These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths.
I've always wanted to be an author. Even as a very small child, I was passionately attached to the written word. When my parents read me Beau Geste, I was so overcome by the ending that i cried for the entire evening. when my father read me Sherlock Holmes, I was transported as it was possible for any listener to be.
My childhood was divided between London and Wales, and our Welsh cottage lay just a few miles from Hay-on-Wye, a small country town then as now given over entirely to the written word. The shop which dominated the trade was Richard Booth’s Old Cinema: a vast building, castled with books. There was no other bookshop like it in the country, except perhaps the same entrepreneur’s Old Fire Station (equally eccentric, but less child-friendly, at least back then.) Rather than operate the way second-hand booksellers had always operated in the past – handpicking one or two titles from the boxloads offered – Booth had gone industrial. When he got started, a lot of libraries were closing and he simply bought up container loads of books. Good books, bad books, collapsing books, strange books. He didn’t even know what he bought. Didn’t care, so long as it was cheap.
The Old Cinema was crammed with the fruits of those raids. Anyone who calls themselves a bibliophile would have been tested, I think, by that bookshop. I mean, yes, there were treasures present, but in a way the dross was more striking. Edwardian medical almanacks. Old copies of Wisden. Tedious memoirs, authored by nobodies. Gazetteers of countries that history had long scrubbed from the map. Prewar scientific handbooks, that somehow still managed to smell of pipe smoke and tweed. Novels, lauded by reviewers of the day, but whose titles and authors had long vanished from memory.
There was, theoretically, some sort of system to the shelving, but when books accumulate on that kind of scale, the cataloguing was never much more than notional. The overall impression was of some Borgesian Library of Babel, pulled through some Edwardian or interwar timewarp. Every possible book – everything that survived the warp, anyway – lay somewhere on those shelves, gently mouldering under old cloth bindings and fox marks blooming on every page. The Old Cinema contained the whole profusion of human thought, but with the one, niggly, proviso that it had to be human thought of the kind likely to lurk somewhere in your grandmother’s attic.
There was, in those caverns, a little alcove for kids. You might find old comic book annuals, if you were lucky. Perhaps a Tintin or Asterix. For certain, some Edwardian tales of adventure aimed at spunky boys and venturesome girls. That little alcove yielded me regular harvests of pleasure. I first met John Buchan there. Built my collections of G.A. Henty and Jeffrey Farnol. First puzzled over the Riddle of the Sands, encountered Dornford Yates, met Bulldog Drummond, was introduced to the Saint.
Most readers of my generation (I’m forty-seven) will be puzzled by those names. No doubt others of my generation will have read John Buchan and will faintly remember Roger Moore’s only slightly embarrassing turn as the Saint. But Dornford Yates? Bulldog Drummond? GA Henty, for heaven’s sake?
There are only two ways to know those authors as I knew them. Either your birth date needs to fall in the early years of the twentieth century or you need to have grown up a short distance from Hay-on-Wye. The names that fed my childhood imagination have mostly (and mostly rightly) been consigned to the remainder bin of literary history. Bulldog Drummond, the creation of H.C. McNeile, was a thuggish, anti-semitic racist. Dornford Yates was kind of fun, perhaps, but he offered the sort of fun which revolved around British toffs in Rolls-Royces bashing comical little Frenchmen and ridiculous (but dangerous) Germans. Yates’s English women were always lovely, but got captured a lot, which would, I think, rather tend to offset their loveliness.
As for Henty – and I have probably read more books by him than by any other author ever – his work is desperately old-fashioned. The Young Carthiginian, The Lion of St Mark, The Bravest of the Brave. No corner of history went unplundered. No book went unsubtitled. (True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence.) His heroes were generally youngsters on the brink between boy and man. Enemies were perfidious and if they got slain, often in vast numbers, that was, beyond question, a thoroughly good thing. He supported the ‘aristocratic’ Confederates (With Lee in Virginia) and was passionately hostile to the (insufficiently aristocratic) forces of the French Revolution. I’ve no idea what long-term effect those commitments have had on my political thought – perhaps none – but I’ve learned, disconcertingly, that Henty has enjoyed something of a revival among American home-schoolers. Odder literary renaissances have happened, perhaps, but not many.
