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Tuesday 21 December 2010

Winter Waterloo

Last Sunday we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday. Given the weather in the UK, this turned out to be rather brave. We had to get from Edinburgh to Guildford – and then back. We were luckyish – some slight delays, walks in minus 8 temperatures due to lack of taxis. But our trains there and back were among the few not cancelled.

My brother and his partner tried to get the 20.30 Eurostar back to Paris on Sunday. They arrived at mid-day on Monday. On our way to King’s Cross we saw the queue waiting to get into St Pancras. From families with young children to elderly people, several thousand were being made to wait outside in sub-zero temperatures.

At King’s Cross we were frequently informed the weather was ‘inclement’ and that everything was being done for our ‘security and comfort.’ The ‘comfort’ part was notional. King’s Cross has been a very small station for generations – doubtless all this will change when the building work is finished.

The ‘security’ part was more obvious. The unfortunate police were out in force at St Pancras and they were keeping an eye on King’s Cross as well. My brother says potential passengers were each given a bottle of water and ‘a bag of chips’ at about 5.30 in the morning after the police had been called in and someone arrested and restrained for protesting at the lack of information and the order that everyone go out and through security again after someone else had left the building, apparently for a cigarette.

From Guildford the London train goes to Waterloo, named after a famous battle. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have attributed his success to a lack of rigid planning or, more accurately, to tying a knot in a rope when it broke.

My suspicion (I am being nice) is that companies no longer do knots but summon the police, instead. Perfect storm patrol? I would hope the rail companies are charged for this service but suspect they simply add it on to fares. there is no Plan B. As they say at King's Cross, platform zero is to the left of platform one

I was also reminded of John Buchan’s career, based on cracks in the thin veneer of civilization. If Richard Hannay had tried to get a train on Monday 20th December 2010, he’d definitely have died.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Snow Strikes

I recently delivered the completed manuscript of Blacklight – Peter Cotton book number 3 – which is set in London in the long, freezing winter of 1946-7. Rationing was worse than during the war. The coal ran out. Water, whether in the Thames, water pipes, or outside loos, froze.

In what I hope was an entirely unrelated event, it began to snow here in Edinburgh. The first day, my ninety two year old father-in-law told me how calm and pristine it looked from his East Lothian window and that afternoon, he even ventured out in his walking boots, thick coat and balaclava helmet, stout cane in hand, for a short stroll in the quiet white.

The view from our front windows overlooks some gardens, which soon became filled with Lowry-like figures of children (schools all closed) tobogganing down the slope on what looked like brightly coloured plastic tea trays.

The next day I put on my own boots and went out to meet a Spanish girl, recently graduated as a vet, called Rocío, for lunch. I knew all her family years ago in Cadiz – where it almost never snows, being almost entirely surrounded by sea. I believe a few flakes fell in 1968. But I knew that her grandparents lived in Granada, so she would have seen snow before in the Sierra Nevada. ‘Yes, she said, ‘but I love this. It’s the first time I’ve seen falling snow!’ The tone of wonder in her voice took me back, and I remembered how Spanish parents in the south of Spain would, like the father of the protagonist in ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’, make expeditions with their children so that they could ‘conocer el hielo’ – see ice and snow with their own eyes, as a wonder of the world.

Over the following days, in Edinburgh, the wonder creaked and froze. A note of disquiet began to creep into my father-in-law’s voice. ‘What if there is no food in the shops? What if there is a power cut?’

I reassured him as cheerfully as I could, feeling pleased that our local supermarket was in charge of delivering our weekly shop (and my father –in- law’s) – and pleased that (barring power cuts), heat and facilities such as indoor loos were commonplace now.

As soon as I put the phone down, the supermarket texted me to say that they had had to cancel my delivery due to the road conditions, and that I should reschedule my order. This I did, but it still left me with having to negotiate my way down a snow and black ice slope – past people trying to dig out their cars – to stock up while waiting for my delivery.

Rocío’s plane back to Spain was postponed due to the weather conditions at Edinburgh airport – but I hope this didn’t prevent her from taking back her ‘falling snow’ feeling to Cadiz.

She also had to contend with the air controllers’ strike in Spain. Thirty five years after his death, the Spanish government had recourse to a measure employed by Franco. They ‘militarized’ the strikers.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Port Sunlight

I have been out of blog action finishing Blacklight, the third Peter Cotton book. The fourth is already started but I have to find a name for it.

So back a while, to the Ellis Peters Historical Award ceremony on the 4th November. All very civilized and friendly. I had already felt, perhaps from the follow through from Wolf Hall, that it was going to be a Tudor year.

Delighted for Rory Clements and his artist wife Naomi that Revenger won. I had met Rory and Andrew Williams before since we are all John Murray writers. Andrew Taylor was, as always, generous and amiable and I met S J Parris (Stephanie Merritt) for the first time and instantly forgave her for being the same age as my elder daughter. C J Sansom, the runner-up, also with a Tudor book, couldn’t be there. I may be wrong but I think I heard the word flu.

Another reason I felt it was a Tudor year was because we were on the site of Bridewell Palace, Henry VIII’s residence after Westminster Palace burnt down in 1512 and where the papal delegation arrived to discuss the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The reason I know this is because my father worked for many years in the old Unilever building and I remember visiting him along what felt like the dark passages of some Pharaoh’s tomb many years ago.

