I’ve just written this little piece about my new novel, “In The Dark”, which sort of explains how it happened.
“As I write this, the First World War is slipping out of memory and into history. Only five British servicemen are still with us – all aged over 106 – and soon these last witnesses will be gone. All that remains will be silence, and books, and our imaginations.
No other war has affected us so profoundly. It changed history, of course, and set in train the often catastrophic events of the twentieth century. But it’s the senseless slaughter of a generation of young men that haunts us. My grandmother, for instance, lost her only brother and eleven cousins. I often wonder what they would have done with their lives; how their grandchildren would be middle-aged by now; how the world would be a different place with those people in it.
In fact it’s my grandmother’s own story that inspired this novel. Her much-loved young husband Tommy was also killed in action in 1918, leaving her alone with a small son. She re-married a man her little boy hated, with disastrous results (her son, my half-uncle, ended up committing suicide). Nearly a century later and the effects are still being felt in my family – just one small example, amongst many, of the war’s fall-out. That sniper’s bullet changed everything.
I didn’t want to write about snipers, however. I wanted to write about the effect of the War on ordinary lives. This seems to be the missing piece of the jigsaw – we’re deluged with books about the trenches but we know little of what happened on the home front, where women struggled to survive without men, when they had to take over men’s work, when food was short, times were hard but also extraordinarily liberating. Rules were broken, the old world disintegrated and it would never be put back together again. The London of blackouts and bombing raids was a sexually-charged city where, as my butcher says, “women would drop their knickers for a pound of mince.” The dark, dank, gas-lit streets of Southwark, where my novel is set, seethed with secrets and deception. War creates victims but also profiteers, and my story concerns a young widow, who runs a shabby lodging-house, and a racketeering butcher who wooes her with meat. Her son’s hatred of this interloper leads to a chain of events with a dramatic and tragic climax.
Like “Tulip Fever”, this is a domestic drama set in a time of great upheaval. I immersed myself in the period, reading books, watching early films and documentaries, walking the sooty streets around London Bridge, with the trains rumbling overhead and footsteps echoing on the cobbles. This part of London is also becoming lost to us as gentrification takes over, and I wanted to record these streets too, before they were gone.
I wrote the novel in a rush of emotion. It was a thrilling experience, stepping into that world which is so alien, and yet familiar. The War is still with us, its magnetic pull just as strong, even though nearly a century has passed and those who lived it have disappeared.”
It also happened, in fact, because I met a mind-reader at a party, who had contact with somebody I had once loved who said I should write this novel, but that sounds too daffy. Too cats-and-spider-plants, if you see what I mean. Too patchwork-quilty. We all know, however, that novels come from mysterious places. Even the bluff, no-nonsense Arnold Bennett, whose journals I’ve been reading, disappeared into a very strange state when he was writing his best novels – not the pot-boilers, but the masterpieces like “The Old Wives Tale” and “Riceyman Steps” (both of which influenced my own novel, as did the dark and dank “The Secret Agent”). Anyway, I’ve just read the proofs and the novel will be published next May, with a nice period, sepia sort of jacket.
A lot of other things are coming up, actually. Peter Chelsom is hoping to shoot “Tulip Fever” in the spring. As I said in an earlier News, he’s written a wonderful script and has been recce-ing locations in Antwerp and Ghent. Still, after what that project’s been through I won’t crack open a bottle until at least the second day of principal photography…Talk about once bitten…
“Call me Elizabeth”, my script for ITV which is adapted from Dawn Annandale’s life as a prostitute, has also been given the green light and should start shooting in the spring. And at long last I’ve started writing my screenplay about Shirley Porter, the infamous Leader of Westminster Council, for the BBC’s “Decades” series – thirty films by thirty writers about the past thirty-five years, due to be broadcast in 2008. This is a vastly ambitious project for the BBC to undertake, but if it comes off will not only be highly interesting but a shot in the arm for the single TV film, sometimes considered an endangered species.
Then there’s Virginia Ironside’s very funny book about becoming sixty, “No, I don’t Want to Join a Bookclub”, which I’m also supposed to be adapting for the BBC. And hopefully I’ll be adapting “The Bookseller of Kabul” – come to think of it, exactly the sort of book people read at the book-clubs Ms Ironside is so anxious to avoid. There’s a couple of other projects too, but the thing is, they so often collapse that it’s good to have a lot of possibilities, like turtles laying masses of eggs because so few of their young survive in the choppy seas.
As for literary happenings – half the British literary establishment seems to be flying to Mumbai in February for the Kitab Festival (Google it and see). I’ll be showing clips from “Pride and Prejudice”, and talking about my novel “These Foolish Things”, which is about outsourcing the elderly to India, a proposition that seems to be becoming more and more believable as the months pass. After all, people are already flying to India for new hips, so what about a new life?
I also help organize events for English PEN (Google it and see the stuff we’re putting on next year). PEN is a distinguished and long-established writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of speech, and if you live in London our monthly events are open to the public and take place in the Guardian Newsroom. We’ve got some fantastic talks coming up, featuring writers from Craig Brown to Richard Benson to Will Self, so do come along.
Meanwhile, have a very very happy Christmas and do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to get in touch.