Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writing out of Corners: the perils of a prequel

Zoë Sharp

Last year I decided I was going to write a prequel to the Charlie Fox series. Partly this was because I wanted to be able to give something to my loyal readers who waited so patiently for me to write the latest book in the series, FOX HUNTER. Personal circumstances meant this took me far longer than I expected it to.

Also, I wanted to tell the untold story of what happened to the character way before the events of the first novel, KILLER INSTINCT. At the point that book is set, Charlie has been out of the army four years. She admits she’s drifting, career-wise, and is making a living teaching women’s self-defence classes around the local area and working in a gym.

You don't expect me to show you
everything at once, do you?

I chose that initial jumping-in point for her very carefully. I knew she had a traumatic incident in her past. She was the victim of rape by four of her comrades back when she was in the army before being vilified by authority and savaged by the press. What happened in that first book would reawaken unwelcome memories as well as forcing her to overcome any lingering doubts about her own abilities. It would throw her in at the deep end and she would have to dig deep in order to swim and survive.

Her past and the effect it’s had on her has been a continuing thread throughout the twelve books so far. We are all a product, to some extent, of our experiences. Charlie’s experiences to date have been harsher than most of us have to face in a lifetime, and I’ve kept on shoving her up trees and throwing rocks at her ever since.

And all the way through, I’ve given snippets of her backstory in the form of flashbacks and conversations, and in the awkward relationship she has with her parents. In the later books, her work in close protection even brings her back into contact with some of the men who attacked her. No coincidences there – often the only work open to former Special Forces soldiers is as a bodyguard or mercenary.

OK, here's a bit more.

Various people have asked, over the years, when I was going to write the book about what happened to her before she was thrown out of the military, but I was reluctant to do so. For one thing, I think I’ve covered that story enough in dribs and drabs in the other books. (I try not to repeat the same flashback scene twice, but to give a slightly new slant on her past each time.)

And for another, I didn’t want to write something where I knew it was going to have such a downbeat ending. Charlie is made a victim, both by the men who attack her and by the system that is supposed to protect her and provide her with justice. It would be just too unrelenting. Indeed, one of the very reasons I chose the start point I did for KILLER INSTINCT was because it’s the point at which she turns the corner, finds herself again, and begins her fight back.

So I looked for other aspects of her life which I thought might be intriguing for the reader, and add something to the character’s story. I realised that, although I had gone into detail about how she had been dismissed from her training course, I had never said what she did to get her shot at Special Forces in the first place.

After all, at the time women were not allowed in forward combat roles in the military – they will be able to apply starting from next year – and are still not eligible for SAS or SBS Selection. To get the opportunity to apply, in any capacity, would have taken some exceptional behaviour. So, what had she done?

A bit more still ...

The prequel would take place when Charlie was still in the regular army. Younger, more naïve, not nearly so cynical, and – most importantly – not yet having acquired her hard-won ability to kill without hesitation.

Because timelines are a little more elastic in fiction than in reality, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that, while she was still in, the British Army could be on operations in Afghanistan. I have never mentioned a specialty for Charlie during her military service, which was a shame as making her a medic would have given a great excuse for her to be in the thick of it when perhaps she shouldn’t officially be there. Instead, I made her a signaller.

That got me out of the first corner I’d painted myself into.

The next one wasn’t quite so easy. I stated that the first person she killed, up close and personal, was during the events of KILLER INSTINCT. So, in proving to the Powers That Be that she has what it takes to go in for Selection, I wasn’t able to have her actually shoot anyone dead. This despite the fact that she is noted as the best shot in her unit – during target practice on the ranges, at any rate.

Getting around that one took a lot of head scratching, but I finally managed it, with a bit of input from a couple of ex-military mates and a lot of watching dubious YouTube videos. And if you want to find out how, you’ll have to read the book!

 
And finally, the whole cover.
Sparkly, isn't it?
I’m planning to bring the prequel, called TRIAL UNDER FIRE, out next month, possibly in time for the CrimeFest event in Bristol (May 17th – 20th), although initially at least it will only be available to subscribers to my email list. Definitely time to say thank you to all those readers who’ve stuck with me over the years.

This week’s Word of the Week is kakistocracy, meaning government by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous or incompetent citizens. From the Greek kakistos meaning worst and although it may seem custom-made for our times, it actually first came into use in the early 19th century.