All that has gone. Inside the façade is a mercifully light filled structure. I went up in a glass lift with someone who said ‘Wasn’t all this built by someone who made soap?’ Not exactly. But there was something about all the glass that induced a sensation not of stepping on the past but of reflected ghosts. There is time and there is space repeatedly occupied and left.

Thanks to everyone there.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Don No

Last Sunday, by chance, I saw a bit of the first James Bond film, Dr No, released forty-eight years ago in 1962. It was, of course, made before Bond became a franchise that multiplied and morphed. The makers were trying it out to see whether or not it would fly with consumers.

My interest was drawn as I realized that I was seeing in historical time, as it were, the film background to the American TV series Mad Men. It had not struck me before just how much the series protagonist, Don Draper, is a version of Sean Connery’s portrayal of Bond as a hard-boiled, long-zipped hero. It’s not just a question of the male hair applications, or the women poured into girdled moulds, but even, despite the difference in accents, down to some intonations.

Dr No links male tradition and female corsetry. Men bear and command; women pour, and just can’t help it if they like a pillar of strength. But it is an escapist fantasy - I was particularly fond of James Bond turning the radioactive level explosively up and then looking for the girl chained into a sloping Angelica position.

Unless you’re a fashionista, Mad Men is less escapist. I think of the series as skilful Balzac for today, but rising from time to time into a stylish existentialism and, just occasionally, into wonderfully scrappy bits that mean living people clash at indecorous, often unknowing levels of deference, self-respect, discomfort and resentment. From that point of view Mad Men is rather sophisticated. I understand the character of Peggy Olsen is, to some extent, based on the female founder of Cosmopolitan magazine. In other words, a boss is not a lover, but may be even more time-consuming and influential. Her narrative danger? Just a little too much of the Ad-woman’s pilgrim’s progress.

But what really struck me is that it is TV series like Mad Men, (and The Sopranos and The Wire) that lead the way in popular narrative terms. Written narrative, though it gradually assumed the cuts associated with film, is still not sharing that freedom and those possibilities.

It may be of course that the audience for written fiction feels happier with more traditional exposition and explanation, but it is probably more to do with the producers’ economic model.

Take, for example, last Wednesday’s episode (in the UK, that is.) in which Peggy casually mentions Margaret Mead. In a book, I suspect the author would need to add ‘the anthropologist’. And very likely ‘author of Coming of Age in Samoa’. The fact is, that by mentioning Margaret Mead, Peggy is misreading male irritation and confusion with a vending machine. She is about to get a crash course in ‘Mating in Manhattan’ and ‘The position of crude innuendo in the work place’, and finds out that solidarity amongst women can lead to being called a ‘humourless bitch’ by another female - the recipient of the original Margret Mead remark.

I am aware that some people, particularly of my mother’s generation, find Mad Men uncomfortable, or even unwatchable. It can seem a very sharp portrait of the extent to which conformity and decorum, and what was regarded as important, look, in retrospect, pointless and trivial and cruel.

Don Draper’s ex-wife, Betsy, would-be but failing model of the supported, supportive and fragrant trophy wife, described his date as ‘at least fifteen’ - reflecting her own emotional age rather than accusing her ex-husband of cradle snatching. ‘He has it all,’ she complained, with considerable envy.

The girl in question, poured exactly into the same hairdo and fashion sense as she is, is a younger clone of herself. With one exception. The young lady made Don ‘comfortable’ before trotting demurely and knowingly back to her dorm.

Yes, at one level it is excruciating. But I’d point to two justifications. It's scalpel sharp. And if anyone thinks this could not be applied to life now, they might like to think again before it’s too late.

Sunday 17 October 2010


My husband takes solace in the works of David Hume. He finds something reassuring in the great sceptic philosopher’s prose. It is true, of course, as Julian Baggini and others have pointed out, that Hume was pre-soundbite. My husband says the prose is nearly hypnotic, like hearing the click of a verbal abacus.

I tend more to hearing the civilized whirr of a privileged 18th Century mind – never knowingly oversold, as it were.

Hume is famous on several counts. One is his remarkably brief autobiography, My Own Life. At just ten pages long it is, on one level, anti-Proust – at another, anti much detail at all, once a rigorous process of selection has been applied.

Hume’s life is a literary life. As one of the first, possibly the first, man of letters to make a living from 
writing books (his histories sold more than his philosophical works) he describes what he calls the ‘vanity’ 
 involved in writing an autobiography:  ‘It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; 
therefore I shall be short.’ 
This is not all puff. Overegging it a little, he describes, his first work as having fallen ‘still-born’ 
from the press. 

Hume, of course, was not given any literary awards – they are a more recent invention. And of course, they vary. The Nobel Prize, recently given to Mario Vargas Llosa, is big. The Booker, recently given to Howard Jacobsen, is big in Britain.

But there are others. And I have recently been nominated for the Ellis Peter Awards (along with five other writers, two of whom have already won the award before). The Ellis Peters awards are for historical – that is now minus at least 35 years – crime fiction.

My attitude is – I really am very grateful to be nominated at all.

But it has struck me that ‘history’ is a long time. I think my Washington Shadow is the most recent in terms of setting (1945) – three of the shortlisted books are set in Tudor times. All historical novels, of course, reflect the present to a greater or lesser degree. Whether they mention doublets or zoot suits, they all have an angle on now.