But I didn’t read Henty for his politics; I loved the adventure, the old-fashioned pluck. There was a character in Farnol (a village blacksmith, an honest soul) who encountered an uppity nobleman on horseback. The uppity nobleman demanded that the blacksmith ‘drop your hammer and hold my horse.’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ the good blacksmith replies, ‘if you will drop your horse and hold my hammer.’ I loved that stuff. The truth is, I probably love the same sort of thing now, albeit that I demand a slightly more sophisticated packaging. I read all of Hornblower, and Arthur Ransome, and Sherlock Holmes, and Susan Cooper. Lots of Dorothy L Sayers, a splash or two of Agatha Christie, dollops of GK Chesterton and Rider Haggard and the non-Holmes Conan Doyle. Sci-fi too. Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin (oh, the wonderful strangeness of that name! That ‘K’!)
Time passed. The classics beckoned. My first real, proper, literary crush was with Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, Becky and her still-adorable green eyes. I gobbled up Dickens and Jane Austen and George Eliot and the better Brontes. I remember where I was when I first read a lot of the really greatest fiction. The Great Gatsby: on a train from London to Abergavenny.Middlemarch: read in three days, while hopelessly sick in a Kathmandu guesthouse. The Age of Innocence: travelling on third class carriages on the Indian Railways. War & Peace andWuthering Heights: I read both books during my lunch breaks while working for the National Iranian Oil Company. (For real: my first paid job was at NIOC’s procurement arm in London It was mostly an ordinary, painfully dull, office job. Not so ordinary: the giant posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the men’s room.)
And throughout it all, I devoured books. I loved them. I was going to be a writer.
A writer who, however, first needed to make a couple of detours. The first detour was Oxford University, where I learned to write long sentences, replete with qualifiers and anything else which could get in the way of good, plain meaning.
Then since Writer didn’t seem like a job that came with a pay cheque attached, I drifted into banking. I spent ten years or so in investment banking, mostly working in Mergers and Acquisitions at JP Morgan in London. There, I learned to remove all colour and meaning from my prose, and how to pepper my language with words like strategy and key and decision-pathand aggressive. I was still going to be a writer, of course, it’s just that other things had to happen first.
And one important thing did happen in that first decade of my working life. I got an idea for a story. The idea was jewel-like in its simplicity. A rich man – very rich – would die, leaving three sons, whom he despised for being lazy and without ambition. So his will, rather than simply dividing up the money in equal thirds, would set them a test. The first son to make a million pounds – by himself, without the assistance or support of the others – would scoop the entire jackpot. If, after three years, none of the brothers had achieved that feat, all the money, every penny of it, would go to charity.
The three brothers would be reluctant to take on the challenge, but they’d do it anyway. One would set himself up in business, buying an ailing furniture factory and seeking to turn it around. The second and third would become investment bankers: one a currency trader, the other a Mergers & Acquisitions guy, like myself.
I didn’t know the details of the plot. Still less had I thought hard about prose style or characterisation or how to handle multiple points of view, or any of the other technicalities that can overwhelm wannabe writers. I just had my idea and allowed myself to fool around with it. It hadn’t really occurred to me that writing might be hard, or that I might fail. I just knew this was what I was going to do.
I didn’t pressure myself with deadlines or word count targets. I didn’t care. I liked banking, but knew that one day I’d quit. When I did, I’d write that novel. There wasn’t a rush.
As it happened, however, that day came wickedly soon. My wife, Nuala, and I were on holiday in Spain, when she started to feel ill. First it just looked like a bad flu. Then flu with conjunctivitis. Then those things, plus a weird brain illness that interfered with her vision and her speech and which was getting worse, hour by hour it seemed.
We flew home.
We saw doctors, of course, not that they were of much use. We received a varying set of diagnoses, but the common thread was that Nuala was suffering a major neuro-immune collapse brought about (most likely) by a type of enterovirus, a family whose most famous member brought about the polio epidemics of the mid-twentieth century.
For a while, we fought the obvious. I went back to work and we brought in care assistants to look after Nuala in the day. The carers were nice, but they weren’t me. There were times when Nuala couldn’t speak intelligible English. Other times when she could find words, but spoke them the way a Russian might, if his entire knowledge of English sprang from a small pocket dictionary. So, for example, if Nuala wanted to say, ‘Can you pass me the glass of water, please?’ she was quite likely to say something like, ‘Water drinking machine, yes.’ Her first language, the language of her pre-school years and subsequent holidays, was German and when English failed, German sometimes came to the rescue. (Or sort of rescue. ‘Keks’, she used to demand, meaning biscuits. I used to tell her, patiently, that we didn’t have any cakes, but would she mind a biscuit, instead? ‘Keks’, she would say again, with insistence. We must have had that dialogue dozens of times all told. I never learned.) She couldn’t handle light at all, and lay most of the time in a darkened room. When she wanted a bath, I had to lift her into it. She lost weight, went pale as the moon.
When it became clear that the illness wasn’t going to lift any time soon, I handed in my notice and left banking for ever.