Zoë’s upcoming events:

Thursday, May 10th @ 2:00pm
Author talk at Ellesmere Port Library
Civic Way
Ellesmere Port
Cheshire CH65 0BG

Thursday, May 10th @ 7:00pm
Author talk at Upton Library
Wealstone Lane
Upton
Cheshire CH2 1HB

Saturday, May 19th @ 9:00 – 9:50am
Marriott College Green
Bristol
‘W Is For Woman – Something To Prove?’
Sharan Newman (Moderator)
Jane Casey
Niki Mackay
Christine Poulson
Zoë Sharp

Saturday, May 19th @ 2:00 – 2:50pm
Marriott College Green
Bristol
‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Classic Thrillers’
Jake Kerridge (Moderator)
CJ Carver
Lee Child
Mike Ripley
Zoë Sharp

Sunday, May 20th @ 9:30 – 10:20 am
Marriott College Green
Bristol
‘The Indie Alternative’
Zoë Sharp (Moderator)
Ian Andrew
Karen Millie-James
Alison Morton
Debbie Young 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Lost in Translation Story Told An Athens Insider




Jeff—Saturday

If you’re interested in good news about what’s going on in Greece, and specifically in its capital city, Athens Insider Magazine is for you.  Slick—in the finest sense—and always on top of the City’s latest cultural and lifestyle happenings, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the many harsh things Greece endures and of which so many write and report, including yours truly.  

A while back, the Publisher-Editor of Athens Insider asked if I’d be willing to contribute to their magazine. Of course, I agreed, and in keeping with its tone, the first article I submitted dealt with the lighter side of murder mystery research in a foreign land.  That article appears in in the current issue of the magazine, and I thought you might enjoy it. If you don’t, please complain to me and leave Athens Insider out of it. :)


Researching a new murder mystery can be fun.  Especially when it’s placed in Greece and you’re looking for the perfect spot to do the deed. Or find the corpse(s).   Deep blue seas, wispy white clouds, green-brown hills, blood-red blood.  Yes, finding the site is fun.   Mainly because it’s something you can do without confiding your purpose to a soul beyond your own. 

Saying, “Hi, can you suggest the perfect spot for a dismembering moment,” is not likely to get you the same sort of warm response as, “Your spanikopita are the best spinach pies I’ve ever tasted.”  [Note: On the off chance that it does, take a hint from Sweeney Todd and dine elsewhere.]


In that spirit, I’ve taken to fading in among the anonymous tourists driving and hiking about Greece until the moment I come across that spot my deep, dark mysterious mind always told me must be out there.  Then, voilà, let the mayhem begin.

Having said all that, some plot elements can take hold of your mind that by their nature necessitate a far more adventuresome sort of exploration.  Like when a little voice in your head says, “Hey, genius, why don’t you make the robbery of the millennium pivotal to your story.”

When will I ever learn that the most dangerous voices are the most flattering ones?   And of that lot, the worst by far are those blithering away inside your own head—even more so than that of an agent hot to represent you.

But the trouble with imagination is that once it takes hold the most difficult aspirations turn irresistible.  I’ve been told that Quixotic characteristic passes with maturity. 

To get to the point of all this, my fourth Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, Target: Tinos, required a detailed understanding of security surrounding one of the least known treasures in the world—if you’re not Greek—in order to make the leap from reality to the impossible not that far.

To do that, I needed to speak to an insider, someone with intimate knowledge of the target.   And so, at the beginning of this week I set off on my quest with a friend (let’s call him Sancho) who knew such an insider (let’s call her Dulcinea).  My friend had read all of my books and knew I was working on a new murder mystery, but had no idea why I was interested in learning about the treasure.





“If Dulcinea wants to know the purpose of the meeting, tell her I’m an American writer working on a book about the hidden charms of Greece and could not possibly write such a book without including their priceless treasure.” 


I had my questions and my approach all prepared and worked out in advance. Sancho assured me that Dulcinea spoke perfect English because my Greek could not carry off the type of in-depth, subtle fishing expedition I had in mind.

“Perfect,” I once again learned, was an imperfect word.  Dulcinea’s English was as perfect for getting around an English language country as mine was for ordering a gyro in Greece.  Within thirty seconds Sancho was serving as interpreter.  I told him to translate my questions and her answers exactly as they were spoken.  He assured me he would.

