1. Introduction – Mike Phillips 13
2. My Life as a Writer 15
3. The complete novel: Lying in State 31
4. Travel 181
I Turkey 178
Nomadic Kurds 180
Opium Fields 186
II France 191
Allonging and Marshonging 191
Walking in the Pyrenees 196
III Spain 201
La Corrida 201
Las Batuecas 204
Los Ancianos 206
La Expiración del Señor 224
La Virgén de Fatima 227
IV California 231
La Jolla 231
Taxi Downtown 232
San Francisco 235
V Kenya – Nairobi 237
VI Morocco 241
Six Songs 241
5. History 245
I Damned Spot 245
II The Battle of Hastings 253
III Kings of Albion 260
Three Suns 260
IV Englishness 264
Mah-Lo Reports 264
The English – Who are We? 265
V The Duke 268
Wellington’s War 268
Wellington’s Funeral 271
VI The Spanish Civil War 275
VII Blame Hitler 283
VIII History, Pre- and Post- 300
The Siege of Southampton 305
IX Unkind Cuts (1985) 308
6. Bits and Bobs 309
I Nasty, Very 309
II To Teach or Not to Teach 323
Gradgrind, Alive and Well 323
Gradgrind Goes for It 329
III Some Reviews and Other Journalism 333
Shining Licht in a Naughty World 333 Jesus Saves 342
Global Thrillers 345
Get Real 348
Big Brother has your Number 353
I am not Amused 355
Lies, Damned Lies, and… 358
Bloomsday, 2000 360
William S Burroughs 363
Every Piece on Earth 366
Easter Monday, Longleat 368
7. A Periodic Obsession 369
Pooh Sticks 369
There was a Willow 370
The University Library 370
Ode for Ed 371
8. Ideological Round-Up 373
I Essentia non sunt multiplicanda 373
II Brother Peter’s Sermon 378
III Art and Kindness 381
La Muralla 394
An Ageing Adolescent 396
9. Eros and Thanatos (Bonking ’n’ Clog-Popping) 397
A Corner of a Foreign Land 398
This Sudden Growing 402
Dads do Die 402
But Life Goes On 404
Fat Love 406
Waking from an Erotic Dream 407
Fat Mary 407
Dangerous Games 420
Pernicious Loves 429
The Difference 430
Two Haikus 434
All About Eve 434
Young Love 447
6 March 2003 450
10. Last Words 451
Very Last Word 454
11. Bibliography 455
by Mike Phillips
Julian Rathbone belongs to a tradition of English writing that has always been consistently radical, thoughtful and endlessly inquisitive about the world. During the last couple of decades
we’ve become accustomed to the categories imposed by the book trade, where the pressure on authors is to be one-trick ponies, confining themselves to one genre or the other. In much the same way, the commercial marketplace has little patience with authors’ tendency to experiment with changes in mood or style; and this has generally narrowed writers’ perspectives, imposing a parochial tone on much of contemporary English writing.
In contrast, Rathbone has maintained his desire to explore the limits throughout a lifetime of work. The Indispensable Julian Rathbone offers up a wide selection of his work – crime, science, erotic and historical fiction, short stories, extracts from his novels, autobiography, poetry, critical essays and screenplays. The book gives a unique insight into the mind and methods of a bestselling writer, especially for readers who have come across Rathbone’s work before, but there’s a great deal more in this volume. The Indispensable Julian Rathbone is real entertainment – a dazzling variety of stories, characters, landscapes and reflections. Rathbone displays acute observation of detail, how people dress and eat and behave towards each other, the way that places change or develop over time, and a strong feeling for the enigmas of identity. Linking all this together is fundamental curiosity about who people are, about how they interact and about the structures that govern their lives.
It’s no surprise when he invokes the names of Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, because he shares with such writers a fascination with the inner working of power, and with its effects on individuals. All these qualities are on show in the complete novel in this book. Lying In State is an absorbing mystery, but it’s also a commentary on Franco’s dictatorship, an exposé of the dictator’s methods and, by extension, a reflection on the effects of totalitarian rule on individual behaviour. The story is focused around the complex character of Roberto, an Argentinian historian and bookseller, who is recruited to authenticate a tape of Juan Perón, in which the dictator discusses his relations with former Nazis. The events take place during the week between the death of General Franco and the accession of Juan Carlos, and the narrative twists and turns, building up to a surprising and satisfying climax. It is a classic mystery, one of the best works of crime fiction in existence. Rathbone’s brilliance, however, lies as much in the incidental detail, which sets up a sober and convincing satire about the workings of a totalitarian state, and about the relationship of its citizens to Franco’s all-pervasive presence. In the present day, Lying In State has a completely authentic topicality, prompting an immediate recognition of decaying states and dying dictators in various parts of the contemporary world. Another layer of the narrative is a sly and penetrating mockery of the publishing trade itself and its relationship with a corrupt financial establishment. The mogul of the story, enormously rich but mean enough to share a hotel room, has all the features of a number of personalities in real life.
Lying In State is a pipe opener to a selection of Rathbone’s fiction, followed by a pile of non-fiction essays, whose titles alone demonstrate the breadth of the author’s interests – The English – Who Are We? Los Ancianos, California, Kenya, Eros and Thanatos (Bonking ’n’ Clog-Popping). Taken together, The Indispensable Julian Rathbone symbolises an impressive body of work – entertaining, instructive, illuminating. Above all, here is a writer in all his shades of mood and temperament. More than interesting – I’m glad to have read it.
Mike Phillips, London, July 2003
MY LIFE AS A WRITER by Julian Rathbone
I was born on the tenth of February 1935 in Stonefield Nursing Home, Kidbrook Grove, Blackheath, London. My cot had a blanket with appliqué-ed snowdrops on it. When she remembered my mother sent me or gave me snowdrops on most of my birthdays until she died. The day before I was born her brother, who lived in south London, decided to help matters along by taking her to see John Gielgud in Hamlet.
We lived in Liverpool at the time. I was born in Blackheath because Stonefield was part owned and run by my Aunt Helen and so it was free. She soaked the rich but gave her services away to relations, battered wives, unmarried mothers, and so forth. She even had a house in Bognor in which mothers whose circumstances meant they had nowhere feasible to take their newborn offspring were persuaded to stay for what they could afford until their circumstances were sorted out. Like most Rathbones, Aunt Helen was a very good person indeed. Her story was a not uncommon one: her fiancé was killed on the Somme, she never married and devoted her life, which was a long one, to good works instead.
The first recorded Rathbone was a carpenter from Macclesfield who moved to Liverpool to build ships around 1700. He prospered. Rathbones were always anti-slavers and in the 1780s refused to build for owners who were slave traders, and even refused to supply their builders with timber. They continued in the forefront of the campaign against slavery and in the nineteenth century feuded with another Liverpool family, the Gladstones, over the latter’s refusal to free their sugar plantation slaves.
