Published by graham on Fri, 06/14/2013 - 09:41
Where do books come from? Here’s a clue or two. We’d been away for a while, travelling in China and South East Asia. It had been a longish trip, long enough to tackle re-entry with your mind wiped clean of the UK we take for granted. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and innumerable points in between had given us a new perspective on what it is to be, or maybe to feel, English. Then, after the usual drowsy surfacing from jet lag, we were back in a landscape that felt immediately familiar. Except that in some strange sense, we were seeing it for the first time.
Upstream from where we live, perched on the edge of the River Exe, is a pretty village called Topsham. It has a long and distinguished history, on which it quietly trades. The Romans were here first, building a wharf that served the settlement of Isca five miles or so inland. More than a thousand years later it was the turn of the Dutch to leave their mark on the place, a row of handsome merchant houses within sight and sound of the river. Isca, meanwhile, had become Exeter, but Topsham still earned its living from serving as the city’s gateway to the English Channel and the wider world beyond.
I’ve known Topsham since university when I used to hitch down from Cambridge and beg a bare upstairs room in a student let, a stooped narrow-shouldered old house that belonged to some mates of mine. In those days the village was far rougher than its present incarnation: a beguiling mix of cheap cider, huge seagulls, and river views to die for. I’d spend weeks on end camping in my briefly adopted perch, hammering out bits of crap novels on an old Olivetti, and dreaming of one day getting into print. That didn’t happened, not for a long time, but the views and the feel and the grain of the place stayed with me.
My favourite walk took me along the Strand, edged by the fine Dutch architecture, down to the end of the street where the view suddenly widened. From here, gazing down the wide silvery expanse of the Exe towards the open sea, you had – it seemed to me - a glimpse of eternity: gleaming mud flats dotted with countless waders, pecking at the feast of hidden nutrients; a slash of white from a lone yacht riding the ebb tide south; the lazy snake of a train on the far shore, headed for Cornwall.
On the riverside of the Strand, across the road from the frieze of gabled merchant dwellings, is a collection of more recent properties. This is where the real money in Topsham has settled. Some of them are Edwardian. Many are older. What they have in common is waterside frontage and – in some cases – a private pontoon for days when the owners fancy turning their backs on the village taking a spin afloat.
As a student, I’d idly fantasise about one day owning one of these golden properties. I’d have written a best seller. Hollywood agents would come knocking at my door. And I’d invest a slice of the first million dollars in a river view – and maybe a pontoon – of my own. It never happened, of course, but the thought stayed with me, as real now as all those years ago.
There’s a caff in Topsham High Street that serves a decent breakfast in a couple of rooms lined with shelf after shelf of books. Lin and I duck in there sometimes on a Saturday morning. The week after we’d returned from our travels happened to be just such an occasion. Over cereal, eggs, bacon, and thick slices of brown toast, we reviewed our recent trip. It’s hard to make any kind of sane judgement without a working knowledge of Mandarin or Vietnamese but countless train and bus journies had led us to the conclusion that the family unit, in S/E Asia, was in rude health.
Vietnam’s Reunification Express runs the length of the country, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). If you’re cluey, you ride it daytime sections. Our first took us from Hanoi to Hue, 14 hours south. We joined it in darkness at Hanoi’s Le Duan station, armed with the reservations which are compulsory on this service. Our seats were occupied by a family of Vietnamese: mum, dad, three kids. They were all asleep. We woke them up and showed them our tickets. With a nod and a mumbled apology, they disappeared.
Minutes later, the train clanked into motion. Dawn was breaking as we left the last of Hanoi’s scruffy suburbs. Then I felt something moving beneath our seats. The train was full and the family were back, jigsawed together on the floor, asleep again. They stayed together for the next eight hours, waking up and sharing oranges and cold noodles from a plastic ice cream box. The kids took it in turns to stretch out in the aisle, dodging the man with the trolley who appeared every half hour or so. Later, I took a walk down the length of the train. This scene was repeated in carriage after carriage. No squabbling. No sulks. Just a peaceable acceptance of the way things were.