I began with carefully phrased general questions of the type intended to make everyone comfortable.  They would run on for several sentences, Sancho would nod and say four words to Dulcinea who’d give him a two-word reply, followed a several-line editorialized answer from Sancho to me. 

I was getting nowhere fast.

After ten minutes or so, Dulcinea suggested we leave her office to see the treasure that was the purpose of our visit.  Let’s make the image simple: think breathtaking, spiritual, priceless and very portable.

As we stood in front of the treasure, I tried a few more subtle questions, all with the same result.  So I switched to a different tack.


Me:  “Where do you keep the treasure when it’s not on display?”

Sancho to Dulcinea to Sancho to Me:  “In a safe over there.” She pointed to a two-meter tall, cloth-covered rectangle.

I walked to the cloth, pressed my hand against it, felt the steel, moved my fingers to the hinges and then the handle.  “Is it bolted to the floor?”

S to D to S to Me:  “Yes.”

I asked if I could take few photographs and Dulcinea said, “Yes,” a rare honor according to Sancho.  I nodded and smiled to Dulcinea then began photographing the skylights, windows, doors, and floor.

Dulcinea said something to Sancho, “She wants to know what you’re doing.   The treasure is over there.”

I said, “Sorry,” and quickly took a few of the treasure.

Sancho said, “Are you done yet?”

“There must be more security for the treasure than just that safe.  Ask her.”  Sancho hesitated.  “Just ask,” I said.

This time it was Dulcinea who gave the lengthy answer and Sancho four words back to me.  “A lot, plus guards.”

“What time do the guards change shifts?”

Sancho said to me in English, “Are you out of your mind.  Don’t you know what she’s thinking?”

“Just ask her.”

He did. Dulcinea’s answer was quick and guarded.  “It varies.”

Sancho and Dulcinea looked like two bank tellers waiting for the masked man to hand them the note.

I smiled, “Can they be bribed?”

This time it was Sancho who went on for a full minute.  Dulcinea smiled and held out her hand to me.  She was thanking me for my lavish praise of her kind assistance and wishing me the best of luck with my new cookbook.

I’m still laughing.

—Jeffrey

Jeff’s Upcoming Events

Friday, May 18 @ 12:30 PM 
CrimeFest
Bristol, UK
Moderating Panel titled, “Power, Corruption and Greed—Just Another Day at the Office.”

Saturday, May 19 @ 2:50 PM
CrimeFest
Bristol, UK
Participating in Panel moderated by our Michael Sears titled, “Getting Personal—Private Lives of Characters”

Friday, April 20, 2018

Stereotypes? Ye or nae?

There’s a song by the Specials with lyrics that go something like ‘he’s just a stereotype, he doesn’t really exist’. It goes on about this lad who claims he has loads of girls every night, drinks his own body weight in pints  and is the 'great bloke' that  many aspire to be. By the end of the song, the mum is wondering where her son is and of course he’s wrapped his car round a lamppost.
Do stereotypes exist?
When I do a character workshop, I ask the ‘class’ to shout out words to describe an ‘accountant’. I  write each suggestion on one of two pieces of  A 1 paper. Inevitably two types of accountant appear.

Number one is an accountant who works for a firm of accountants; tall, handsome, strong good quality aftershave, BMW, gym membership, model like wife or girlfriend,   good suit, on his way up the career ladder.
Number two is an accountant who does the books in a bean factory, doesn’t drive, lives alone except maybe for an old cat, or an arthritic beagle, brown suit, egg stain down the front of his crumpled shirt, older, balding, might have some personal hygiene issues,  not very well off… and so it goes on.
Then of course, we start to play around with it….who has the old mother to live with him so she’s not in a home,  who is a terrorist, who is a serial killer, who lives in a house piled high with old newspapers, who accidentally killed their wee sister.
There is a no thrill unless we know what to expect – and don’t get it.
On my trip to Germany recently I met three people. I’d like to introduce you to  them.  They were great, I was so fascinated by them, I wanted to put them in a box so I could re examine them later to stick in a book. And make sure they were real.
                                                        