The family maintained its shipping connections well into the twentieth century, building ships, owning them, trading in and out of Liverpool, branching off into things like maritime insurance and so on. They were also philanthropists, Unitarians (which was as near as you could get to being an agnostic without losing respectability), independent politicians with a markedly libertarian, even socialist bent, patrons of the arts, and so on and so on. We include a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who did time for agitating against British intervention in Russia after the Great War, and a conservative MP with a social conscience which kept him out of office until he died in 2002. Eleanor Rathbone sat as an independent MP for Combined English Universities from 1929 until her death in 1946. She was responsible for getting the Family Allowance Act through parliament shortly before she died; throughout the thirties she constantly badgered the appeasers in the House of Commons; she fought for Indian independence, and so on and so on. James Gunn’s portrait of her in the National Portrait Gallery says it all, and is one of the best pictures there.
I could go on and on. I’m really proud of being a Rathbone, though a touch bored with Basil. People do tend to ask me if I am related to Bas rather than if I am the Rathbone who writes books. Still, he was a great actor, ruined by Sherlock Holmes when he should be remembered for playing Karenin in Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo and Frederick Marsh. And who can forget his limpid perfect enunciation of the line ‘You have come to Nottingham once too often…’ in The Adventures of Robin Hood?
My favourite Rathbone is my great grandfather Philip, son of the William who worked with Florence Nightingale and founded District Nursing. Philip was fun-loving, independent, a hedonist, a patron of the arts. When a young man and only just married, he felt the press was not reporting the Crimea War properly so he went to the Crimea to see for himself, reporting back to a Liverpool newspaper. And, boy, could he write!
I should make one thing clear at this point. I do not believe genes influence how we turn out much beyond the colour of our eyes or a susceptibility to certain illnesses, whatever, basically stuff to do with our physical make-up. I believe almost passionately that psychological traits, bents, abilities, and everything that’s important, are passed down through families, through the way parents bring up their children, and where the characteristics of a particular generation are particularly strong, they can last through many further generations. I have never met a descendant of Philip, and his equally wonderful wife Jane Steward, who did not have the same easy-going, happy-go-lucky attitude to life; an ability to work hard combined with a refusal to be bored; a lack of ambition combined with a quiet dismissal of the rewards of recognition or pre-eminence for their own sake; an immense and embracing ability to respect the good in anyone from anywhere balanced with a deep hatred of any sort of social or economic injustice. We don’t tell others how to live and we don’t expect others to tell us – which means we are bad at joining things or belonging to organisations. And so on. And this is NOT in our genes. It’s because that’s what our parents were like, right back to Philip and beyond. And that’s why I’m rattling on about it. I believe I am the writer I am in considerable measure because of the way I, my father, and my grandfather experienced the first years of our lives.
My cousins to the nth degree include other writers, musicians, painters, potters, artisans, freelance photographers, quilt-makers, actors and so on. Not many of us work happily for someone else. We freelance if we possibly can. One cousin lives in one of the most inhospitable parts of Canada where he has a filling station. He serially marries Native Canadian ladies from the local tribe, of which he is a member, and has repopulated the area. His half brother is a freelance program writer who could be a multi-millionaire but who prefers to work only when his purse is empty. They’re pretty typical by being as untypical as can be.
My father made a seriously bad career move by marrying a woman who has been excoriated and damned by everyone I have ever met who knew her, including her daughter, my half-sister. He left her. She would not divorce him, and in those days the only way you could get divorced was by being divorced by the guilty party. What was annoying was that my grandfather Oswald, who had made a substantial fortune in marine insurance (but sticking to Rathbone principles: for instance, he refused to insure a cargo of wood chips which were to be used to simulate raspberry pips in jam) tied up the capital to his grandchildren’s generation but excluding illegitimate children or their offspring. I have heard it said that he had his own personal reasons for doing this. Whatever. Dad’s wife latched on to it, so, no divorce, thus ensuring my illegitimacy and a substantial load of dosh for my half-sister and her son in the long run.
Never mind. My Mother and Dad lived as man and wife for thirty years, and not many people ever knew or guessed that they weren’t married. I cottoned on when I was thirteen or so: my birth certificate has my mother down as Decima Lawrence née Frost. Didn’t bother me, it’s not the sort of thing that would. Well, not until I worked out the inheritance angle, and in the end I didn’t do too badly out of that. Aunt Helen left me a bit, and there were other odds and bobs that came my way, and besides all that I can’t really accept a system that allows more than a modest sum to be passed on.
Decima Doreen Lawrence née Frost. Lawrence because, yes, she was married when Dad came along, but on that side a divorce did go through. I don’t know as much as I would like to about her family. Her father was manager of a chemical factory in Newport, Mon. They were Baptists, and I still have a bible that was given by their congregation to my grandmother, a useful bible with concordance and maps of the Holy Land and a load of other interesting stuff at the back. They had ten children, Mother being the tenth, and therefore Decima, generally shortened to Dess. She was a stunner. Rathbones have huge noses and baggy eyes. Mum in her adolescence and early womanhood was ravishing – what good looks I have I got from her. She was an infant teacher, trained at Homerton (founded for the offspring of dissenters) according to Montessori principles, but packed it in on marrying Mr Lawrence who was on the way to being a successful if fairly minor entrepreneur. She played the piano and sang very well, and she read a lot. Financially, going off with my Dad was a disaster.
Right. That’s enough of all that. You’ll find more, told in a more entertaining way, in Blame Hitler, published by Gollancz and Phoenix and still, as I write, in print.
In the early thirties the family virtually gave my Dad a small prep school in Liverpool. The war came, the school failed, Dad joined the RAF and, although he was too old to be a combatant, saw and was involved in horrors in the Desert which marked him for the rest of his life. After the war and a couple of really daft business ventures, we were broke and Aunt Helen let us live rent-free in the Bognor house she had kept for distressed mums. Dad became a mere prep school assistant, supplementing his income as paid secretary of a private social club and working illegally as a street bookmaker. Mum did that too, working from a garden shed on the local caravan site. All this was so I could be sent to the prep school on the Wirral Dad had gone to and then a minor public school in Dorset. The first was horrible but taught me a lot in the academic line, the second was jolly and untaught everything I knew. I knew more Latin when I was twelve than I ever have since. Dad was so upset when I failed Latin school certificate that I cheated in the retake.
I failed to get to his Oxford College, took a year off helping him look after Mum who was getting over a serious attack of TB and, after taking tuition by post from a friend who was already reading English at Cambridge, took the exams and got in to Magdalene. I skipped National Service because I too had had TB and anyway was stone deaf in one ear… still am.
Cambridge was OK. I read English which was a dolly: all you had to do was read a few books and comment on them fairly sensibly and that was enough for a 2:1. Lord knows what those who did worse were up to. I did a bit of acting, in fact I quite wanted to be an actor, but blotted my copybook by turning down a major role in an ADC production. They gave the part to Derek Jacobi instead. There you go. I was published in Punch, the first dosh I earned as a writer, thirty guineas. Dad had said he’d match the first money I made by writing and this nearly broke him. He was already subbing me fifty quid a term for books and living which was perfectly adequate in those days. Bamber Gascoigne, with whom I shared a lot of supervisions, said the only other guy he knew who had been paid for writing was a chap called Michael Frayn. I met Sylvia Plath three or four times, of which more later.
