04 February 2022
The Polari Prize-longlisted author and Private Eye journalist discusses using real-life events in his new political thriller
Writing a novel is creating a succession of rods for your own back. Meeting the daily word rate you’ve imposed on yourself. Incorporating that blinding chapter-ending cliffhanger that came to you fully-formed months previously, towards which your characters now obstinately refuse to turn their feet. Working out what to do when they surprise you by – and this genuinely happened to me part way through chapter eight of my first one – suddenly deciding to start having sex with each other.
In my case I created enough extra rods to fill the cane rack in a particularly sadistic headmaster’s study by setting my two Tommy Wildeblood political thrillers in and around the genuine political events of 1976 and 1984 respectively. The first, Beneath The Streets, threaded a fictional route through the real scandal of the attempted assassination of Norman Scott after he exposed his relationship with the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe. The second, The Enemy Within, finds its hero, Piccadilly rentboy-turned-amateur sleuth Tommy smuggling himself into the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of the morning as Mrs Thatcher prepares to address the Conservative Party Conference, apparently with murder on his mind – and then skips back several months to a real-life riot at the Polytechnic of North London to unravel exactly how he has ended up there.
The situation at the North London Poly is a great example of authorial happenstance: I casually installed Tommy as a mature student there for no better reason than that my old bus into work used to go past one of its campuses, only to discover the now-largely forgotten scandal of its infiltration by a member of the National Front which drew in both the High Court and parliament that very year. I immediately knew that Tommy would be right at the heart of it all. In the end – in a complete change from drafts one and two – the incident turned out to be the catalyst that sets off everything else that happens in the book. But it gave me yet another set of fixed events around which I was obliged to construct my narrative: some, like the miners’ strike, Mrs Thatcher’s abolition of Ken Livingstone’s GLC and the increasing horror of the nascent Aids crisis in Britain, merely bubble away in the background, but when a specific protest, speech or terrorist attack genuinely occurred on a particular day, despite the explicit proviso at the start of the books that “what follows is a work of fiction”, I feel myself obligated to stick to the facts.
Or something close to the facts, anyway. One plot point centres on the importation of arms from Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya to the IRA, which was genuinely going on during this period, though as yet undetected. When police interception of a shipment was necessary for my fictional purposes, I, for reasons I can’t quite explain even to myself, insisted on mapping it over the real coordinates of the arrest of the crew of a genuine boat, the Marita Ann, for smuggling arms purchased from a crime gang in America that September. This sort of thing can become unnecessarily pedantic to the point of spoiling the story: at one point my editor Simon Edge queried why a character whose every action and utterance showed him to be the sort of person who would be boycotting Rupert Murdoch’s papers was reading and quoting coverage of President Reagan’s visit to Ireland from the Times rather than, say, the Guardian. The shaming answer was that, with lockdown preventing my getting anywhere near the Newsroom Collection at the British Library (where I can lose myself for days, the adverts just as useful for contemporary scene-setting as the stories that surround them), I was relying on what I could access online through the website of my local library in Hastings, namely the Times archive. Not for the first time, Simon had to gently point out 'you’re allowed to make things up.'
And the odd thing is that I’m sometimes quite happy to throw all this punctiliousness out of the window. A pivotal scene in The Enemy Within occurs in the shadow of the nuclear power station on the beach at Dungeness, where Tommy has gone to visit an acquaintance, the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. In real life, Jarman did not move to his famous cottage (and garden) on the Kent coast until 1987. But in my universe – where a very different set of people had already turned out to be guilty of a successful attempt on Norman Scott’s life – it didn’t seem too outrageous a liberty to give him an extra three years to enjoy in the place he called a “corner of paradise”. So I did. And it felt great.
The Enemy Within is published by Lightning Books on 3rd February 2022