Few have done more than Noble Frankland to dissipate the myths and propaganda that fog our understanding of modern warfare. After serving as a navigator in Bomber Command during the second world war, Frankland went on to become a historian in the Cabinet Office, Director of the Imperial War Museum and adviser to the Thames Television series The World at War. He has proved to be a consummate pathfinder, leading the public through the murky details of 20th-century hostilities. So it’s surprising to find him suddenly embracing the wild fantasies inherent in fiction. Luckily his keen intellect is still evident in his debut novel The Unseen War, as is an eye for the more absurd aspects of political and military power.
Frankland’s tale is set in the imagined European country of Atlanta just as it heads into the throes of a turbulent general election. The Realist party is ejected in favour of the Idealist party, the latter headed by the charismatic, youthful Paul Reynolds. The public is hanging on the Idealists’ promise to turn the country into a republic and intervene in the civil war raging in Treskania, Atlanta’s former colony in Africa. Nick Hardy, an Air Ministry official working on a revolutionary new fighter, quickly sees through the cheap smiles and populist declarations of Reynolds’ administration (the only thing missing from the cringeworthy inaugural celebrations is a chorus of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’), as does his girlfriend Laura, who works for the Navy Ministry. However, both of their departments are competing for the upper hand in government. As the Treskania task force builds up steam a ‘hidden war’ is revealed in which the newly empowered mandarins battle it out for Treskania’s oil supplies and political control of Atlanta.
Frankland has a nice comic approach. For instance, the war is suddenly put on hold as the Campaign Cabinet Sub-Committee wrestles with the ‘unresolved dispute between the Air Force and the Navy Ministry as to who should chair’. And when Nick and Laura are discovered sharing classified information they flee to the provinces to join the resistance movement and hide out on a nudist beach. At times it’s like The Thirty-nine Steps script-doctored by the Yes, Minister team and edited by Benny Hill.
Many of the themes that have preoccupied Frankland in his career are present: media misrepresentation, revolutionary advances in aviation and political fudging amongst others. However, a lightness of tone prevails. The satire is broad and the characters for the most part little more than archetypes, but this only adds to the fun, as does a fair dollop of sauce — there is much unzipping of flies and grabbing of thighs. It all adds up to an amusing, rollicking good read that barrels along at a cracking pace. It would seem Noble Frankland has uncovered yet another hidden truth: that he’s an entertaining novelist.