Aged twenty-three I had never been abroad so I tried for a posting and a career job with the British Council. I got it, but when they learned I had had TB, they took it away again. So I got an independent three-year contract teaching English in Ankara, Turkey. The most significant thing I gained from this was a sudden and really disturbing insight into third world poverty. I had not given politics much thought before then, but this revelation meant a sharp left turn.
Back in England in 1962 the only thing I could do was supply teaching. I went even further left after teaching in the new comprehensives in north London and a particularly hairy secondary modern in Camden where I eventually got a proper post, ending up head of both English and Art. What a time that was. That winter that went on and on, Profumo, Private Eye, Aldermaston, the last London Peculiar and then the two general elections. For me it became what 1968 was to a slightly younger generation.
My Dad was killed in a road accident while I was in Turkey (see Blame Hitler) and I felt I should be nearer Mum so I took a post as head of English in West Sussex, moving a couple of years later to Bognor Comp. I loved teaching, especially I loved directing school plays and even acting in joint teacher-kids productions, eventually doing Fagin in Oliver!. I did my damnedest to sound like Ron Moody, but hearing a tape of it played back could still hear that dratted Cambridge drawl or twang behind it. But the stress! Guys not much older than me were getting cancers, going mad, having heart attacks. I was rescued by Alayne (Laney) an ex-pupil who came back to a sixth-form reunion disco. Outside afterwards, in pouring rain, she suggested I pack it all in and run off with her. By then I’d had four thrillers set in Turkey published, and they weren’t doing that badly, so… Well, like I mean I was thirty-eight, she was twenty. See A Last Resort… If you can find a copy!
The four Turkey thrillers were Diamonds Bid, Hand Out, With my Knives I know I’m Good, and Trip Trap. I was writing the fifth, Kill Cure, at the time.
I had a newish VW camping van, thanks to Aunt Helen’s bequest. We took a little tour round Spain and Laney decided to drop out of university for a year. We’d go and live in Salamanca. First, in Blackheath again, we found a VW dealer called Churchill and Looker. Looker was an Aussie who knew all about it. He took one look at us and said: You are dropping out. You want me to take that newish VW and give you an unconverted van plus a thousand quid. I’ll give you nine hundred. And he did, in used fivers, on the spot. The unconverted van was from Holland, and had a wooden floor. It was resprayed dark blue and you could see a decal or whatever of the Dutch royal coat of arms under the paint.
Salamanca was heaven. We made lots of friends. I directed a Midsummer Night’s Dream for the English faculty: the yokels used the proper text, the fairies and Court a Spanish translation. There were weekly demos against Franco; the IRA, acting on behalf of the ETA, blew up the prime minister at Christmas and we got checked out by the real police and then by a shady, creepy character who, so a bar-tender told us, was a secret policeman. All very Ambler, very Greene. I got stuck on Kill Cure and had to bin two hundred pages, which meant pigs’ trotters for supper from the market. From then on I have been over-meticulous about plotting everything before I get down to writing. We really were quite poor, especially once that nine hundred, which lasted about seven months, ran out (we had an unfurnished flat which meant having to buy some furniture and we’d bought a record player and a fridge before leaving), but we loved it.
Meanwhile I wrote Bloody Marvellous, the first of several books set in Spain, and ran into my first confrontation with the book trade. Anthea Joseph (of Michael Joseph) said you can’t do this! You are our Turkey writer! But she took it. Back in England in September 1974 we got a basement flat in Southampton and Alayne returned to university. I had a look at Booker prize winners and wrote King Fisher Lives which contained incest, oral sex, and cannibalism. It was shortlisted. If Lady Wilson had not been on the committee it might have won. She made it clear to the other judges that a book as filthy as KFL should not, could not be a winner. Harold, who made a brief appearance at the dinner, gave me a very dirty look. An odd repercussion came from the fact that the book attacks weirdo gurus with poorly formulated libertarian philosophies which meant that a handful of right-wing litterati including Francis King and Auberon Waugh thought I was one of them, whereas the underlying message was really much more on the lines of Workers of the World Unite, we don’t stand a chance if you won’t.
We had a year (1975-1976) partly in France where Alayne was assistante in a lycée and partly in Spain. We were back in Salamanca just after Franco died (see Lying in State, really, you can, it’s right here. What a bargain!). Out of all this I wrote Carnival! (Good!) and A Raving Monarchist (not so good!) which was probably the worst in the uhvre. One reviewer began ‘I doubt if Rathbone can write a bad book, but…’ Again it was an exciting time: which way would Juan Carlos go? There were demos and marches, and five people got shot in Vitoria on a pro-Basque march when we were half a mile away wondering where the demo was.
The books set in Spain were Bloody Marvellous, A Raving Monarchist, King Fisher Lives, Carnival, and Joseph, which I worked on for four years while doing the others.
Back in England for Laney to finish her degree at Southampton, we rented rooms at a riding stables in the New Forest. The snag was they did residential holidays for children in the summer so every June we had to find somewhere else to live until the landlord let us back in September. We stuck this out, because it was cheap and a beautiful place to be, for six years. Some summers we lived in a beat up camping van but for three of them we lived in my agents’ Regent Square, Bloomsbury house while they took themselves off to their Normandy cottage.
I’ve tried to keep personalities and personal things out of this note, but I must say a word or two about Charlotte and Johnnie, C and J Wolfers.
Johnnie knew everything and everybody. He’d read all of Marx and Engels, Balzac and Dickens and a hell of a lot more too. He played the piano but because, I believe, of a weakness in one hand, was never the concert pianist he wanted to be and never played when he thought anyone else could hear. He was wicked and he was loveable. He was a hell of a good teacher. He rarely read the books he handled, but he knew a lot of what was in them by some sort of osmosis or just listening to the authors, though I did hear him once tell another author, an academic, that King Fisher Lives was about peasants. No, it’s not, I said. Perhaps not, he replied, but So and So is very interested in peasants. He was a great person to get drunk with. He was endlessly witty, could be charming, had loads of girlfriends. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I meet persons of a certain age who come up to me at parties and say: You were one of Johnnie’s clients weren’t you? I was his girlfriend for a time.
His marriage to Charlotte was open. As open as a five-storey house in Bloomsbury could allow it to be. Generally he lived in the lower half, she in the upper floors. Charlotte was clever, and well-off and sort of beautiful in an individual way. She was CP and sold the Daily Worker, later the Morning Star, to the commuters on Paddington Station. What’s a nice girl like you doing that for? they’d ask. She had as many boyfriends as he had girlfriends, and she didn’t always pick them too well. Poets would ring her up in the night from New York and talk to her for hours. As time went on she drifted out of the agency becoming a scout for publishers in Europe and America. She and Johnnie agreed that they shouldn’t buy and sell in the same market which meant in spite of everything they had a commercial honesty which I suppose most business people nowadays would find risible. Most of Johnnie’s clients were academics, but his other fiction writer was Jim Ballard. Charlotte once won me for ever, or would have done had she not died a few months later, by saying Jim and I were her favourites amongst their authors, and on the whole she preferred, as an author that is, of the two of us, ME! Johnnie passed on to me a lot of her collection of Marxist texts and several years of back numbers of the New Left Review.