And I suppose what I am really saying is that I am increasingly conscious of why the past matters. The attitudes of the nineteen forties in Britain, what I will call the non-funding of sometimes admirable, sometimes over-ambitious things, sticks to us now. For the last sixty years Britain’s efforts to remain a world power but with a degree of social justice have proved … let’s call it expensive.

Good luck – I mean it – to the other short listed writers.

Monday 11 October 2010

Shortlisted for Ellis Peters Historical Award

I have heard today that Washington Shadow has been shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Award, together with fellow John Murray writers Rory Clements (for Revenger) and Andrew Williams (for To Kill a Tsar), as well as S.J. Parris (for Heresy), C. J. Sansom (for Heartstone) and Andrew Taylor (for The Anatomy of Ghosts)

The results will be announced on 4th November.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Many years ago, on reading a poem by W B Yeats for school (see The Tower), something stuck. I became conscious the poet was complaining of age: he had ‘fantastical’ imagination, but what he lacked as an old man was stamina, the ability to hold and sustain the construct that turns imagination into the something people can read and share.

As I say, I made a note of this for future reference. Would I ever, I wondered, given my evident differences from a great poet, experience something similar? And when?

Blogreader, I may just have done so. I have been working hard on one hundred thousand words (Blacklight) and last Sunday, the effort to hold the whole book in mind resulted in, or rather collapsed into, a fantastic image – a vulture perched on an empty skull. I’d guess that image follows on from a sensation of dark, heavy wings at the back on my mind before the old scavenger took over.

It may even be a rather literal take on the word ‘deadline’.

However grandiose the image however, it was simply like the mind turning its own light off. Also known as working too long.

Sleep helped.

It did give me pause however – enough to write this, anyway. As I have said before, I do not read long books when I’m at this stage of writing. And I have been looking at The Original of Laura by Valdimir Nabokov.

Described on the cover as ‘a novel in fragments’, that is precisely what it is. It appears that Nabokov himself wanted it destroyed. I don’t want to get in to whether it should have been published or not. (It should not have been).

What it does show is Nabokov at the end of his life, being sporadically what we think of as ‘Nabokov’ – but it is really more a collection of notes, mnemonics and puzzles, and problems to do a lot of work on and develop.

Nabokov was also a considerable lepidopterist. Rather cruelly, The Original of Laura is like bits of a butterfly with too many legs, missing scales and misplaced antennae - almost a butterfly broken on the wheel before it had become a butterfly.

Romantic? No.

Right at the end of writing a book, even this modest writer is anxious not to lose the energy and stamina needed to make it enjoyable.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Less Is More

On the advice of the marketing department, the title of my new Peter Cotton book, due out next spring, has been changed from ‘London Blacklight’ to Blacklight. Here is the cover.

The setting remains London, of course, but the word Blacklight is, I think, seen as strong enough to stand on its own. Indeed the London part probably weakened it, possibly confused it. There is geography and there is UV light.

At first I was unsure – I had used place in the two previous books, Cádiz and Washington. Didn’t this break the map and pin look to the series?

I was also thinking of helping the kind of reader like my grandmother who had difficulty remembering whether she had or had not read a book because mystery titles do have a tendency to blur. I have some of this myself. Though I have read a few books by Dick Francis I could not, given a list of titles, tell you which ones.

So it has come down to a question of priorities. And one book title at a time. Blacklight it is. Be confident. Less is more.

I haven’t dare mention that some people have said – ‘Do you mean backlight?’

Yes, marketing is pretty tricky.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Elephants and Mice

There is an old story that elephants are afraid of mice. I suspect it is not the kind of tale that wins research money to test whether or not it is true. I can also imagine that mice, short-sighted creatures, might nonetheless pick up on something huge nearby, sometimes by shadow but mostly from the tremors running towards them through the earth from the placement of alarmingly large, heavy feet.

When writing, I tend to read books that come in short sections. Recently I have bought Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Vivaldi and the Number 3 by Ron Butlin, and Why Look at Animals? by John Berger.

This post concerns the very first section of John Berger’s book called A Mouse Story. It is preceded by some friendly drawings of mice by the author and it dates from 2009.

It involves ‘a man’ who has to cut off a ten centimeter slice of a loaf of bread each morning to remove the signs of mice meals. By accident, when looking for a file in the shed by the house, the man comes across a mouse trap made by a previous owner.

It is not a death-trap. It is a cage. One by one the man traps the mice and releases them at some distance from the house.

This was familiar to me. A few years ago my mother found mice in her living room. The rodent expert suggested her liking for chocolate might be the reason. John Berger is much more traditional in his story and uses cheese for bait. Our rodent expert – his name was Tim – said mice were not fond of cheese. He’d use After Eights but, given a choice, always went for Toblerone.

We too went for a humane – that is non-backbreaking – trap. I bought some Toblerone and every morning would transport a mouse past the pond and the hedged around compost heap, and release it into a field owned by a Dowager Duchess and from which, to my mother’s irritation, deer would break through and eat only yellow flowers.

I immediately recognized from John Berger’s descriptions the different behavior of the different mice. I missed out on two descriptions. Our trap being plastic, a mouse could not cling to any wire roof. And I never found nine babies had been born overnight.