One was a beautiful man. I had to check that he was a man. More than once. He was cabin crew for a German airline, and he was beautiful in a Pete Murphy type of way, cheekbones that could cut a hedge. Finely manicured eyebrows and shiny hair cut to one length- the length longer than shoulder level. He dressed in his uniform ( impeccably pressed), including the cufflinks of the airline,  and had an arrangement of  coat with collar up,  his shirt collar down, some type of cravat round his neck. He had epaulettes to die for.  People did giggle at his safety demo as he was so stylishly dismissive….’lights will appear to guide you to safety, the emergency exits are located etcs’  were all done with a rather bored, pouting petulance, a flap of the hand, a toss of the head.  He was acting his role, and he was marvellous at it. If insouciance was an Olympic sport .......
                                                  Pete Murphy in the Maxwell ad.
                                                                  Mr Cheekbones.
I suspect he might have been a part time model, roughing it on a budget flight of German students.
His companion was a female Glaswegian, holding onto her thirties with her dying breath. She was orange, tango tanned to the extreme end of a Dulux Satsuma colour chart. Her uniform was a size 12, she wasn’t. Her make up was by Picasso,  waistline sponsored by Cadburys (Hershey for those readers  stateside). But it was her hair! Huge drug dealer doughnut hair  plus!  Our motorhome has a better chance of going  under a low bridge than her hair did. Get some straw, stick on top of a pumpkin  and pile it as high as you can--- you’ll be close.
 The contrast between them kept the passengers amused for the entire journey. If anybody  had been sick during that flight, she would have sorted it out. He would have been left in charge of her hair.
                                           

Then there was ….what shall we call him ‘Mr Mann’?  Last year, he caught our attention on the trip for being a potential pain in the backside. We had him fixed in our psyche, he didn’t remember us at all. He’s the  kind of guy that when he talks to you, you want to back away. Because he tells you things. Everything.  He even knows what side of the coach to sit on to avoid the sun. and at what part of the journey to change to the other side. Fair to say he was a large man, the kind who wears white socks under his sandals and Baden Powel shorts , all very Eric Morecombe. The weirdest thing about him was his wife, who he referred to as ‘wifey’ - all the time. In the third person when she was standing right in front of him. She wasn’t a long suffering person at all, at first I thought she might be deaf. Maybe his constant monologues of  crown green bowling scores and movements of Saturn  in the night sky around his  garden hut may have permanently damaged her hearing. But no, she bounced around with that cheery winsomness  found in newly recruited born again Christians, she wore flat lace up brogues and ….wait for it… American tan tights. Thick ones. Her clothes were circa 1974…  waist length straight grey hair pulled back in a clasp.   But there was two things unexpected about her-  she was passionate about wine, right down to the grape and the vineyard.
                                              
                                                            Morecombe and Wise, shorts and cream tea!
 And, the final thing. Her love of deep, red lipstick. Her face, unadorned by any other decoration or colour, always had lips beautifully filled and never smudged, never absent or smeared on her teeth. It was just perfect.
As my gran used to say, there’s nought as queer as folk, and that’s what makes them  wonderful!
Caro Ramsay 20 4 2018

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Changing of the Guard


Michael - Thursday

Over the last six months, three long-serving leaders of southern African countries were replaced. All three stood down, all three were replaced before an election, and all three were replaced by another member of the same party. There the similarity ended.

Robert Mugabe
First to go was Robert Mugabe who had ruled Zimbabwe since independence more than 30 years ago. Initially, he set out to make a success of the country. But slowly but surely things deteriorated and he started to behave in a more and more corrupt and dictatorial fashion. Eventually, in his nineties, he was more of a figurehead than a leader. His eventual downfall was the result of a power struggle between his wife, Grace, and his number two, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He tried to intervene in her favour, and that was the last straw.  He had the army on his side, but Mnangagwa he knew that if he grabbed power in a coup, his government would immediately be regarded as illegitimate by almost every country in the world. Hence he played his cards carefully, putting more and more pressure on Mugabe, making him better and better offers. He would be secure, with all his corruptly obtained money and assets. His legacy would be respected as ‘father of the nation.’  All he had to do was step aside and enjoy the rest of his life. And give up any pretensions to his wife taking over. Mugabe reacted like a cornered lion, but a toothless and clawless one. 
Emmerson Mnangagwa
Eventually, on the eve of a no confidence vote, he gave in. So far at least Mnangagwa has kept his promises, and is saying all the right things to get Zimbabwe back on track. Time will tell which direction he will actually choose.