Enough! Johnnie retired a couple of years later and went to live in France. At his farewell party he said I could have the table on which I write, on which I am writing this, six feet by three, hard-top white formica, with the words: At any rate, no one can say I ever made any money out of you.
Partly, but always discreetly, never overtly out of the Wolfers’ influence, my books were becoming more self-consciously leftish, Marxist. The turning point came not from Johnnie and Charlotte but from reading Lukacs’ The Historical Novel, and Marcuse’s The One Dimensional Man. Furthermore Laney, by now doing post-graduate research, and another close friend who had also been a pupil when I was teaching and was now at Oxford reading English under Terry Eagleton, were soaking up a lot of left-leaning, deconstruction theory and so forth and this all helped to shape the way writing was developing. The first result was The Eurokillers in which Argand, an honest conservative policeman in a Holland-like country, finds himself trying to bring polluting industrialists to book. At the end they seem to drop him into wet concrete. It did well, especially in Europe and even Japan. Along came André Schiffrin then of Pantheon Books in New York, a friend of Johnnie’s, who said I’ll buy Eurokillers but I want two more with the same policeman. But he’s dead, I cry. No. You only imply he is about to be dropped in cement, you don’t actually do it. So along came Base Case and Watching the Detectives. The last is the best, though they are all OK.
By now I had, what shall I call her? an adversary at my English publisher, Michael Joseph, who held the English paperback rights, and I was no longer getting paperbacked in England. I was too sexy and too left wing for this person, apparently. I’m not making this up. I heard it from two different sources. This meant that it was some years before Peter Ayrton paperbacked the Argand books for Pluto.
It also meant that Joseph, which came out at last in 1979 and was also shortlisted for the Booker, remained unpaperbacked until 2000 when Abacus finally did it. It’s been selling well ever since.
The Booker dinner was a laugh. Apart from me, Keneally, Naipaul, and Fay Weldon were shortlisted with fat major books. And Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore which was, well, slight. When Offshore was announced as the winner a silence spread over the crowd like a pall, and then one voice, not mine, said quite audibly: Oh, Noooo! It was all part of what the Eye came to call the Penelope Effect. Joseph is a historical picaresque early nineteenth-century pastiche set in Spain between 1808 and 1813, the Peninsular War. The central character is a rogue, English and Italian by birth, but the hero who makes occasional and stirring appearances is Arthur Wellesley, later known as Wellington.
Meanwhile, however, the Blunt Affair had hit the news and André came to us with a simple proposal: write me a book about a Blunt-type character, but sympathetic and seen from his POV. The result was A Spy of the Old School which, with Lying in State, I reckon is as good as I get as a thriller writer.
1980 and Arthur arrived. Named for the Duke of Wellington for whom I have a possibly irrational but deep admiration on my side, for Arthur Scargill on Laney’s. Meanwhile I wrote A Last Resort which was the first non-genre novel I had done (King Fisher Lives was described by Francis King as a philosophical thriller and Joseph was a historical) and the first with any real autobiographical content. Miriam in it is Laney, and, dare I admit it now, Brinshore is Bognor. I got the title from a graffito in the Southampton University Library loos: Bognor Regis, I read, whilst having a shit, is the Last Resort.
With Arthur kicking up a storm it was time to move to something a shade more permanent, though we didn’t manage it for two more years. My mother in a bungalow near Bognor was developing Alzheimer’s, though in those days it was still called senile dementia, that is if you were lucky enough to be able to get a doctor or social worker to pay enough attention to give it a name. She’d ring me up to get me to drive a roundtrip of a hundred and thirty miles to relight the pilot light on her gas fire, because she reckoned I was just down the road. We sold the bungalow and bought the house where we still live, because it was near enough, just, to Southampton where Laney was by now a part-time lecturer. It had a downstairs bathroom and lavatory and a room Mother could use as a bedsit. It didn’t work out too well. She hated the move and the Alzheimer’s went iris. She’d try and get into the wardrobe at two o’clock in the morning, saying she was late for work, and this from a woman who had not been in a proper job for sixty years. She thought I was her husband, Arthur her son, and Laney my bit on the side. The only time we could contain the situation was when Laney’s Mum came to stay and sat with her or went on short walks with her. Then, after just over two years, the social arranged for her to go in a home for a fortnight while we had a holiday. In the home she caught a chill and they let her die. I took her ashes back to Bognor and they were interred next to Dad’s in Pagham churchyard.
Anyway. The Falklands, Las Malvinas, happened during the move, and the next summer the 1983 general election. We spent it with mates knocking up in the Southampton marginals and friend Danny got in a fight with some Lib Dems in an Indian. We came home just after dawn, both marginals lost, one to a Lib Dem, to have the full English breakfast, and while I was cooking it up some berk on Radio Four was asked and what are these new Tory MPs like? The answer was thrusting innovators and entrepreneurs, the sort Mrs Thatcher loves, and at that moment Nasty, Very was born, the last book of mine done by Michael Joseph. It’s the life of Charlie Bosham from when he cheats at Monopoly on Coronation Day to June 1983 when he cheats his way into the House of Commons. As a book it was ahead of its time – a failing of mine. Critics in 1984 said it was too bleak, too black. Since 1990 there has been a raft of similar.
The start of the overtly leftish books and the last done by Michael Joseph, between 1976 and 1984 were the Argand books: The Eurokillers, Base Case, Watching the Detectives; the spy thriller A Spy of the Old School; A Last Resort and Nasty, Very. I also finished The Princess, A Nun, for Henry Ross Williamson who was dying of cancer, and put together an edited collection of Wellington’s Peninsular War despatches, with my commentary, called Wellington’s War. Johnnie, who hated Wellington and completely misunderstood my admiration, commented on this: Julian’s arse is up for anybody, supposing I was going to make some money out of it. Well, I did. But not a lot.
Margaret Hanbury was now my agent and she got Amanda Conquy, then a commissioning editor for Heinemann, to meet me, and the result was a two-book deal for more money than Michael Joseph were paying. The first book, which was already under way (it might actually have been commissioned by Michael Joseph and was bought out by Heinemann, I really can’t remember) was Lying in State.
