Published by graham on Mon, 04/07/2014 - 17:24
Just back from a research trip to Northern Germany. The book is called Finisterre. In essence it’s an off-piste excursion into the world of a U-boat Kapitan called Stefan Portish, and a renegade FBI agent – Hector Gomez. Portisch and Gomez do their fictional business on separate sides of the Atlantic during the closing months of the Second World War, each tugging at separate ends of what turns out to be the same plot-line.
The idea came to me when Lin and I were wandering around Northern Spain in our camper. One sunny afternoon in an otherwise deserted Galician fishing village, we happened across a discreet monument to the crew of a U-Boat wrecked on a nearby reef during the Second World War. Within days, with the help of lashings of San Miguel, I’d nailed the bony outlines of a plot.
The next six months I devoted to re-reading myself deeply into a period I already knew well: biography after biography seeding the characters who’d have to shoulder that same plot and carry it into – fingers crossed - best-sellerdom. Next came a trial opening plus first chapter to try out a couple of narrative voices and test the fictional brakes. Then, back in the camper, we needed to match real-life locations against the historical settings I’d have to somehow recreate. Hence last week’s trip to Germany.
I came into scribehood by writing one-off international thrillers, all of them contemporary. I was writing one book a year, each of them a blank-page opportunity to create brand new characters and explore a different part of the fictional wood. This was before I submitted to the disciplines of series crime fiction, and I loved it. But a big historical thriller? Set in two continents? Was this a challenge too far?
A word about Stefan Portisch. He grows up in Hammerbeck, a working class area of Hamburg. He has a sister called Angelika and his dad, Hans, works in the shipyards of Blohm und Voss, a mo’bike ride away across the mighty Elbe river. Hans is a bit of a lefty (as well as a jazz nut), and as the Nazis tighten their grip on Thirties Germany life becomes increasingly tricky. But young Stefan turns out to be a fine athlete, sailing-mad, which ticks a very big box with the regime, and when he gets the chance to watch the sailing events at the Kiel Olympics he knows exactly the direction his life will take.
At the age of seventeen, he joins the Kriegsmarine, learning his new trade at the Naval College at Flensburg. By the time war breaks out, he’s already at sea in one of the U-boats constructed in his dad’s shipyard. The so-called “Happy Time” – with wolf packs sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of allied shipping a month - brings him and his shipmates a number of medals. Soon the British will be facing starvation. Nothing could be sweeter.
But the script gets darker. Hitler’s push into Russia runs out of steam. Pearl Harbour brings America into the reckoning. Facing two of the planet’s biggest economies, both geared up for total war, Germany finds herself in deep trouble.
By now, the RAF (by night) and the USAAF (by day) are making life in German cities very uncomfortable indeed. Arthur Harris, the boss of Bomber Command, has spent a number of raids fine-tuning a new mix of high explosives and incendaries calculated to produce a self-sustaining firestorm. Both Cologne and Lubeck are testaments to his grasp of the chemistry of mass annihilation but the real test comes in July 1943. The target? Hamburg.
The city burns. 43,000 people die. Hammerbeck ceases to exist. Apart from Angelika, Stefan’s family are wiped out. His house, his possessions, and even his memories have turned to ash. A Kapitan at the age of 24, this is a man living in Year Zero. You’ll have to wait, alas, for the rest of the plot but I’m happy to share bits of last week with you.
Flensburghappened to be our first call. This is a stylish, historic and extremely attractive city that climbs the heights around the toe of a modest fjord on the border with Denmark. The Naval College is at Marwik, a suburb to the north. It’s still operational and walking in the adjacent woodland, with glimpses of the Baltic (or “Ostsee”) between the trees, it was easy to imagine the seventeen year old Stefan on early morning runs before he and his shipmates plunged into the icy waters below.
Ditto the city itself. A street of cottages known as The Captain’s Row looks down on the harbour. These are properties dating from the late eighteenth century where skippers dropped anchor between voyages to the four corners of the world. For young Stefan, his heart already set on command at sea, where better to take the occasional stroll when the iron grip of the college relaxed for an afternoon?
Our next destination was Kiel. Kiel reminded us powerfully of Portsmouth. The Germans, like the French, devoted a great deal of time and effort in rebuilding historically important cities like Lubeck and Le Havre after they’d received the attentions of the RAF but the Kielers seem to have missed out. The city centre is an uncomfortable mix of Fifties utilitarian and more recent shopping malls. The wealth is here, and probably the work as well, but you have to journey a couple of miles north before you happen on the Kiel that Stefan would have known.
The city figured twice in his life. Once in 1936, when – as a sixteen year old – he watched the Dutch snatch the gold medal from the Germans in the Olympiajolle class. And again in 1944, when he set sail for the last time from the U-boat pens tucked beneath the opening of the Kiel Canal. In both cases, last week, we struck lucky. The sailing marina which hosted the Olympics still exists and there are plaques to prove it. While Tirpitzhafen, ten minutes further north, is still used by the German Navy. Easy, therefore, to pause a while and imagine Stefan into these landscapes.