I recognized the others though. There was ‘I don’t want to leave’. There were the immediate turners, to left or right. And then there was the mouse ‘the man’ christened ‘Alfredo’.

Our respective Alfredos took off like a kangaroo, leaping high in the air and appearing again two or three times well above the tufts of grass.

In the story, Alfredo is the penultimate mouse. The last mouse is a disappointment, just a scuttle, and the man understands he had been hoping to see another leaping prisoner attaining his dream of freedom.

I have to admit, I thought my Alfredo was invigorated more by fear. That opinion is also based on the number of what I will call pellets in the trap. That had to be washed out.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Audiobook of Washington Shadow

The Audiobook of Washington Shadow, published by Isis, is out today. It is read, as was The Maze of Cadiz, by the excellent Jonathan Keeble, and is available direct from Isis.

I am looking forward to receiving my copies to hear how it sounds!

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Dimensions of Fiction and Reality: Peter .. and Jane

Our seventeen-month-old grandson lives in Madrid and, in between visits, we have been having regular Skype sessions, chatting, singing songs and playing games. His initial reaction to these sessions was intrigue. He began offering us toys or water through the computer screen and going into gales of laughter when we pretended to take them. On a recent visit with his parents – escaping from the heat of Madrid – he arrived and immediately initiated a game and requested songs that we had introduced on screen. He seemed to have no problem accepting that the flesh and blood version of his grandparents was the same as the image on his mother’s computer screen.

He’s at that language-sticky phase – delighted to find out that everyone and everything has a name. There are shapes and colours to this. Anything remotely round was put into the ‘ball’ category, anything green was a tree, and anything with wheels was a car.

Among his recent acquisitions were the first four of the Ladybird Key Words Reading books - with protagonists, for those that don’t remember, called Peter and Jane. I taught my children to read with these books (we were living in Spain at the time) and my daughter is thinking ahead. First produced in the sixties, they are brilliantly designed – following research into word frequency - using the commonest words in the English language, and a mixed method of repetition, look-and-say, context, and inbuilt phonic training – and they really work.

The first books had a distinctly fifties feel, but over the years the pictures were modernised. Jane’s attire was changed from prim dresses to jeans and a T-shirt, and the elderly absurdity of sentences such as ‘Peter climbs a tree while Jane looks on’ or ‘A woman likes a hat’ was also addressed.

One of these books immediately grabbed my grandson’s attention. The pictures were full of things he could put names to – ball, fish, tree, dog, water, jump, splash etc. He took to Jane immediately. Shortly before leaving to go back to Madrid, he was standing at the window looking out onto the gardens opposite. A girl with shoulder-length blond hair was playing with a dog. She looked remarkably like ... yes, you’ve got it. ‘Jane!’ said the little lad, pointing excitedly.

‘Ah,’ said his uncle. ‘The beginnings of an inquiry into the dimensions of fiction and reality.’

Nothing quite so grand – but probably more interesting. On a later visit to his other grandparents, he was introduced to a cow – a real one, not a plastic, one-inch-tall one. The cow did indeed go ‘mooo!’ but more like a foghorn than he was used to. He apparently achieved almost vertical movement into his mother’s arms and squinted a bit – I am guessing to bring the cow into less threatening focus.

And just in case anyone is wondering, Jane’s brother was never, ever, the inspiration for Peter Cotton.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Blogging Has its Drawbacks.

I have, unintentionally I have to say, caused problems by blogging about a person who recently died and who provided some of the background to Peter Cotton.

A firm of lawyers, representing this person’s daughter, has contacted me. I was aware that he had been married twice. Indeed, I met him shortly after the death of his second wife in 2005.

I also mentioned how his step-daughter Caroline had put me in touch with him.

New information, however, means I have to stop these blogs about my meetings with him. I am not entirely sure why but, of course, I recognize that family matters can be very complicated, certainly until probate is settled.

As far as I understand, the person I have quoted had two children by his first marriage, a girl (b.1955) and a boy (b.1957). I have not heard from his son or his representatives. I do know that his first wife later remarried and lived in Capetown, South Africa, where she died, aged 64 in 1999.

It would appear that he left his estate in three equal parts, one of these being to his step-daughter. Since this is now being contested by what his daughter’s lawyers call his ‘natural children’ I am advised – how shall I put this? – to put a sock in it.

Sorry, but there it is.

Blogs will now deal with other matters.

Saturday 7 August 2010

RIP Peter Cotton - 4

Recorded on the nine hours of tapes that I have of my conversation with the ‘original’ of Peter Cotton (1919-2010) are many of his opinions of and anecdotes about the Intelligence Services – and a number of what he called ‘considerations’.

In the first two books of the series, The Maze of Cadiz and Washington Shadow, I have not used a single phrase of his, nor anything that happened to him. It was a point of pride with me - as was using real historical characters, but strictly as background and atmosphere, not as people who stand up and speak and act directly in the books.

One of his ‘considerations’, however, made me change my mind for the third and fourth books in the Peter Cotton series. He asked me whether I was not being what he called ‘a little timid’.