Lying in State was the last book I wrote for C and J Wolfers, in fact Johnnie retired before it was published. But it was he who gave me the idea, based on his own experience of trying to buy the Perón tapes from the actress the exiled dictator had left them with in Madrid. It’s a great book and you are about to enjoy it enormously. Anyone who has read much of what I have written must guess that Graham Greene, especially from The Quiet American onwards, has been an enormous inspiration. I sent him a copy not seeking an endorsement but as a way of acknowledging that what was good in what I had written was good because, in part, of what I had got from him, and I wanted to thank him. He wrote back, the letter is dated 10 February, by coincidence my birthday, from Antibes saying, amongst the rest: I think your book a good one! Well, that’s framed and hanging on the wall behind me…
The second book for Heinemann arose out of Conquy, following Hanbury’s idea, of simply commissioning a book on the basis of a one-line sentence. Write a thriller set in a rainforest, she said. I think they wanted something ecological. What they got was Zdt, known in the US by the title I wanted which was Greenfinger. The idea behind the book was given to me by the director of the herbarium at Kew: scientists working in Mexico had found a wild form of perennial maize. The discovery, which would have thrown the whole agribusiness of maize production and processing into total confusion was suppressed. So much is fact. That, and a dream-like waking vision I had of a beautiful black girl with a newborn baby on her back fleeing through rainforest from a psychopathic killer, were the inspirations to a whizz-bang roller coaster. Plebeian writers and Americans say, stupidly, so stupidly, write what you know. Zdt is set in Costa Rican rainforest and the nearest I got to it was the tropical house at Kew. But, at the same time I felt almost guided while doing the research: I found all I needed – from a sociological study of poverty in San José to a botanist who had done several seasons of field work in the Costa Rican rainforest and much else in between.
The baby in the pouch was Nina, who arrived two months after my mother died. Laney struggled on at Southampton for a few months but gave up, not so much out of the pressures of double motherhood as disgust and ennui at academic life. We needed more money than I was earning, and a combination of events provided it. Hanbury knew a couple of journos who had, they said, researched cocaine dealing in Britain from all angles, but the papers wouldn’t publish for fear of libel actions or reprisals. Write a novel, Hanbury told them. We can’t, they said. I know someone who can, said Hanbury. We want half, they said. Hanbury told Heinemann who agreed with her that a larger than usual advance was in order. I said: I’m only getting half for this one, I want a three-book deal with the same advance for the two I do on my own. Done!
Well, to be honest, I didn’t get an awful lot about cocaine which wasn’t already in the public domain from the journos though they did answer a lot of questions for me on things like money-laundering and so on. Incidentally I was sworn to secrecy about their identity, so I’m not revealing it now. At the time I thought Crystal Contract was rather glitzy and meretricious, but I have just re-read it, and I now think it’s pretty damn good, and should have done a lot better than it did, although it did reasonably well, getting to number ten for one week. Crystal Contract was followed by The Pandora Option which was centred on a US plot to poison Iranian wheat silos. It has a great main character, and it’s a good read; however, the end was set in (don’t ask) still divided Berlin and East Germany. The Wall came down in the week it was published thus turning a contemporary thriller into a historical novel.
The third for biggish bucks was Dangerous Games, which was to be set in 1992 during the Barcelona Olympics. In the event the climax was set in Barcelona but I missed out on the games. What happened was another stroke of luck just when we needed it. By then we were living in Orgiva in the Alpujarras, south of Granada, heaven on earth, just for a year, basically so Laney could get her Spanish back before setting herself up as a translator. A German producer, Alexander Wesemann, working for Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, had read Grünfinger (Zdt) and liked it so much he wanted to see what else I had to offer for a TV mini series. He came out to Orgiva, and agreed to take the plot of Dangerous Games and commissioned me to write the script. He came out three more times and taught me a hell of a lot about script-writing. There then followed the usual three years of messing about before it was filmed, but it was done in the end, both in English and German, and has been shown all over the world including on Sky but not on English terrestrial. Considering the rubbish there is around I can’t see why not. I’ve written two more scripts for WDR which will probably never get done, too expensive for TV. But they paid, they paid.
But now I had to write the novel. I did it off the script, as a novelisation really, and it didn’t do too well. Heinemann changed hands and I came back to England to find, along with nine out of ten of their authors and most of their staff, they had, um, let me go.
Books published by Heinemann between 1985 and 1991: Lying in State, Zdt, Crystal Contract, The Pandora Option, Dangerous Games.
Quite quickly Hanbury, who was now, but only for a short time, no longer independent but managing the literary side of Casarotto, got a two-book contract with Serpents Tail for two thrillers. The first of these was Sand Blind, a pretty brilliant book, scary and funny, and now again rather topical, about the Gulf War. Basically the plot is that Bush One wants the war to happen, so they have to convince Saddam that he can win. They do this by letting him have an air defence system which he thinks can shoot down Stealth bombers. Then came Accidents Will Happen and Brandenburg Concerto both set in Germany with a police person called Renata Fechter who is in charge of an Eco-Squad. They’re a bit like the Argand books, but sexier.
Actually I did the deal for Brandenburg Concerto myself because by now I had parted company with Hanbury. I won’t say why because I’m sure she’ll have a different version of events. I’ve managed without an agent ever since and have no regrets. I don’t say this in order to disparage agents in general or Hanbury in particular, but I will say that the rights department at Little, Brown, which includes Abacus, has done as good a job for me and the arrangement allows me always to talk to and work directly with the firm who is publishing me. In practical terms this cuts out an irritating dog-leg and on a personal level it’s much better. And I have now been in the book business for nearly thirty-five years, and not many agents can say that.
But first I had an urge to write a novel involving mother-son incest in which the son’s brothers finally castrate the son and murder the mother. Wow! The main events happen in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War but are set within a frame in which the castrated son is now an elderly man who has had a great career singing castrato roles and is, in the 1990s, teaching an aspiring female singer how to sing them in his place. The book is called Intimacy and is the best book there is with that title. It was published by Gollancz, was very well reviewed, and sold poorly. Many people, including Sean Rafferty on Radio 3, have commented that it would make a great film, and they’re right. Sample a chapter later in this book and see what you think.
I did two more books for Gollancz: Blame Hitler and Trajectories. Blame Hitler is sort of autobiographical but at its centre is my Dad and what the war did to him. Trajectories takes some of the same characters into 2035, though kills off the one who represents me in 2007, and describes an England falling apart under an elderly Prime Minister Booth and a whole new climate both political and meteorological. I like all three books but none sold too well, though the last two are still in print. I have to say, and I think most who know will agree with me, that after the death of the brilliant and wonderful Liz Knight, the spark went out of Gollancz.
Books published between 1993 and 1998 include Sand Blind, Accidents Will Happen, and Brandenburg Concerto, published by Serpents Tail, and Intimacy, Blame Hitler and Trajectories published by Gollancz.
