Our hero, Edgar Strobey, to give him his Earth name, has been selected for training to go after Mirando Mirando, who seems to be currently on an obscure, minor planet called Earth. They know this, as she left a trace when she last left Menzara, stating only that she was going to Finn’s Hotel in Walthamstow.

Finn’s Hotel is the real hotel where Nora Barnacle worked when she first met James Joyce. It has also been suggested that it was the original title of Finnegans Wake. In this book it had been a grandiose hotel when Walthamstow was more or less out in the country (we get glimpses of it in its heyday) but is now run down and awaiting various approvals before being demolished. Ben, the son of the owner, has been allowed by his father to live there with his friends pending the approval. Ben is very left-wing. He is with Marianne. She is quite a bit older than Ben. She is an animal rights activist and had been involved in a group which attacked various places that carried out experiments on animals. Their group had been infiltrated by a police officer, Buller, whom we meet early on. They had been arrested after an attack and Marianne had been sent to prison for nine years and is still very bitter about it. The woman of the other couple is Emma, who seems fairly calm, who is an actress between engagements and who is very much into green issues. Her boyfriend is Strobey or, rather, the SD (Spectral Duplicate) of Strobey. Before he could be sent to Earth, the real Strobey had to have training so a spectral duplicate is sent to Earth in his place. The SD looks like Strobey and has the shape and form of Strobey but is really nothing but a complicated computer. The real Strobey arrives at the beginning of the novel and will download all the information from the SD and take its place. Emma will not notice the difference. As all four are unemployed, they decide to keep themselves busy by robbing banks – on bicycles.

The police have two problems. Buller, the one who arrested Marianne, is in charge of the local force. He has several officers working for him but three feature in particular in this novel. Scurr is the typical nasty, violent, aggressive cop, Aphrodite is the smart young black detective constable and Daisy Spenser, the new recruit, who will be a victim of Scurr. In addition to the bicycle-riding bank robbers, there is another problem. People keep disappearing. One minute they are there and the next they are gone. In one case, a man saw his wife disappear before his eyes. In others, they can hear the voice of the person who has disappeared (it is invariably married couples involved) but cannot see them. The disappeared person complains of being in a fog. There is no explanation for the increasing amount of disappearances and the police are baffled. There is one further complication for the police. A new Hadron Collider is being built in Walthamstow (or, rather, under it) and there are a lot of protests against it.

Strobey has a week to find and eliminate Mirando Mirando. The police are under pressure to solve the two crimes and to protect the Collider. And, it would seem, Mirando Mirando is well aware of Strobey and what he is up to and she has no intention of being eliminated. The day the Collider opens, things really start to go haywire. All this is told with Sharp’s usual postmodern, tongue-in-cheek approach – authorial intervention, characters commenting on the actual text, lots of literary and cinematic references, lots of poor puns, references to things that happened in previous drafts of the text and inconsistencies in time and plot. As with Unbelievable Things, it is great fun and very postmodern. John Keats himself said (quoted in the foreword) This morning I scarcely know what I am doing. I am going to Walthamstow. If you have ever been to Walthamstow, something I really cannot recommend, you will realise why Keats did not know what he was doing and why Walthamstow Central may well be where the world changes.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Zoilus Press