Now, I have never properly understood people with political ambitions. This may because my own father was invited to stand in the 1951 election for the then Liberals, and accepted on the strict understanding that there was no possibility of him winning the seat. Since he had the wrong party in the wrong constituency, it was a pretty safe bet, but towards the end of his life he would say ‘I keep meeting old men who witter on about regretting missed opportunities. That’s not the point at all. It’s the dangers you escaped that should impress. The sheer relief in not being elected to Parliament is one of mine.’

The man in Guadalajara was even more direct: ‘Politics is plagued by very bad plotting and characters the author should have thought about more,’ he said. ‘Would-be heroes strut about, self-obsessed and demented, utterly unaware of their own limitations or with any grasp of political relativities or comparisons. Look at any list of would-be party leaders.’ He paused. ‘Have you actually met any politicians?’

As it happens I have met a few. There was the man who talked for hours about the slights he had received since junior school - an ex- Prime Minister. Another favourite was the man who always walked several steps ahead of his wife, she carrying the bags. That was before he became a minister. I have met a couple of pleasant politicians but they did not rise high, and the one who did was unable to persuade his superior to see sense.

In Guadalajara I was told about the doings of a Mr Fixit solicitor and an unpleasant MP, who both later became Lords. What I was told about them was accurate – and verifiable.

‘Do you really have to be so oblique?” he asked me, ‘When all this fantastic but real stuff is there for you?’

The short answer has turned out to be no. Both of these men appear in LONDON BLACKLIGHT, the third Peter Cotton book, though not quite under their own names.

And the fourth book? That will involve something that did happen to the man who talked to me for nine hours in Guadalajara in 2005. Or so he said.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Washington Shadow Paperback - Publication Day

Today is publication day for the paperback of Washington Shadow.

Available now to buy on amazon.

Sunday 1 August 2010

The ‘Real’ Peter Cotton – 3: On Literary Violence

During my second interview with the recently deceased ‘original’ for Peter Cotton, he was decidedly relaxed.

As before, we spoke in his large study near Guadalajara in Spain. I am not good at compass points but I did notice that the largest window - almost the whole wall - faced North, overlooking a wooded valley, so that the view, rather than the window was sunlit.

He told me that Sir Peter Russell – on his birth certificate and in several Javier Marias’ novels Peter Wheeler – was apparently pleased to have ‘a small taste of literary immortality, or at least of a version of himself surviving between book covers.’

He was still teasing me however. He also suggested that this result was every spy’s dream: ‘Along with the apparent modesty, I regret to tell you that in a number of agents I have encountered, there is a Hamlet-like insistence on preserving the mystery of themselves.’

‘In any case,’ he said, ‘while Sir Peter was a spy during WW2, he is also a most innovative and distinguished Hispanist. I was never an Hispanist of any sort and nobody really knows what Sir Peter did in the war. What I will bet on, however, is that his experiences encouraged and re-enforced the innovative side in him. There is a story that after he had suffered a motor-bike accident he was sent to Lochailort in the Scottish Highlands, and there beaten up by his own side to prepare him for withstanding torture. It’s the kind of experience that changes anyone’s view of the world.’

‘My own favourite story about him,’ he went on,’ is that at the end of the war he was supposed to have been instructed to get rid of an Indian agent, code-named Carbuncle. I think shoving him over the side of a ship was suggested. Or he might have been given liberty to choose his method. But he chose to handcuff himself to the man and when they arrived at Singapore, he uncuffed him and told him to eff off. That would be a saving grace, wouldn’t it?’

‘In Hispanic studies he is often termed ‘iconoclastic’. That’s a secondary effect of thinking clearly and upsetting some established views.’

‘But it’s hardly violence. I don’t think there is anyone of my generation who is not now some sort of pacifist.’

He looked up, rather sadly. ‘But if you want to write about an agent you are going to have to deal with violence. It is rather difficult to do. Far too many people are rather excited by it. They imagine it simplifies life, let’s them act, achieves a resolution.’

He smiled. ‘Mind you, he said, ‘that mystery stuff does screen all kinds of moral discomfort.’

Sunday 11 July 2010

RIP ‘Peter Cotton’-2: ‘I Do Hope I Can Help You’

I had some intrigued reactions to my post last week about my meetings with the ‘real’ Peter Cotton – but they didn’t start particularly well. I had three long interviews with him in his house in Guadalajara. All quotes from him come courtesy not of a remarkable memory but a tape-recorder and nine hours of tapes.

Three steps down from the main floor he had a long, rather narrow, room, with two walls of glass and two, one punctured by the steps, book lined. At the beginning he thought I had come along to chat about what he later called ‘stuff for fantasists’ that is, books about a hero. When he found out that the protagonist I had in mind was ‘in intelligence, swimming as he could as the British Empire went down the drain,’ he kittled up. This was not, in fact, quite what I had said but I was happy to let him talk.

‘I don’t subscribe to the heroic generation stuff you keep seeing in obituaries,’ he said. ‘I have met some of those Second War heroes. They varied. At least two I met were quite unfit for later life. Most service people soon learnt they would have to be lucky to survive the stupidity of their own side. Those on that ship that kept going to Singapore, for example, after the Japanese had taken it because nobody had thought to countermand the order. They were unlucky.’

‘Perhaps it would be better if you thought of us as a disturbed generation – we grew up in the depression, had the war, in a sense did not get to grow up until we were in our late twenties.’

I was, of course, aware he was rather enjoying himself. “I am an old man and I get to talk frankly,’ he said with relish more than once.