A long time ago Philippa Harrison, once my editor at Michael Joseph and much later the Publisher at Little, Brown commissioned a sequel to Joseph. The money was awful, and considering a couple of years research as well as a year writing the thing were called for, uneconomic for me. So I forgot about it and hoped she would too. But three years later she, or her accountants, remembered, and she asked for a book or her money back. Hey, I said, how about taking a book on Harold and 1066 instead? Think about it. You can fill libraries with books on England from 1815 to 1853, a shelf with Harold. Philippa, a wonderful publisher and person, said OK, and handed me over to the very nearly as wonderful Richard Beswick at Abacus (only less wonderful because he’s a bloke), and a year or so later The Last English King reached the light of day. It sold, sold well. Film rights. A continuing most rewarding in every possible way relationship with ace film producer Geoff Reeve. Kings of Albion as a follow-up and now A Very English Agent which is actually the book Philippa had in mind. And another on the way. As Laney says: No one can accuse you of peaking too soon. And also my very own private eye, Chris Shovelin, who, under the flag of Allison and Busby, debuted in Homage, follows up in As Bad As It Gets.
That’s it so far. I reckon I’ll really peak round about 2008, watch this space. And in case you’ve missed it let me make what can be learned from this biographical note crystal clear: the two things a writer, no matter how good or bad s/he is, needs for success are… luck and vanity. Talent? Well, look around, not many as talented as me. Forget talent. I’ve been as lucky as I want or need to be, and, as one of the journos involved in Crystal Contract once said to me, Julian, you are so bloody vain!
LYING IN STATE
The sky was metallically yellowish, modulating to bronze where snow-cloud gathered over distant mountains, the air cold, very cold, and the city unnaturally quiet. The queue, eight files wide, nudged its way down one side of the Plaza de España and into the Calle de Bailén. Its sound was eerie – thousands of feet shuffling, thousands of whispering voices like a forest of aspens when the wind first stirs. The frenzied clatter of sparrows in a berry-filled tree was an impertinence.
The faces were frightening, macabre: beneath fedoras, Homburgs, glossy feathers shaped like the wings of crows, behind black mists of lace, were white masks, eyes tearful or rheumy with the cold, with black scarves pulled up to lips that were mauve or slashed with red. There were few who were young, few who were poor, almost none you could look at and say he’s a labourer, she’s a factory hand.
A man, elderly like the rest but with a trimmer figure, seemed almost to have been extruded by the revolving door on to the top step of the Hotel El Príncipe. He pulled on black gloves, settled his hat. About sixty-five with a white, neatly cropped moustache above a generous mouth, gold-rimmed bifocals, he could be, you might think, a doctor, a lawyer, a conservative academic. The Príncipe is a very good, if conservative hotel. But the leather on the black shoes was cracked, the hems of the trouser legs frayed, the nap on what had once been, say twenty years earlier, a very expensive Scottish topcoat, a Crombie, was now worn smooth, to a shine in places. And his eyes, a pale blue, almost grey, were not lugubrious or mournful, and lacked the self-congratulatory sureness of most of those in front of him. They all knew they were doing the correct thing, were in the right place at the right time, were assisting history to mark the passing of an epoch. The elderly man, however, lacked all pompous certainty and his eyes, true windows of the soul, betrayed a terrible anxiety – terror even.
The queue filled one side of the carriageway. The other was kept open for traffic, little of it now, mostly black cars with flags or badges denoting importance which whispered, as such cars do, to and from the Palace. Police and Guardia Civil stood at intervals – the police in grey and red with peaked hats pulled over their eyes, black accoutrements, the Guardias in green and shiny black. As always they looked more relaxed than anyone else. Some of them, and it seemed a sort of sacrilege, smoked. But then they were the favourites, the ones who had wrapped up the Civil War in a terrible nationwide purge and been awarded from the lips of the Caudillo himself the title Bienméritos – the Well-Deserving.
As always someone wanted to talk to them – colleagues in plain clothes, informers, agents provocateurs, the political pimps on the fringes of repression. In this case two men, thirtyish, dressed in immaculate jeans with short black leather jackets, longish black hair, stood with one black-cloaked, black-hatted moustachioed Guardia on the corner opposite the hotel. They looked the sort of touts, part gypsy, who hang around the bull-rings, even occasionally appear in borrowed finery as peones to the less fashionable espadas, and they smoked with the Guardia, chatted quietly, snickered.
But one had his eye on the hotel steps and as the elderly gentleman moved forward he nudged his companion. Briefly they stood on their cigarettes, touched hands with the Guardia, and moved away back up the queue until they were close.
The elderly gentleman’s frightened eyes watched them; absurdly his bottom lip trembled and he had to hide the weakness with a gloved hand. Then with the determination of a suicide on a cliff-edge he stepped down out of the hotel entrance and with a murmur of apology slipped into the ranks of the mourners. None objected, though the faces of those immediately behind him expressed disapproval: if gentlemen from every hotel they passed did this instead of joining at the end, they’d never get to the Palace. The elderly man settled himself in the middle of the eightwide file and let his poorly shod feet whisper along the cobbles where once the tram-lines had been. Slowly they wheeled into Calle de Bailén and the two followers stood by a lamp-post. Insolently they watched him pass, and, when he had, casually they moved on to the next lamp-post to wait for him.
Barely half a kilometre away a gun began to thud again, and just out of time with it a church bell bled out a muffled clang.
Remorselessly the icy black lava flowed on, carrying the elderly gentleman with it between the gardens of the Plaza de Oriente and the side wall of the Palace. As it moved, in spite of the fear he felt and because of the dreary slowness of it all, he remembered the only other time he had done this – attended a lying-in-state. That time it had been for Evita. Eva Maria Duarte de Perón. The rite, he mused, is well named, the embalmed body being the final lie in a life of lies. A few tiny snowflakes no bigger than midges and as reluctant to settle danced a pavane above. The stream began the slow wheel into the Plaza de la Armeria and the huge façade of the Palace came into view. Tu seras mieux logé que moi, Napoleon had said to his brother. A tiny smile lifted the corners of the elderly gentleman’s mouth as he remembered this, then the terror flooded back. The marshalled queue of mourners was passing into the Palace by the large door used by tourists on the ground floor beneath the long balcony. Discretely it drifted out again by the two doors to either side of it beneath the criss-crossing sweep of marble balustrades. Two doors, two hunters, who had only to wait for him outside. What he had thought might be an escape was a trap.
He scarcely took in the red and gold banners trimmed with black bows that hung from the windows, the giant laurel wreaths that hung between them, the lines of troops in black and scarlet with silver helmets that looked as if they had been borrowed from the fire brigade. But he felt clearly enough the change in the temperature as they passed into the building and ambled slowly beneath the black-trimmed chandeliers towards the magnificent staircase.
Four men stood at the foot of it – and his fear tightened even further, for they appeared to be scrutinising each file as it passed them. One was a general in uniform, the others were middle aged, in suits, with hard grim faces. As the elderly gentleman raised his foot for the first step two of them raised their right arms, casually it seemed, bent at the elbow, the palms flat, the fingers stretched. The man beside him returned the salute, as if acknowledging a wave from a friend. Only then did the elderly gentleman note the tiny enamel black, white and red swastika in his neighbour’s buttonhole. The sight of it spiced his fear with nausea.