Jacob Zuma
Second down was President Jacob Zuma.
A year short of his ten years (the SA constitution allows only two presidential terms of five years each, although there were rumblings that Zuma wanted to change that), he was forced out by Cyril Ramaphosa who gained control of the ruling ANC by the narrowest of margins from a Zuma ex-wife and look alike, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa went the same constitutional route as Mnangagwa, and Zuma also fought until the last minute. No get out of jail card free for him. He is currently facing a variety of charges for corruption. Whether he will ever serve time is moot—he is regarded as the leader of the powerful Zulu nation, and Ramaphosa may not want to alienate them.
Cyril Ramaphisa
But he is gone, and a huge sigh of relief was breathed by the country, which seemed to be headed towards the Zimbabwe model.

Ian Khama
And last month Ian Khama stepped down as president of Botswana and handed the reigns to his hand-picked deputy, Mokgweetsi Masisi. Not much, if any, of the money he handled stuck to his fingers. He did a farewell tour of his country, and was showered with praise and gifts by his people. Not everyone was impressed by him, and the opposition was getting close in the last election. But that is what democracy is about. He could have stayed on for the next election next year, but he wanted to give the new president time to establish himself.  In Africa—as in many other places—an incumbent has a big advantage over an opposition challenger.  42% of elections re-elect incumbents; only around 18% re-elect the governing party where the opposition and government both field unknowns. So it seems that Khama’s move was designed for the good of his party. As I was told long ago, the time to go is when everyone asks you to stay.
Mokgweetsi Masisi


Is there a moral to this story? I leave it to you to decide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Strike season - auf wiedersehen for awhile Bernie Gunther

It's strike season in Paris...then again it's always time for a strike in Paris. This season it's the union of SNCF, the national railway, and Air France and probably other unions who will strike in sympathy. Of course, it's school holidays in France  when families travel so obligingly the national train service has issued a schedule to help passengers navigate around strike days.
The unions took the step of announcing the dates on which they plan to strike, which will total 36 days.This follow a one day walk out in March that was held to coincide with a strike by the civil servants all over France.  This industrial action led to 60 percent of TGV high speed trains being cancelled as well as half of normal train services. RER commuter services from the Paris suburbs were also hit by cancellations and delays.
The impact on rail services including TGVs and other trains won't be known until a day or two before the strikes when SNCF will know how many workers have answered the unions call to walk out.
Their aim is to bring the country to a standstill and hope the public turns against the government as it happened in 1995 when a rail strike last several weeks and paralyzed France and forced the ministers to back down. I remember it as a time when people became friendlier, stayed at friend's flats and ride shared and took up roller blading to work

The national railway has announced that they will not be selling train tickets for those days in April when rail workers are due to strike.
The calendar below highlights in blue the days when rail workers will be on strike. The days with a red circle underneath are for when Air France staff are also due to walk out which will cause headaches for plane passengers. I'm hoping I'm not one.

I'm going to Marseilles on a non-strike day - crossing fingers nothing changes.



If I get on the train I'll be reading one of my favourite authors, the late Philip Kerr, who passed away a few weeks just before his current book - Greeks Bearing Gifts came out. I've started re-reading all his Bernie Gunther books and it's an engrossing bittersweet time. Do you ever go back and re-read books? For me, it's kind of like a grieving process that hits me deeply.  His editor said that he finished his last book before he passed and it will come out next year.
Cara - Tuesday crossing fingers

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Cold War: John Lawton's Personal Memoir of An Old Friend Who Refuses to Die

I am privileged to have John Lawton as my guest this day.  He writes here about the background history to his latest novel, the masterful Friends and Traitors.  What you will read here is Lawton's own recollection of the book's time and place.  The novel itself is a time machine that makes readers feel themselves eyewitnesses to history.  Part of Lawton's magic is the way he portrays his characters--the fictional ones and fictionalized real people.  Even the most hideous of them become so real, so three dimensional that you understand them as people and therefore cannot help but sympathize with them. Lawton is one of my very favorite writers.  Here is an amuse bouche to give you a taste of his writer's voice.  Get the main course.  You will savor it. - Annamaria Alfieri




    

The Cold War was not an event. It was the air you breathed.

I could not remember being without it even if I was about as aware of it as air itself.