The weather during the ’36 Olympics happened to be evil – low clouds, driving rain – a total contrast to the early spring warmth we found last week. But the pre-war splendour of the Kiel Yacht Club still lies across the road and it was easy to imagine the young Stefan, already inches taller than his contemporaries, eyeing the rival fleets as they battled on the windward turn on the choppy grey waters out in the bay. Goebbels had deployed a Zeppelin to capture the overhead shots for the inevitable documentary (which Stefan would have seen in the smoky darkness of a Hamburg cinema), and the promenade overlooking the marina was hung with Nazi banners. A timeshift, therefore, with the carrot of a paragraph or two somewhere down the fictional line. Weird? Yes. But fascinating, too.
Tirpitzhafen lay down the road. Today it’s mercifully free from the smoke and rubble to which the wartime locals had become only too accustomed but here, again, it was strangely pleasurable to pause in a wooded park within sight of the water and try and put myself into the head of Stefan Portisch.
By now, he recognises the Thousand Year Reich for what it really is: a murderous fantasy hoisted on the German people, all too compliant in the years of plenty, all too resigned to the holocaust that followed. Instinctively, given the nature of his final mission, Stefan knows he’s probably looking at a death sentence. Does that matter? And if so, what would he make of the blackbird, singing its heart out in the branches above my head?
After Kiel last week came Hamburg. Thanks to booking.com, I’d been able to find a modest hotel in Hammerbeck within a block of where I’d estimated the Portish family had made their home. We picked our way through a tangle of motorways and flyovers and finally found the place: a two-storey flat-roofed hotel with a doner kebab café tacked on the side. Across the road, a Shell garage selling extremely cheap diesel. Round the corner, an entertainment opportunity calling itself Die Lusthouse.
Of Stefan’s Hammerbeck, there was absolutely no sign. This, in a sense, wasn’t a surprise. I’d spent a great deal of time reading about the raids and studying photographs of their aftermath – the mountains of debris, the gaunt black skeletons of apartment blocks – but nothing had prepared me for the featureless sprawl of light industrial estates that have replaced the busy working-class streets my hero called home. City office blocks, classy lunchtime eateries, and canalside living are beginning to nibble at the edges of this flattened zone but – thanks to us – the Hammerbeck Stefan would have known has been airbrushed out of existence. If you want to buy cheap tyres, or the full valet service for your car, Hammerbeck is the place to go. Otherwise, if you’re a tourist, forget it.
Later, though, it got better. Germany is full of museums. Every town has one. A city the size of Hamburg has dozens. But in most cases there appears to come a twelve year gap – 1933-1945 – when nothing happens. Mercifully, the Hamburgers have resisted this invitation to look away and in the basement of one of their biggest museums we found what we’d been looking for.
The exhibition devoted itself to Stefan’s Hamburg: the elections in ’32 and ’33, photo coverage of the Brownshirts brawling with the Communists, Hitler and Goebbels paying a visit to the Hamburg Opera House, promises about a massive bridge that were never honoured, and shots of a Hitler Youth parade: the heads up, the blond haircuts brutal, the right arms outstretched, reaching for the breaking dawn.
I lingered there and looked at the photograph for minutes on end. At 15, Stefan would have been one of these lads. He didn’t much fancy it but he had no choice. Within a year or so, he’d be safely at sea in an element of his own – a merciful release and the most exciting challenge of his life – but here in this basement was the seedbed for my precious book.
Round the corner, in the grey half-light, lay the very centre of the exhibition, the story of the July firestorm and what had followed. This, too, pays an enormous role in Stefan’s story but it’s a catastrophe he has to explain to himself from an immense distance, submerged beneath the North Atlantic, a tragedy at once disembodied and intensely personal. So what was it like?
Here, in front of us, lay the answer. The exhibition was brutally graphic. None of the books I’d read prepared me for it. I felt sorry for these people, for these children, for these tiny bent corpses, for Stefan’s family, and I felt deeply uncomfortable. Not because it was our fault, not because the RAF had done it (including an uncle of mine, later shot down and killed while returning home). But because here I was, the impartial researcher, gathering material for a novel, something I hope to sell in tens of thousands. I’d come to find out about part of a city that had ceased to exist. Thousands of people had burned to death. And here I was, making notes.
The feeling didn’t last. I’ve embarked on Finisterre because I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the Second World War. My dad flew in the RAF and – unlike his brother – he survived. I was born a year after the war ended and I feasted on the books and movies that came flooding out of that vast shedding of blood. In my TV documentary-making days, I was privileged to make anniversary films about Dunkirk, about the Dieppe disaster, about D-Day, and about the final allied advance into the heartlands of Germany. I know about this stuff. And I know that this stuff matters.
Crime fiction has been a real test. I found it hard-going to begin with – largely, I suspect, because I was a trespasser in this world, neither a cop nor a criminal. But writing Finisterre already feels different. Why? Because I have rights here. Because bits of me were shaped by a world that – thanks to people like Stefan and my dad - still feels as fresh as yesterday.
Onward. Chapter Two beckons. Must go now.