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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.

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