He was equally blunt about Intelligence. ‘You will find it difficult to accept that it could have been quite that incompetent. I remember getting out of a cab in the sixties. On the radio The Rolling Stones were singing Satisfaction. Inside the Intelligence building, candidates for a job in the secret services were being asked to put the ranks of the British nobility in order. You know, Duke first, down to Baronet. This was after Philby and all the rest. The thing was, still is to some degree, utterly class ridden.’

‘In Intelligence work there is a large component of what is now called PR. Most of it is a sort of post event Dunkirk. You get a plucky miracle to overlay the very bad planning. The other parts, all the men that were ordered to surrender with the French, for example, like the entire 51st division, go into the historical out-tray. And little mention is made of the six thousand troops bombed on a passenger ship. Some of them died you know jumping into the water in full kit. The jump was about eighty feet and if a man did not take off his helmet before hitting the water, his head come off with it when he did.’

He nodded. ‘The chaos is fairly simple, the brutality often accidental, keeping up morale takes over.’

At the end of the first session he asked me what I was going to call my protagonist. ‘Peter Cotton,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s quite good,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why but most of the Peters I have come across have tended to be awfully prim in one way, utter pricks in another and always prone to self-delusion, sometimes grandiose. In one way all involved in Intelligence are Peters.’

To be honest, I was not initially very encouraged. On my way back from Guadalajara to Madrid, I began to wonder if another visit would be such a good idea. It wasn’t until my husband asked me a couple of questions that I began to see something else. The questions were about the books on the shelves. And then I remembered one on the coffee table. It was part of Javier Marias’ trilogy. I flicked at it. In that trilogy the protagonist’s mentor is called Peter Wheeler, the real name of Sir Peter Russell, distinguished hispanist and Second World War spy.

‘The old bastard,’ I said. ‘Maybe this is who I have been looking for.’

Saturday 10 July 2010

Washington Shadow Paperback

Less than a month to go before publication day (August 5th) for the paperback of Washington Shadow - available for pre-order from Amazon

For US readers, I'm pleased to say that now has both paperbacks available for purchase (The Maze of Cadiz) and for pre-order (Washington Shadow).

Sunday 4 July 2010

R I P ‘Peter Cotton’

I regret to say that the ‘real’ Peter Cotton – or an elegant flesh and bone version of my character - died on June 22nd, 2010 in his house in Spain. He was 91 years old. I am indebted to his step-daughter Caroline for information of his last days and for her permission to quote the following:

“On June 10, he slipped in the shower and broke his left leg – ‘the one that hadn’t been broken before’ as he put it. It was a bad, multiple break, difficult to set and after a week in the excellent Spanish hospital he asked to go home. He was quite clear he was going to die. ‘I don’t know that it is a decision but I certainly feel I’ve had enough and it is time to go.’

We made him as comfortable as possible. He remained lucid, though he remarked that he felt rather ‘high’ from the painkillers. He died soundlessly after lunch, while having a nap, the kind of death most of us would like. As is normal in Spain the funeral was the next day. His body was cremated and his ashes will shortly join my mother’s in the trees above the house”

There is a biographical section on this website that keeps pace with the books. Here I wish to say how I came to know him and how he influenced the series.

I first met him in 2005. I was asked to voice-over what the Spanish mother of a victim of the Atocha bombings was saying for a documentary for US television. It was quite a production and I could not help noticing that there were a lot more people around than usual. There was even a confab of men in dark suits.

I already knew Caroline because she and her husband Alberto run the studio. They told me that ‘because of the sensitivity’ of the subject, everything and everybody was being observed ‘by officials of both governments’ – of Spain and the USA, that is.

Voice-over has a kind of short hand for instructions. Shortly before last Christmas I went along to a recording studio and was given the name ‘Margo’. This refers to the character of Margo Leadbetter in a British TV series called The Good Life, as played by Penelope Keith quite some years ago. Why shoppers in places like Inverness should want to be encouraged by a version of Margo and a famous (an unmet) male actor who really was in the series, is for the marketing people – I am guessing at some respectful sounding nostalgia. And, naturally, they wanted a toned down Margo. Imagine turning 25 on the central heating scale down to 20.

In Spain, my instructions took a long time, most of them unnecessary, while the men in dark suits thought about them.

While we waited, Caroline asked me what else I was doing and I told her of my plans for a series on the decline of the British Empire as experienced by a young spy, aged 25, in 1944. We were interrupted then by a Spaniard in a dark suit who asked for input to match the tone of the original voice. I gave him a Margo-type name in Spain and he instantly agreed. His next problem was that he did not know how to communicate what this meant. ‘Desolate dignity,’ I suggested. We tried a take. Nods, thumbs up.

It was then about five thirty, and some of the men in dark suits decided they had worked enough. The recording session was over.

It wasn’t until they had gone that we realized how much tension they had brought with them. Both Caroline and I got the giggles. This was slightly unfortunate because a dark suit came back in, but after he had gone Caroline suggested I meet her stepfather.

‘Desolate dignity just about sums him up since my mother died last year. Nobody is supposed to know this but we all do. He was a spook and started about the time your man did. I think you might find it interesting and it might cheer him up. At this time of year he lives near Guadalajara.’

