Cobra, by James Calum Campbell (Impress, 2021)
What is the central premise in Cobra?
An international criminal organisation hijacks a British nuclear submarine, part of the Continuous At-Sea Deterrent (CASD), and extorts money from Her Majesty’s Government, under the threat of dropping a 200 kiloton hydrogen bomb on London.
Pretty grim stuff, then.
Yes and no. It’s a “nuclear farce”.
You’re playing it for laughs?
Again, yes and no. There exists an H-bomb literature that spills over into film. In the film Failsafe, an American nuclear-armed bomber is despatched to Moscow as a result of a computer glitch. The US president on that occasion was played by Henry Fonda, and the subject matter is deadly serious. In Dr Strangelove, another US bomber is similarly despatched, this time on the orders of a rogue general who has gone mad. The US president this time was played by Peter Sellers, who also played most of the other principal parts. Sellers certainly played it for laughs, but perhaps the farcical elements make the impact of the film even more startling and sobering. In Ian Fleming’s Thunderball, SPECTRE steals two hydrogen bombs and holds the western world to ransom. You might say that that is also deadly serious, but there are strong elements of farce in Thunderball, not least in the duel that takes place at a Health Farm between two very tough men weakened by a diet of carrot juice, and weaponising the facility’s therapeutic equipment. Thunderball started out as a screenplay collaboration between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory, which was shelved. When Fleming eventually published his novel, McClory successfully sued him in court because his contribution had not been recognised. I guess that’s fair enough, but I can quite see why Fleming was so galled by the experience. Everything that is wonderful about Thunderball is pure Fleming.
So what is different about Cobra?
In two words, Faslane, and Coulport. Faslane is the naval base on the Clyde that is home to the UK’s CASD, and nearby Coulport is the repository for Trident’s nuclear armoury. They happen to be on my doorstep. Politically, in Scotland, the CASD is a highly contentious issue. There is great tension between the government at Westminster, and the Scottish government at Holyrood. Westminster wants to enhance and upgrade Trident, and increase the cap on the nuclear warhead stockpile by 40%, while Holyrood wants to scrap the whole thing. That struck me as a scenario ripe for exploration.
So you studied Failsafe, Dr Strangelove, and Thunderball?
Not really. I studied The Silent Deep, the Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945, by Peter Hennessy & James Jinks (Allen Lane 2015). That gave me insight into the Perisher Course that is a rite of passage for submariners, and, crucially, the “letter of last resort”, the Prime Minister’s instruction to the submariners in the event that the UK is incapacitated by a nuclear attack. It occurred to me that in this day and age, dominated by managerial pseudoscience and a slavish devotion to Information Technology, a “glitch” of the sort dramatized in Cobra is all too likely to happen.
Without risking a plot spoiler, can you say something about the structure of Cobra?
Certainly! All of the odd numbered chapters take place in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and all of the even numbered chapters take place “in the field”.
Cobra has sent an agent into the field?
Not exactly. He is a maverick, skiing off-piste. His name is Crude. Brent Crude. I wanted to construct two narratives running in tandem, and apparently running independently of one another, except when, on perhaps two occasions, their paths cross. The odd-numbered chapters consist of static talking heads, while the even-numbered chapters are faux-thriller.
Brent Crude, Sugar Futures, Parsley Sage, Adverse Camber… Why did you give the principal characters such absurd names?
I believe you might find that as you read on, you will stop noticing how absurd the names are. But I wanted to emphasise the farcical nature of the world I was depicting because it seems to me the nature of our current political discourse is often deeply farcical. There exists a tension between the pursuit of a political career and the responsibility to follow the dictates of your conscience. What happens if your conscience tells you not to follow the dictates of the whip? Well, you could resign. The trouble is, you might have a wife, or a husband, and family, mouths to feed, school fees to pay and so on. The result of this tension is that we hear a government minister on Any Questions or Question Time expounding a load of humbug which he, or she, and everybody else, knows to be essentially meaningless. This is a very rich minefield for devotees of the absurd. In fact, as Cobra progresses, the scenarios become more and more ridiculous until, in the end, Cobra disintegrates into a kind of incoherent word salad.
What’s the worst of Cobra and what’s the best?
I have to apologise to you that the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition is so potty-mouthed. I don’t much care for what the BBC call “strong” language, but which is actually “bad” language. But I couldn’t think of another way of depicting the way people in public life, particularly women, are subjected to vile taunts.
And best? Well, I tried to orchestrate a crescendo of absurdity throughout the book. So I particularly like Chapter 34, the last chapter. Then there’s a postlude. You might well consider that I’d gone over the top by then, and lost the plot. You should have seen it before it got edited.