The underlying hysteria of the occasion began to cause cracks in the stucco façades of those around him. Old ladies with sticks paused and gasped on the steps, shallow though they were; the elderly gentleman noticed a flow of tears that ran gently as if from a partially opened faucet down the face of the yet more elderly gentleman on his other side. Black-edged handkerchieves appeared and carried with them the odours of cologne. Two files above him, just at the top of the staircase, perhaps just as the catafalque and casket came into view down the vista of state departments, or at any rate the candelabra at its corners, another old man paused, choked, sank to his knees, and toppled over; uniformed attendants came to his side, lifted him skilfully, carried him gently, off, out, and away.
It was a sign.
The terror faded a little. An excitement, perhaps even an elation replaced it. His gaze flickered about now, relishing for a moment Tiepolo’s Apotheosis of Aeneas, and then at last they were there. A waxy face with rouged cheeks, eyelids not quite tight shut so you thought they might open, a well-clipped moustache not unlike his own, a nose beakier than he had expected jutting up from a cocoon of white satin, ribbons of red silk and gold, gold epaulets, a uniform black or deepest blue, and all concealing the awful ruin beneath. Inexorably the elderly gentleman was moved on and perhaps it was not so difficult after all to stumble and sink to the floor in a faint as convincing as any the attendants had yet seen.
Smelling salts and cologne were not enough – he saw to that. Oxygen he felt would do and when that was administered he opened his eyes to find himself in a small room lined with cased bookshelves, and old sepia photographs from the nineteenth century set on ugly tables, one signed Victoria R, leather chairs. Two nurses fussed over him, helped him to his feet. Carefully he let his knees relax. He lived, he said, in Recoletos, just off Velázquez, had come by Metro to Opera, but it was too far to walk, and the Metro was hell, so many people, so many people. They were concerned. If he would wait, they said, ten minutes, they would find a car, a vehicle of some sort… Too kind, too kind. De nada, de nada, so many brave old people have come, the nurses murmured, and the weather so cold.
It was a lie that he lived in Recoletos, just off Velázquez. Intelligent assessment of his shoes and cuffs would have made that clear. A large number of the people who had queued with him had come from that quiet expensive area of Madrid, but he had not. When the grey Land-Rover of the Municipal Police, threading its way through the disconsolate city, reached Puerta del Sol the elderly gentleman asked the driver to bear left to José Antonio. The policeman was puzzled. ‘It’s quicker by Alcalá.’
‘Of course. But…’ the elderly gentleman prevaricated, ‘…I have a sister. I should visit her. She is older than I, she will be distressed.’
He was dropped where he wanted, just by the Telefónica Building. The policeman obsequiously accepted his thanks, accepted his apparent status as one of the conservative well-to-do citizens he was paid to protect. The elderly gentleman watched the Land Rover turn, took in the fact that people were still drifting up Gran Vía towards what must be the end of the queue for a view of the cadaver in the Palace, then he was gone – up the alley by the side of the splendid, neo-baroque Telephone Building, Madrid’s first sky-scraper.
This took him into a short, narrow street with high nineteenth-century tenements on both sides… Calle del Desengaño, the street of the Disenchanted Gentleman. It was almost deserted – no sign yet of the hunters. Briskly he crossed the road, entered a door which advertised a pensión, then climbed, with breath beginning to be a burden, heart pounding but forcing himself on for he knew he might be late, too late, up four flights of stairs. The steps of the first three flights were brass edged, the walls papered in raised acanthus design, purple flecked with gold. But the last flight, which climbed beyond the domain of the pensión, was plain, grubby but lighter. There was a skylight at the top.
He fingered his latchkey into the lock just to the right of the pale patch in the brown varnished door from which he had removed an image of the Sacred Heart, and pushed.
Darkness and no sound, except that of trickling water.
He cleared his throat.
No noise, except trickling water.
‘Ramón? Are you there?’
He took a deep breath, fumbled for the light. It clicked, but nothing happened. He went on in, found a second switch, and again nothing. Back at the door he groped for the electricity meter and junction box. Its cutout button was out. He pressed it in. Something cracked and flashed to his left and the button jumped out again.
‘The Devil!’ he said, in English.
He moved to his right, pushed open a door. Grey, dim light. He opened a second door and a little more light from the windows of the Telefónica almost opposite filtered in. Now he could see a thickish old-fashioned grey flex snaking from a porcelain two-pin power socket and on into the room to his right, the bathroom. He pulled out the plug, returned to the cut-out switch, and pressed it. Two lights came on – one in the hall and one in the bathroom.
The bathroom was tiny – one small window venting the gas-heater into the patio de luces – the centre well of the building – a bath, a basin, a lavatory, a terrazzo floor that cunningly sloped to a small hole in the wall. If the floor got wet you could push the water out through it and it splashed down four storeys into the area below. It was needed now. The small bath was gently overflowing, a slow trickle, the cold tap had been left on.
In it was the appliance that ended the flex, a small, round, electric fire of the sort poorer Madrileños use under a table. The table is draped with a cloth that reaches to the floor, and you sit with your legs under it and your feet possibly touching the rim of the fire. In the old days the bowls were filled with charcoal instead of an electric element.
With it in the small bath was the body of a tallish man. His feet were submerged, his knees were bent above the level of the water, and his head lolled back over the rim. The body was thin, ascetic, an El Greco Piéta. This contrasted with the face which was solid and heavy, the lips thick and brick-red. Glossy black hair was slicked back from a broad forehead. It all had an eerily exact appearance of Juan Domingo Perón, the President of Argentina who had died sixteen months earlier. But this face, which was a latex mask, did not look dead, not as dead even as the rouged Caudillo in the Palace, not as dead as the body on which it sat.
The elderly gentleman gasped, retched violently from an almost empty stomach over the lavatory bowl. His spectacles dropped in. He retrieved them, wiped them, and his face, on a small towel, and then staggered into the tiny and very dirty kitchen where he found a bottle of Osborne brandy. It had that wretched device on top that can limit the rate of flow and he shook it twice before he had as much as he wanted in a tall, straight Duralex glass. He drank it off, shuddered, nearly vomited again, then, recalling his situation, moved quickly back into the hall to check the door was locked. With his chest heaving as if air were coal he dragged and pushed and dragged an enormous wardrobe that stood against the back wall of the tiny hall until it was across the doorway. Metal coat-hangers jangled inside.
He then went into the one of the two living rooms that was his and slumped into a low basketwork chair and waited until he had his breath back.
The room contained that one chair, a table improvised from composition board placed over a frame made from metal strips, bookshelves made in the same way, and a narrow bed with iron ends. There were also a small radio, two tape-recorders – one spool-to-spool, one cassette, and under the bed there were three battered suitcases. Two of these were filled with paperback books, and one with clothes – clean at one end, soiled at the other. The table was littered with books, tapes, and papers that almost buried a small typewriter. On the walls there was only one small decoration – a poster for a play – Los Peroles with caricatured portraits of Perón and Evita.
He hoisted the heavy grey tape-recorder on to the table, took off its lid, threaded up six-centimetre spools, and plugged in a large, stand-up microphone. He counted aloud, checked the bobbing needle for level, took a breath, and began.
