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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.’