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Borrowing Some Light From Author Graham Hurley by Matthew Wingett

Graham Hurley is a fascinating man.  Lean, with a grey-white widow’s peak, and a slight spike to his hair, he stands before the assembled group in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard, among ancient cannons and other relics of Tudor life – square backgammon sets and soft leather shoes, solid wooden cups and terrifying metal syringes: a modern figure, poised, thoughtful and calm, taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy

The Mary Rose Museum is not the most obvious place to meet an internationally published author with a string of 27 novels to his name.  And yet there is a logic to it.  Graham has made Portsmouth the subject of many of his books, including the series that has proven a real success over the last ten years.  Those are the novels with, at their centre, the “slightly woolly and not quite solid” Joe Faraday, a Portsmouth Detective Inspector involved in investigating murders and other heinous crimes in the dark criminal underworld of the naval port.  The stories are internationally acclaimed, yet rooted in the island city.  Hurley’s writing straddles two horses.  To me, a dweller in Pompey, his work is that of a local author who describes the railway stations and roads, housing estates and seascapes of my home town.  So, it is strange to think that under the magic filter of his writing, the streets of Britain’s only island city might seem to others a dark, crime-ridden place, exotic, grimy and extreme – or somehow like Detective Inspector Rebus’s Edinburgh, except with frigates and a Pompey accent.

Look at him as an exhibit now, standing among the glass cases of the Mary Rose Museum, beside him a beautifully carved metre-long model of the old Tudor warship, motionlessly plying its way across a circle of yellow formica above a sea of blue carpet.  Take in his angular figure with the prow-like nose and the eyes that seem often focussed in a middle distance, deep-set in his head.  The long delicate line of the jaw and the face that is lined with the experience of his craft, and of the people he has met who have fed his storytelling life.  Note his tight khaki jumper and his jeans slightly loose around the lean waist because, maybe, he has burned up the carbs with his obvious mental energy. And note also the calm and pulled-back manner in his movements.  Unassuming.  If I were to identify an aesthetic to his look it would be this: “Light”.

The talk he is about to deliver, in his measured voice will wash over the audience for an hour and a half.  It will be on the subject I am learning about every day.  It is “the virus in his blood” that he has made a living from, and which pushes him onwards and onwards to new creativity: writing.

…as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library…

With little preamble, he begins, speaking in his soft manner, intimate, pulling us in to listen to the quiet way he describes his early world.  His talk is heartening, warm, inspiring, informative and joyful.  So he tells us how he revelled in a post-War childhood devoid of television, and how those early years echoed with his father’s great love: the Third Programme.  Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were the choices he had for evening entertainment with the family, and in response to those choices he tells us how he drew into the world inside his own mind to form his own entertainment.  How he would disappear with a feigned bad head and head up to his room to read and read and read.

He tells us how, as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library and how that ticket transported him to whole new worlds.  He tells us how one day he took “one step up” in the library and started reading books from that “great tidal wave of writing” that came out of World War II.  Page-turning stories, page-turning documentaries that absolutely pulled him along and taught him what a book should do: hold your reader with every word.  And he tells us how his mother, avid for movies, took him every Tuesday through the snow and the sunshine to the cinema to watch “Reach for the Sky” and “The Cruel Sea” and so many others – many being films of the books he had already absorbed – and which gave him yet more insight into the way a story is made.

These were the formative years of the writer, which were followed by the apprenticeship.  When he was only 13 years old he started his first novel.  In the freezing parlour that was reserved by the family for special days he set up his Olivetti 32 typewriter with carbon copy paper on the bridge table and was faced with his first task of “getting his characters into the room”.  He tells us how that piece of simple choreography was for him an immensely difficult task.  Why?  Because it meant negotiating a door… which entailed considering what that door might be made of, and the colour of it, and how it was painted, and the tribe that sat under it in the rainforest that the wood came from…  At this time Graham’s filtering process was not yet fully developed, but this single revelation told me something else: that he had the writer’s “sideways mind” when young.  That a door wasn’t just a door, but was a portal into possibilities that others miss.  And that too, was a gift that would be immensely useful in his later writing.