‘Yo, Roberto Constanza y Fairrie…’
There was a knock on the front door, then a pounding. He froze for a moment, switched off the tape, crossed to one of the bookshelves and from behind the third volume of the collected works of V. I. Lenin took a very small silver .22 pistol. He pulled back the breech to cock it and then took up a position in front of the barricade he had erected. But the pounding stopped. Then footsteps, two pairs, receded down the wooden stairs. Roberto looked down at the pistol in his hand and sighed as if a burden of guilt and shame had suddenly fallen on his weary shoulders. He crossed the tiny hall to the other living room – the same as his, furnished in much the same way, but with one feature different – where his had a table used as a desk this had a dressing-table with a triptych of mirrors and drawers beneath. On the top were sticks of stage make-up, false hair, spirit gum, powder and so on, rags and vanishing cream.
Roberto sat in front of it, looked at his reflection in the centre mirror, and the doubled reflections of his profile in the side mirrors, then sat back to avoid them. Tears suddenly flowed. He waited until they ceased, wiped his eyes on one of the rags, then wrapped the pistol in it before slipping it into the top left-hand drawer. Again the sigh.
He stood, looked out of the window. He could just see the street corner below. A man in a leather jacket, collar turned up, was lighting a cigarette. The elderly gentleman returned to his own room, switched on the tape-recorder and began again.
‘I, Robert Constance Fairrie…’
Distantly the guns banged away for the last time that day as darkness slowly thickened outside and the tiny snowflakes that would not settle danced like fireflies in the light from the Telefónica, and beneath the street lamps.
‘I, Robert Constance Fairrie, feel I need to make a statement. A statement about who I am and about how I came to be in the situation I am now in. My life is in danger. A very dear friend of mine has been murdered, yet in circumstances which could be interpreted to show that I was the murderer. Similarly a respected colleague was gunned down on my doorstep less than twenty-four hours ago and people malevolent towards me as well as towards him could uncover a credible if false motive that might indicate that I was the culprit. Most easy of all I suppose would be for them to contrive my death to look like suicide and then make sure that blame for the two previous murders was lain, laid, at my door. So. I have good reasons to make this statement. Which will be as full and accurate as I can make it‘
He pressed the stop button, returned to the kitchen, shook more brandy into the glass, peeled open a small tin of sardines, and ate them with a piece of stale bread cracked from a stick loaf. Then he drank the brandy and returned to his room.
‘My name is Roberto Constanza y Fairrie, Robert Constance Fairrie, and I was born in Buenos Aires in 1910. My father was an insurance underwriter and a well-to-do, even wealthy person. He sent me to a refined and progressive public school in England, St George’s, Harpenden, and from there I went to Cambridge…’
Again the stop button. Roberto waited for a moment then pulled off his spectacles, wiped them, put them on again, and restarted the machine.
‘But this is not biography. Merely my account of recent tragic events in which I have been involved. Not biography, but certain … moments in my past have relevance.
‘In the late forties and early fifties I was active in both the socialist and communist parties of my country and ran, not for profit of course, a bookshop where political pamphlets and books were sold. In April 1953 this shop was destroyed by fire. A fascist mob inspired by a deliberately inflammatory speech – the adjective is exactly apt – from the President, Juan Domingo Perón, was responsible. I narrowly escaped with my life and I still have burn scars. I should add that the same mob also burned the headquarters of both the socialist and radical parties as well, and made a complete job of it with the Jockey Club, the meeting place of the conservative oligarchy. Anyone who opposed Perón was in danger. Outside my shop they chanted “Jew, go home to Moscow”, and, worse still, “Juden raus”.
‘I have a little Jewish blood. Very little by now. The Fairries were, I think, originally Portuguese Jews who settled in England in the sixteenth century. Though I have to say my grandmother insisted that the original was a good Catholic washed up on the shores of Scotland after the Armada. Her version has it that he married a daughter of the Duke of Montrose. By the nineteenth century they were sugar importers based in Liverpool. One of them came to Buenos Aires with the growth of sugar cultivation in the north of Argentina, and his daughter was my mother. My father, Giovanni Pablo Constanza was an insurance broker… this is not relevant, I will try to be relevant, from an Italian, Genovese family of bankers. His mother was Spanish Argentinian, as was the mother of my mother…
‘I must keep to the point. After the burning of my shop I left Argentina and used my private means to run similar ventures in other countries. But I am an historian by training. During my exile I used my skills to research the Perón phenomenon and track the history of that man’s rise and fall and extraordinary return to power. Occasionally I published articles in academic journals, though rarely, since I was not attached to any academic institution. Nor did I wish to be.
‘It would not be a lie to say that I am now in impoverished circumstances and have been so for some time. My disposable capital has been exhausted to further the collapse of Capital. Ha! However, a careful grandfather entailed much of his fortune and I still receive quarterly cheques from a trust managed by what has now become the Bank of London and South America. These, the cheques I mean, are meagre. Perhaps my grandfather should not have invested quite so heavily in Anglo-Argentinian Tramways.
‘Sixteen months ago Perón died. I felt I was in a position to prepare and produce a biography. I worked on a synopsis for some months and tried to sell it to various publishers, both Hispanic and English. Although I had taken pains to make the work one of objective history it was always refused… I sensed for political reasons.’
Just the pause button this time, held down while he collected his thoughts.
‘I have, for a long time, admired the journalism, the “in-depth” journalism, of Steve Cockburn, formerly of the Sunday Times. I have read his books with enthusiasm, and often wished that I had been in a position to see his television series on South American dictatorships entitled “Where Next will the Lightning Strike?”.
‘Not only is he very well-informed concerning South America but clearly too he has connections in the media world of the United Kingdom. And so, about five months ago, I sent him my synopsis of a life of Perón. After five weeks or so he answered, not too encouragingly, but raising points of criticism that I felt I should answer. A sporadic correspondence ensued, which, a month ago, I believed had been terminated on both sides with mutual respect.
‘I was therefore rather surprised when I…’
The stop button again. The elderly gentleman stood up and lurched out into the hall, hand groping for the bathroom door. He stopped, swung instead into the kitchen, unzipped and peed into the oily sink. He then made himself black espresso coffee, using a hand-grinder and a small pressurised pot. While the process went on he found a pack of Peter Stuyvesant on one of the shelves, shook one out, lit it from a screwed spill of paper pushed into the gas jet, inhaled deeply, coughed rackingly and threw it too into the sink. He poured his coffee into a green octagonal cup, added a small amount of Osborne, and carried it back to his room. There he wound the tape back a metre or so, listened to his own voice, nodded to himself, drank café y coñac, and reset the machine to ‘record’.
‘I was therefore rather surprised when I received a cable from Steve Cockburn. It ran as follows…’
Again the stop, and a search lasting four minutes over and under his table before he found the right piece of paper.
‘It ran as follows…’ The paper crackled as he spread it out. ‘“Urgentest we meet. Arriving Barajas 11.45. 11.11.75. Cockburn.”…’