The Hot War wasn’t long over when I was born — I still have my post-war ration book pinned to a bookshelf above my desk: meat, eggs, fats (8d for a half a pound of lard), cheese (1/1d for half a pound … any flavour you like a long as it’s cheddar) bacon, sugar (1/- a pound), milk and … almost as an afterthought at the back of the book ‘personal points’, that is confectionary, the tooth-rotting formula for the rightly-maligned great English teeth (‘three cheers for the brown, grey and black.’ Spike Milligan.) And I have a contemporaneous advert for ‘Co-Op Tuberculin Tested Milk’, which sounds very scientific but as I recall was still delivered by a bloke with a horse and cart as late as the early 1960s exactly as it would have been in the 1860s.


Given that this wartime practice, this wartime ‘feeling’, could not end with the Hot War, the Cold War seemed more like continuity than volte face. So … an Iron curtain had descended across Europe from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic — Churchill had pinched the phrase Iron Curtain from Goebbels and the world had to wait another year until Bernard Baruch coined the phrase Cold War in 1947. That was one year before the London Olympics, a curious marker in the Age of Austerity — the Germans and Japanese were not invited and the Russians declined the invitation. So … so what? Battle lines being drawn?


It was there. It was air, it was the smoke curling up from ashes of Berlin.

Continuity speaks for itself. It needs no definition. What strikes me now are the punctuation points, admittedly from a child’s viewpoint, that break and reassert the continuity. It has changed. It is still the same.


So what? — we wouldn’t be naming any more streets and housing projects after Joe Stalin … although I doubt we unnamed them with any speed. I recall an invitation to dinner (Spag. Bol. with added hashish) from a fellow student in the late Sixties … ‘Easy to find us. We live on Joseph Stalin Avenue, it’s just off Zhukov Way.’ But the Russians would relent on the Olympics and turn the sports track into a surrogate battlefield awash in steroids and testosterone almost regardless of gender.


Punctuation Point # 1: 1956. Nikita Khrushchev visits England, just as I am becoming aware that there is a world beyond the garden gate and the asphalt schoolyard. The same year he made his denunciation of Stalin at the XXth Party Congress. We … England, possibly the modern world … had never seen anything like him before. A robust, belligerent peasant with a cheeky twinkle in his eye, who had survived the Stalin era by doing Stalin’s bidding, ruthlessly.

Both my parents were socialists. My mother lifelong, although a certain Blair-despair* …

(*Fuller’s Medical Encyclopaedia rev.ed 2009 — ‘Blair Despair: A form of clinical depression brought on by listening to Tony Blair. Symptoms inc. yelling ‘bugger off’ and throwing teapot at the nightly news on BBC2.’)

… overtook her in her 90s, and my father adapting to the ideas she held. I was not brought up to fear the USSR or to regard them as the inevitable enemy. And I found Nikita Khrushchev fascinating. This was three or four years before he took off a shoe at the UN, banged it on his desk and told them, figuratively, to ‘kiss my arse’, but he was pure music hall, the king of political burlesque even then. Wanting affinity, wanting a common ethos to be seen despite all the differences, the Labour Party, into which my parents had settled circa 1943, invited Khrushchev and Marshal Bulganin to a private dinner at Westminster, no press, no TV. They had not reckoned on the MP George Brown who dissented from the truce and after a spat with the Soviet leader ended with ‘May God forgive you.’ Brown was the local MP, a friend of the family (I was told I had all but brained him swinging a poker around my head at the age of three) and the story, despite the absence of the press, made it to the family home. Brown, my mother told me, had provoked fury in Khrushchev. Interesting. English politicians were thin, restrained, moustachioed men, Eden or Macmillan — not prone to fury. Khrushchev, if he had any equivalent, in English politics seems to me more like Churchill in his disregard of the rules. But Churchill was gone, dragged from office in 1955 all but gaga. The Cold War had only one star — Ike after all was never a star and seemed happier on the golf course than in the Oval Office — until … until JFK.

Punctuation Point # 2: Cuba. 1961. Ike warned the president-elect that he might have to put troops into Vietnam. I wonder what advice he gave him about Cuba — “I’ve a hit set up at the Bay of Pigs. Don’t fuck it up, kid”? Whatever. The new president let it go ahead. A fiasco that needs no description. Six weeks later, JFK and Khrushchev meet in Vienna. JFK knows he has fucked up in spades. He is in pain, the crutches discarded before the cameras roll, before he meets the fat man who will play Hardy to his Laurel — “Another fine mess, Johnny” — and trample him with words.