Guadalajara should have a more extreme climate than it does. In fact it is relatively mild, the summers cooler than in Madrid, the autumn gentler and longer. About a week later, I went to a discreet but sizeable property set into the side of a valley and surrounded by trees.

There I was met by a tall, relaxed gentleman who did not look 86. We forget how much accents have changed. When he first spoke it was like hearing the male equivalent of Margo speak, a kind of time capsule.

It was only later when I saw and heard him speak Spanish that I realized his English accent was not quite as adrift as it sounded. There was a small cross-over, particularly at the vowels. There was also quite a crackle of irony.

‘I do hope I can help you,’ he said.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

You Don’t Speak Spanish, Do You?

Recently I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control, an enigmatic, dream-like play on the adventure of a hitman. I liked it very much indeed. There are many allusions in the film – to John Boorman’s Point Blank, Jean- Pierre Melville films like Le Samourai and a lot more - and many jokes, such as the running matchbox McGuffin, where the main character – the Lone Man (none of the characters have a name) - receives a matchbox, reads the small note inside and then swallows it; at his next meeting he hands the empty box to the next person and receives another with a small note inside,
and so on. We never get to see the note, but he does get to throw away the last matchbox.

His recognition sign at the venue of each meeting is that he orders two small cups of espresso coffee; the password for the meeting is ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ (see the title of this post).The shifts in the film are marked by the protagonist’s change of the colour of his clothes from one iridescent sharkskin suit to the next. There are three. One for Madrid, another for Seville and a third for the countryside, particularly Almeria.

But here I want to talk about one of the things that most struck me about the film: probably the best series of snapshots of Spain I have ever seen. It is pitch perfect - unsentimental, charming and accurate. In Madrid, Jarmusch uses the extraordinary Torres Blancas (White Towers, see first photo) by the architect Sáenz de Oiza, a block built in the late sixties of the so-called ‘organic’ school. The building is supposed to be some sort of socialised tree in reinforced concrete without pillars blocking the interior spaces. The problem is that the builder of the White Towers ran out of money before the white cladding could be put on. Age and traffic fumes have worked their dingy magic on the concrete so that it now resembles a tall cement factory, the kilns placed upright.

Another building Jarmusch uses in Madrid is the ‘Reina Sofia’ – the national art gallery containing works by Picasso and after. It is a restored and fairly austere palacio with modern adjuncts, now showing a little damp. Some of the paintings (Juan Gris, Tàpies) are apparently used to convey information to the protagonist.

His third main use of Madrid is a small square, which is even more restored now, but in the film is seen aspiring to the kind of public space folksiness municipalities everywhere favour. Naturally, there are some examples of graffiti on the walls.

The old quarter he uses in Seville is a marvel. Graffiti is everywhere and - one of the film’s best touches - so is the noise. I once read a report saying that, after Japan, Spain is the noisiest country in the world. If they say so. I’d say the Spanish are noisier. There is one scene where the protagonist lies down (he never sleeps), while the sounds of cooking, singing and speaking from the surrounding houses go on and on.

Then there are the images of the countryside. Several Spaniards have told me that Britain’s countryside is strange because it has no great stretches of land without people or with any sign of human influence. Parts of Spain are big enough and barren enough to show human activity simply as scars or stark impositions, and there are houses that look either abandoned or absurdly protected and small against the space around them.

And finally there is flamenco. Many years ago an old lady in Andalusia told me that she never heard flamenco as a child. It had risen ‘for the tourists’. White horses, black bulls, girls in Sevillana dresses, and flamenco. Tourist Board folklore. This is, of course, not entirely fair but I feel I have done my quota of listening to and seeing stamping feet and wailing voices.

Of course it depends who is performing.

One very old form of flamenco which is used in the film is the petenera – it is like ‘the Scottish Play’ of flamenco music, in that it is considered to bring bad luck. The password of Jim Jarmusch’s film, ‘Usted no habla español, ¿verdad?’ and the title of this, was apparently Mr Jarmusch’s case. But this is the flamenco form he asked for and got. It is quiet and beautifully done.

If you would like to listen to a version of it, you can click here. You will hear echoes of the 14th century through the lute to La Celestina, the great novel by Fernando de Rojas.

As with the film, you will love it or hate it.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Amazon Is Not The ACME Corporation

From time to time, writers leave their books and indulge in, sometimes furiously one-sided, spats. Wordsworth’s poetic injunction – tranquility – disappears as fast as the Road Runner in Loony Tunes cartoons.

Sometimes the difficulties of the job, a writer’s reaction to a particular set of them and to his or her relations with the buying public (see sales) and other writers and critics, goes public and postal.

Recent examples include Alain de Botton who responded vehemently (“I will hate you until the day I die”) to the writer of a poor review of his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and Orlando Figes (a rather wider self-placement.)

Some simply do not transcend. I don’t remember seeing Donna Leon’s remarks on Stieg Larsson’s work in Santander last year making it into English at all. That may have been because she was being interviewed rather than writing for herself, and because she was not speaking in Spanish but being translated into Spanish.

Today, the Scotsman reports an apparent spat between someone using the name Philip Kerr and Allan Massie. Massie is a novelist and reviewer of many years’ experience. One Philip Kerr is well-known for his Bernie Gunther novels. Possibly another Philip Kerr took the time to write an Amazon review of 813 words lambasting Massie’s latest book, on the Stuarts.