Back in Topsham, we pondered the implication of images like these. Novelists, almost by definition, are constantly on patrol. It comes with the job. You look at other people, at what they do, at the ways they mesh with each other, and when this kind of nosiness drives you to a conclusion or two you begin to suspect that here, in many corners of our cramped little island, all is far from well. People have become atomised from each other. A culture of entitlement and the remorseless pressures of a must-have society seem to have embedded an unthinking individualism that puts personal wants and needs way ahead of respect – indeed awareness – of other people. You are what you eat, what you wear, what you own. No way are you about to curl up under a stranger’s seat.
After breakfast we took a stroll down the Strand. At the very end, fronting onto the river, is the house of my dreams. It sits in a handsome garden. The views down the river must be sensational. But there’s something else about the property that doesn’t quite fit. Its sheer bulk suggests countless shadowed rooms inside. Seen from the road, it has a slightly Gothic feel, a hint that bad stuff might once have happened here. This is a property that has turned its back on village life and seems to brood. Despite the setting, and the birdlife, and the play of light on the swirling tide, it has a reticence that speaks of hidden secrets.
This thought has seeded a situation, then a plot, then finally an entire book. Why? Because I get the sense that English family life is fast becoming something you’d check out in a museum.
What if this tomb of a house belonged to an ageing patriarch, the survivor of many marriages, the father of many kids, a monster of a man who’d had a glittering public and business career? What if this same guy, a man in his late eighties, had made a great deal of money and a shedload of enemies throughout a long and colourful life? And what if a handful of these same kids – and their kids – were still living in this house, surviving on a drip-feed of hand-outs from the ageing tightarse they’d each learned to hate?
A daughter in her fifties, an embittered divorcee with a serious drink problem, condemned to be her father’s carer? Her own son, a boy in his late twenties, desperate to get out and make it as a rock musician? Another daughter, younger, beautiful, autistic, vulnerable, preyed-upon? And maybe a son from a different marriage, a tender flower in his early forties always desperate to please his high-achieving dad?
Over the days and nights that followed our breakfast in Topsham, this soup of plot, character and circumstance thickened. What I wanted to put together was the ultimately dysfunctional family, a gathering of misfits who each had both the motive and the opportunity to take the sharpest kitchen knife to the old man’s throat and bring their collective misery to an end.
The discovery of the old man’s body would launch the book. A great of money was at stake in terms of legacy. What happened next would offer D/S Jimmy Suttle the investigation of his dreams, a killing that tore the fictional wrapping from some seriously damaged people.
The old man, I decided, would have started his working life in Africa. After Repton and Oxford, he’d joined the Foreign Office and found himself posted as a young administrator in Kenya. This was the mid-fifties, the period of the Mau-Mau uprising. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker pages in Britain’s colonial history and recent research has thrown up some extremely uncomfortable reading: of concentration camps, torture, and execution without trial. The old man was part of this. And despite the glittering prizes to come – in the City, at Westminster - he’d carry the stain of those days for the rest of his life.
Nice. So why not work a little harder on the son from his second marriage, the guy who wants to bloom beneath his father’s baleful shadow? Let’s call him Simon. He manages to get to university. He scrapes a half-decent degree. He applies, like his dad, for the Foreign Office. Denied the diplomatic fast-track, he settles for a post as a visa immigration officer. Which, in due course, takes him to East Africa. By now, immigration officers are on short-term contracts. He spends half his working life abroad, the rest in the UK. He’s met someone very special. His own marriage is dead in the water. Money he doesn’t have will buy him the freedom of a divorce.
As it happens, I have a good friend who works (yes, in Africa) as a part-time immigration officer. He’s also a huge crime fiction fan and loves the Faraday books. Very recently I asked him how much scope he had to approve applicants wanting to come to the UK. I’d already briefed him on the situation in the Topsham house and the answer, to my delight, was a nod and a smile. There were checks and balances built into the system, he said, but everyone knew how to get round them. If he badly wanted to ship someone into the UK, there wouldn’t be a problem.
This development has lit a fire beneath my new project. The book has a name, by the way. It’s called Night Letters, after the hastily scribbled threats that Mau-Mau fighters left on the doorsteps of white settlers in the Kenya of the Fifties. This, of course, is a clue of sorts because the long shadow of our colonial sins has already settled over the house beside the river. But if you think you’ve sussed what happens already, you’d be wrong. Why? Because last week we found ourselves in a scruffy bar halfway up a mountain in Southern Spain, on a hot Sunday afternoon that gave the plot yet another twist.
But more of that later…