Five novels later, he had served his apprenticeship, and headed for university, where he studied English Literature in the vain hope of learning something from the great novelists of the past.  But being an expert in Anglo-Saxon was not the most useful of skills for the novelist – and after returning home to Clacton-On-Sea he had no idea what he was going to do.  The first plan was to go to Paris, find an atelier high up in a garret somewhere and to write.  However, the dream foundered on the fact that he had no money, and his parents were not about to be forthcoming.  And so, after two days of being woken by his mother bearing a cup of tea that she placed at his bedside, on the third day he was instead given a copy of the Daily Telegraph – opened at the “Situations Vacant” column.

And here, the main body of the story begins.  Believing he had little hope of getting the job, he applied to Southern TV to become a scriptwriter, and to his amazement, was taken on.  The world of TV was something that came as a shock to him.  I can see him now: walking from his quiet life in Clacton, and then from the rarefied halls of Cambridge University with its wide lawns and its picturesque punts by the river, into a media world of pretty girls and a whirl of people and “a bar as you went into the studios” and hence a great social life to go with it.  And I can see the realisation dawning on him that he had just entered a world that was almost exactly the opposite of the world he had imagined being as a novelist.  And one that would be indispensible to him later on.

So he became involved in writing and making documentaries, and realised that the skill that he was to learn there – one of genuine nosiness – would stand him amazingly well in learning the stories of the people who would one day populate his novels.  As he puts it himself: “The novelist builds bridges into other people’s lives.”

Around this time, Graham met Neil Slatter, a man who, as a teenager broke his neck in a motorbike crash near Petersfield, Hampshire.  Graham followed Neil around Britain with a film crew, making a documentary about this indomitable man’s drive to build awareness of quadriplegia.  And at the end of making the documentary, when he showed it to Neil, Neil’s response was a simple one: “If you want to know the real truth about my life, then you will need to interview everyone, and do it properly.”  And so Graham used that innate nosiness that he had honed do exactly that, and write a book telling Neil’s real story.

There were things that he uncovered that were certainly not what he had expected or would have wished for, and certainly not what Neil had wanted to know.  Like, for example, the way that Neil’s girlfriend had been having an affair with his best friend for 18 months prior to the accident… all sorts of details that, in a way, put Graham in the God-like position of knowing more about a man’s life than the man himself.

When he handed the manuscript to Neil, he told him he may not like it and he could burn it, if he wished.  In fact, Neil was seriously angry when Graham returned a week later to see him again, but Neil’s number one question was this: “Is it true?”  When Graham said it was, then Neil went on to say: “Then let’s publish it.”

“Lucky Break” was Graham’s first book – and as he relates its birth to the audience in the Mary Rose Museum, I realise that actually, it was my first contact with the man – or at least his work.

Lucky Break - Graham's first book

I joined, Milestone Publications, the local publisher who published his book, as a teaboy and general dog’s body about 3 years after publication, and one of my jobs had been to deliver to Neil, in his Petersfield council house, the remainder copies.  Neil gave me a copy to read, and I dipped into it from time to time with interest.  It was the first “real” book that I had been close to in production terms.  The other volumes Milestone published tended to be local photo books with titles like “Portsmouth Past and Present”, “Portsmouth Then and Now” and the ever-so-catchily titled series: “The Pubs of Portsmouth”, “The Cinemas of Portsmouth”… and so on.

Graham continues his tale, telling us how his television work took him all over the world, producing and making tv shows in all sorts of places.  He was in the team that found the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed, and in the 6 weeks on board that boat trawling around the Arctic Circle with an underwater camera, came up with the idea for a thriller about a nuclear stand-off. It would become a tv show in the height of the cold War called “Rules of Engagement.

But wait a minute..!  Back up there.  Did Graham really say he was in the team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed?

Yes, he really did!   And yet he spoke about it as if it was nothing.  Absolutely astonishing.  I reflect on it for a moment, and I suppose this tells me more about the man.  Yes, discovering the Titanic was amazing.  But his focus now is on his writing, and on being a novelist.  Finding the Titanic is something he has done.  But tonight, we are here to find out who he is.