Outsiders (Allan Massie himself is quoted as saying he is ‘amused’) are thus faced with one of two problems. The first is that the real Philip Kerr has had his name usurped. The second is that a professional writer has reviewed another professional writer on Amazon.

While Figes also used Amazon’s review service to decry people he considered as his rivals, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. The review, now withdrawn, specifically mentions what the reviewer considers to be unfavourable reviews by Allan Massie of the reviewer’s last two books.

Naturally, the Scotsman prints excerpts of those two reviews of novels. They suggest a falling off from earlier books. That’s Allan Massie’s opinion. In the not very widely read Scotsman.

Point? Irritation, annoyance and even hurt happen. But doing something about it has a habit of making the doer into the Coyote – a much loved cartoon character but one who relies too much on explosive products from the Acme Corporation, and invariably blows himself up. Nothing too grand. He survives.

Meep meep.

Friday 28 May 2010

Ludwig & Norbert

Despite my intentions on April 29 (see previous post 'Northern Brightness') I have since succumbed, and read Sally’s in the Alley by Norbert Davis (The Rue Morgue Press). As I said then, apparently Wittgenstein was a fan of Norbert’s language, his humour, and his lack of sentimentality.

What this description doesn’t make clear is the extraordinary separation of the hard-boiled from the low-down in the book. According to Jack Adrian (pseudonym of Christopher Lowder), Norbert Davis’ “fatal flaw” was his ‘sense of humour’ - preventing him from being published more frequently.

That's not quite right. Sally’s in the Alley, at slightly short of forty thousand words, has a plot that is as consequential as that of an early Lubitsch film or even a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It also has farcical elements of the Wrong Box variety – bodies get moved around; there are a couple of set pieces – a chase through an old Hollywood film set and a flash flood in the desert; and there are some contemporary references to WW2 – Goering gets a going-over and Doan, the private eye, uses the alias I Doanwashi when pretending to be a Japanese spy. He also uses the name H. Pocus.

Far more time is spent on Carstairs - a sort of canine Jeeves of immense size and usefulness in a pinch - than on most of the human characters. I’d hesitate to call him a precursor of Brian in Family Guy, but there is something there of a conventional moral sense (the only character who has one in the book) having to come to terms with being a dog.

The attraction for Wittgenstein? For most people language meets mathematics in logic. Take this passage:

‘Start at a town called Heliotrope.’
‘Where’s that?’
‘Either in California or Nevada.’
‘You said either?’ Doan asked.
‘Yes. The State of California is now suing the State of Nevada in the Supreme Court to
compel Nevada to annex it. Nevada has started a countersuit to compel California to annex it.’
‘What’s the matter with the place?’
‘Just everything. ….’

I can see how such an exchange would appeal to someone who wrote ‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.’

Though perhaps a better quote here from Wittgenstein, given what happens in Norbert’s story to Susan Sally (in a room, not in an alley) would be ‘Death is not an event in life.’

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Tinned Pears

Two Saturdays ago, 1918 met 2009, when my father-in-law met his fifth great-grandchild again. The meeting was amiable and involved quite a lot of ‘and the little one said roll over, roll over’, and the very amusing sound/word ‘oink’.

I mention this because of a recent conversation I had with a reader on the term ‘historical novel’.

Throughout the history of the novel, any number of writers, Henry James, for example, have believed that it is not possible to write historical novels with any claim to honesty or real accuracy. How can you seriously do justice to the people who were alive then? Isn’t what a novelist is producing a more or less wistful twist on motives, mores and attitudes for modern tastes?

To some extent I agree. But I am, certainly in theory, comfortable with that. The novel has been going long enough for, say, historical novels of the 19th Century and later, to tell us something about the time in which they were written, as well as the time they describe.

My own confidence levels and my history are not up to portraying the eighteenth, let alone the fifteenth century. Why? As John Updike put it, nothing disappears faster than motive. I can admire Hilary Mantel, but I can’t emulate her.

In any case, as I told my reader, I am not sure I do write historical novels. Period pieces perhaps? No. I write about the ample edges of living memory, because I want to trace the progress of a lot of the attitudes towards Empire and World War 2 as they have come down to us and remain with us.

I suggested ‘generational novel’ as a substitute. No, it is not terribly good. But it is probably snappier, if less accurate, than ‘after effects novel’.

After the birth of his first great grandchild in 2002, my father-in–law was persuaded by the baby’s father, my nephew, to write down some of his experiences in WW2. He did this in ‘real’ time. That is, he wrote down, day by matching day, what he had been doing in Burma in 1942, sixty years earlier. I haven’t read this account, which was kept safely for great-grandchild number one to read in the future, but I do know he walked about six hundred miles, cannot bear the smell of tinned pears – too reminiscent of the smell of dead refugee bodies –and that the account ended when he could no longer remember because he had contracted malaria and pneumonia. When they weighed him, after being carried by stretcher for the last part back to India, he was six stone. The doctors told him he should not look forward to a long life.

Let me put it this way. Every time I hear someone explain that something awful happened a long time ago, in 2003 or 2006, but things are now different, I think of pears in tins.

It may be – I don’t know – that the recent elections mean that the UK is finally coming to terms with a new role in the world, less imperial in both money and lives. It is certainly time.