While opinions differ, if fifty years defines this literary genre, The Herring Barrel can be termed ‘Historical Fiction’. But fiction is only part of the story here. Contemporary fact has an important narrative role to play. The novel’s theme follows seemingly unconnected events towards the threat of a political coup d’état against left-wing government in the United Kingdom, rumour of a clandestine plot that defied belief eventually acknowledged under the dimmed light of respected sources and biographical opinion. The narrative is set at the tail end of a revolutionary decade, the country’s industrial future in the hands of unions, politics once again at the very heart of public discontent – an aeronautical industry in decline, damaged almost beyond hope by a decade of disastrous fiscal decisions. The conspiracy to remove power from politicians is waiting on an opportunity.
Christmas of 1969. At a Ministry of Defence establishment a military aviation project is threatened by cancellation. A tempting proposal for relocation is made to the lead scientist engineer by a US airframe constructor interested in the project teams’ successful research. War in Vietnam at a disadvantage, encouragement into the exodus of professional skills from the UK is under consideration. Problems escalate aboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier popular with the public, near to completion of an extensive refit, the ship a principal player in a last ditch attempt to save the project. When a fatal incident at sea turns the engineer’s familiar world upside down, his research aircraft lost under questioned circumstances, inconsistent attitudes at a Whitehall inquiry into the assumed loss are underlined by the unknown whereabouts of the chief scientist head of project. Suspicion increases of at least one murder on a British warship covered up. An important government adviser makes himself known, evidently at odds with the inquiry. He encourages the engineer and a scientist colleague on a journey in search of the facts, for reasons of his own – a journey in pursuit of their head of project. In the UK, absurd questions raised in the national press make accusing headlines, together with suspicion of another murder, that of a close friend. They are set on a fateful quest that isolates them from their country, the way home severed.
Questionable evidence suggests the research aircraft did not come down in the English Channel, that against almost impossible odds it may have been flown to a location where a further apparent murder has taken place in the French Camargue; a search of remote lagoon marshes eventually provides the scientists with proof, too late to prevent the departure of an East German freighter from Marseille, convincing evidence uncovered to believe their chief scientist is aboard. The protagonists caught in an intricate web of intrigue weaved far above their heads, entangled inescapably without assistance on the ground, an enigmatic Security Service intelligence officer known to them a mysterious influence, his objective is obscure. Media exposure spread to the continent, false accusations appear to be linked to the seat of government and increasing suspicion of murder authorized within a defence department. Collusion of public figures in a plot to take power out of political hands in the UK remains hidden beneath a blanket of secrecy. Events lead toward the possibility of military confrontation in international waters, a situation out of the hands of those responsible, a threat of deliberate Soviet escalation in the Cold War. A nation’s future is at stake as a French warship heads into a Mediterranean winter gale on Christmas Eve. Beyond dawn, a tragedy unfolds.
The protagonists eventually made aware they will have a part to play in the conclusion to their quest, a journal revealed during their pursuit of answers describes another journey, one undertaken across Europe in the Second War, unexpected insight into their missing head of project’s past, dreadful times recounted across a continent torn apart. It questions strong loyalties taken for granted. The conclusion resolves in a meeting with a most prominent person respected by public opinion, a man who now holds the future of their country in his hands, where they learn the purpose behind what seems to be an ultimate failure of the apparent objective of their journey. They come to understand the deliberate moves that brought them to a meeting they could not have imagined might occur, and the reason why they are there. Their presence is significant – a potential consequence, the political destiny of their country.