He talks about contacting his agent Carol Blake to land him a contract with Pan to deliver that novel, and waiting by the phone to get a call back.  And then being commissioned to produce a first draft of the novel in just two and a half months.  That’s 150,000 words and 550 pages of blockbuster novel.  And he talks about the crisis it caused in him, always speaking in that quiet manner of his:  “But I can’t do it,” he told his wife, who very matter-of-factly replied: “You have been boring me for 11 years telling me you want to be a novelist.  Well now’s your chance.  So do it.”

And he did.

Graham also talks about the wrangles he had with his publishers in producing his books. He talks about the horror that is artwork, and how it is chosen.  For example, there are reds and blacks and a silhouetted warship and plenty of barbed wire in a cinema-style “letterbox” design on the cover of his novel for “Rules of Engagement”.  The design knocks out female readers before the book is even off the shelf.  For a man who became a writer because it is “the self-confessed refuge of the control freak” it must have been a heck of a blow, putting up with that cover.

As time went by, writing generated its own rhythm in Graham’s life.  He organized his life to fit it: writing in the winter, between October and May, and getting out in the sunshine throughout the whole of the summer.  It is a wonderful life, the way he tells it, and he genuinely comes across as a truly happy and fortunate man.  I think what I like about Graham most is his modesty.  It is clear he is shrewd, that he observes and that he makes some very smart choices – and yet when he has success, then he is “lucky”.  It reminds me of the old saying: “People say I’m lucky. And what’s funny is, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  His determination and persistence are a pattern and a model.  He deserves his luck.  He has worked for it.

…the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own…

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Graham has for many years had a fascination with Portsmouth.  When he talks about the idea of the city declaring UDI in one of his early novels, through different stories set in the city, to finally writing his Faraday novels, Portsmouth always looms.  It’s as if the city is in his blood.

He also talks about the snobbishness and petty-mindedness of the London metropolitan set.  He talks of receiving embarrassed smiles and looks of sympathy when you say that you don’t live in London, and the almost complete incomprehension when you say you live in a city like Portsmouth.  What is hilarious about it is the assumption of superiority of the London set.  Yet the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own.

The night deepens, the cold water beneath the building in the Naval dockyard gets colder still, the black night blackens further outside, and we begin to feel a chill setting in in the Museum.  Now, finally, Graham talks of the turn of fate that led Orion to extend an invitation to him to write detective fiction.  And how from that invitation, the character of Faraday was born.  He talks about researching and rubbing shoulders with the police officers of Portsmouth and of Hampshire, with all their paranoia and their suspicion – and how he decided to write a low-key crime novel, rather than the grand gestures of the “serial killer” novels. He talks about being as faithful as he can to the police officer’s life while still making a good story, about the paperwork, and about the way that in any hierarchy, the lower ranks slag off and bitch about the higher ranks.  He talks about and wrote about the reality of policing.  And then he talks about more of that supposed “good luck” that he has, which is most certainly a product of the way that he approaches his writing.

Hence, he tells us how he was contacted by the high ranking police officer Colin Smith and was told that he would be invited to attend the next “decent murder” that they had to investigate, rather than a standard “three dayer”.  All the doors in the force were opened to him from then on – and he began to observe and understand the amazing power and reach of the serious crimes unit.

Ten years and 12 novels later, Graham has finally decided to pull the plug on the stories of Faraday and Portsmouth.  He has moved away from the city, and now lives in East Devon.  But he talks at times of still being able to feel the pulse of the city, of understanding how it works, of knowing the areas of deprivation and toughness in the place.  He talks about this little island as being a microcosm for the larger island of the UK – away from which it stands across a small creek.

He talks about his “luck”, and being “fortunate”.  And I know full well that that is only partly true.  Graham has made his luck with an attitude and a definite sense that there could be no other way to live his life than the way he has done.  He has prioritised and he has succeeded.

It’s a fascinating evening, and as I step into the night and look up at the icy lights in the shape of a Christmas tree hanging from the masts of HMS Warrior, above the black, iron water of the harbour, beneath a frozen December night, I know that there is nowhere quite like this city, and there is plenty more to come from it.  Stories.  Stories.  Stories.

Thank you Graham.  You shed some light on the way you write.  That was helpful.  I will borrow some of your light, if that’s okay.

Graham Hurley’s talk took place at The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard on 9th December 2010.  His latest book, “Borrowed Light” was published on 10th December 2010.