The Bay of Pigs utterly misled Khrushchev. He saw Kennedy as inexperienced, which he was, young (‘I have children older than this man!’) and, I suspect, stupid, which he wasn’t. Kennedy, for his part saw an uneducated peasant who had reached adulthood still illiterate, whose bluster masked stupidity. They were both wrong and in their underestimation of one another arises …

Punctuation Point # 3: Cuba. 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the star turn of the Cold War. After this there can only be the juggler or a second-rate conjurer. It is the one time in my life that I can recall people thinking and saying that the world was about to end — children being taken out of school in tears, the nightly news showing the stand-off in the mid-Atlantic. Being English we did not dig fall-out shelters, and I think that’s probably an American phenomenon. What would be the point in England? All those USAF bases in East Anglia … fukkit we’d be first to be wiped off the map. Besides, you didn’t need a PhD in physics to the work out the likelihood of a nuclear winter, even if no one had yet coined the phrase.


I think it’s after this, seeing how close we had come to extinction, that we began to have a literature of the Cold War. I’m not referring to Le Carré … but … to Buffy St Marie … who told us we ‘really are to blame’ … to Barry McGuire who asked us to contemplate ‘all the hate there is in Red China (hmm … how did he know?) and was duly reproved by The Dawn of Correction (‘Who would be crazy enough to risk annihilation?’), to Jagger and Richards who, with unrestrained cynicism, asked who killed the Kennedys and told us it was ‘you and me’ … and to Bob Dylan … a hard rain is going to fall … he’s learned to hate the Russians his whole life. Weeeeelll Bob … I hadn’t. And coming back to the Cold War, that infinitely deep fiction mine, I find myself shrugging off the kid’s perception and trying to view the Missile Crisis anew.


My kid’s perception was the one we were given. I can recall no contradiction from my mother — my father had died pretty well as it was happening, so she had other things to think about — so the received wisdom prevailed. Khrushchev had backed down. USA –1 : USSR – 0.

Mining for fiction, it doesn’t look that way now. It looks to me as though each man had finally got the measure of the other and compromised. That compromise, metaphorically, killed Khrushchev. You cannot sell a deal like that to a totalitarian state with no free press when no one is willing to believe a thing the state press says. He could not even sell the deal to his own politburo. Within a couple of years he was deposed, the thaw he had initiated ended and Brezhnev took over — a man who hardly ever left the Soviet Union, if at all, a man most unlikely ever to want to meet Shirley MacLaine or bang his shoe at the UN.


If you believe conspiracy theorists (‘If there are conspiracy theories, it’s because there are conspiracies.’ G. Vidal) Cuba also killed JFK. Let’s not go there. Just read James Ellroy’s American Tabloid.


What was the outcome? Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba … less obvious at the time … mea culpa, I wasn’t looking and nobody told me … was that NATO took its missiles out of Turkey. And if anyone wants to argue that it was a Russian defeat not a compromise I’d ask this … has anyone invaded Cuba in the last fifty-five years? And I’d ask … what did Khrushchev hope to achieve? Simply to stop another invasion? I doubt that was all. Perhaps a message to latent, emergent socialism in the Americas that he did not regard half a continent as Monroe’s own backyard. Perhaps they got the message … Grenada, Panama notwithstanding.

But the chill had its continuity, the Cold War its surrogate battlefield in Vietnam … a war that was my generation’s war, but that I knew in my bones no British Prime Minister would ever dare drag us into — and I rather think Harold Wilson withstood several tirades from LBJ on the matter of Vietnam.

So … we breathed the air.

In 1989 I breathed the air of cordite from fireworks, atop the Berlin Wall. Looking down on rather narked DDR guards to whom we were just a pain-in-the-arse.

Some, most, breathed in freedom. Understandable. All the same I could not and have not been able to tell myself it’s over. If you don’t believe me, breathe deep, the chill is still there.

Once we had the H-bomb — now we have Cambridge Analytica and Zuckerberg. It has changed. It is still the same.

A fat cheque and the use of Cactus Jack’s bucket to the novelist who can mine that one for fiction.