Working on a story about a pub. It could be argued that I’ve been researching this one for more than 40 years. When I was 14 or 15 growing up in Southport teens didn’t carry I.D. and the landlord/bar-staff just estimated the age of a young would-be customer. There were a couple of pubs that were notoriously lax when doing this (and a child could have successfully been served a pint at the bar at the end of the pier back then). Anyway, at the age of 15 I could drink unchallenged in the Cheshire Lines.
My story concerns a country pub with a young landlord new to his arcane trade but genuinely keen on tradition. He wants to restore his pub – a bit run down, slightly off the beaten track – to how it was in the days of its early 20th century pomp. But he has trouble recruiting staff. The place has an atmosphere that seems more potent than would be fostered by mere neglect. When he’s alone in these unfamiliar premises, he doesn’t feel as though he is, entirely. Things haven’t the patience to wait to go bump in the night. Night impends before it comes and when it comes, delivers more than its share of darkness.
There’s a meeting room upstairs. There’s a malaise about it, a taint of corruption in its stale air. This room was used for regular monthly meetings by a group or association everyone our landlord meets seems reluctant to discuss. It was years ago, they blithely say. It’s ancient history. It’s almost as if there’s something shameful or compromising about this coven or cabal having been entertained in the locality at all. They were shadowy and secretive and seem to be regarded in the community as its dirty little secret. So the pub landlord enlists help in discovering why the locals are so evasive, why there were never any minutes kept or roster taken at these meetings, who attended them in such strict anonymity and what it was they were intended to accomplish.
Like every story, this one is really about the people who populate its pages. There’s no tension when an author puts their characters in jeopardy if the reader hasn’t by that point come to care about those characters. It’s my job to encourage you to like them (or some of them – they won’t all be wholesome and nice). I just want to have you rooting for a few of them, turning the pages hoping that they solve the mystery in time to avoid the fate it threatens them with. This time, you’ll be aware of what that fate is before they are. That might add to the excitement, or it might fill you with gloomy forebodings. I’m just hoping to entertain you, with a bit of uncertainty and a few scares thrown in along the way.
That’s Southport Pier above as painted by my brother Haydn who had the dream job of Pier Head Attendant in the summer holidays as a student. It features in a couple of my books and is a location close to my heart. That’s where it crosses the Marine Lake (Pleasureland in the background).
This is the cover of the audiobook version of my Colony Trilogy closer, like its two predecessors narrated by David Rintoul and due to be published on March 28. Personally I can’t wait to hear what David does with the voice of Seamus Ballantyne – more accurately the voice of the ghost of Seamus Ballantyne – my slave-ship master and Colony founder and self-styled monarch of the New Hope Kingdom of Belief he established early in the 19th century on a granite rock in the Outer Hebrides.
It seemed fitting as I wrote this one for the spectre of Ballantyne to make an appearance in the present-day on New Hope Island. There seemed to me to be a nice symmetry about it. Without giving too much away, his raised ghost confronts someone whose antics on the island have antagonised him. And he calls that person to account. As it says of his manifestation in the book: ‘His voice, when it emerged from him, had the weight about it of a sledgehammer blow.’ It will be interesting to hear what the gifted actor I’ve been lucky enough to have narrate the majority of my novels will make of that. Quite a lot, I imagine, since David, like Seamus, is a Scot. He seems to be the master of every dialect, but with this one he has home advantage.
Periodically I have email conversations with the author Phil Rickman, most recently when I was reading his brilliant stand-alone, Night After Night. He confessed discussing that one that he’s never sure about how much paranormal stuff to put in. His Merrily Watkins series is classed as crime fiction (though it’s a great deal more than that) and I think he gets the balance exactly right. His ghosts are subtle and ambiguous and you’re never really sure whether they’re real or imagined. They’re frightening, though. And they stay with you.
My spectres are much more corporeal and communicative. Not exactly garrulous – and certainly not comfortable to be around – but usually there because they have something to say or someone to scare in a way that’s anything but ambiguous. In my novels, the haunting tends to be if not the whole point then a major part of it. My characters aren’t imagining things (though they might wish they were). The phenomena confronting them are as real as the peat they’re standing on or the wind whipping spindrift into their cold-numbed faces. I think there’s room for different approaches to this sort of subject matter. If ghosts are real, I doubt they obey rules or follow conventions. They’re antic and troubled and mine have the smell of decay about them.
It might seem a bit strange to you that I listen to my own fiction. After all, I’m familiar with the story before I ever click on the ‘play’ icon. But I can be much more objective about the qualities and flaws of what I’m listening to when the familiar words are interpreted in someone else’s voice. I can judge it better, see where I think I went wrong or struck a false note and actually learn from it. That this isn’t a masochistic process is entirely down to the talent of the reader. I find the stories far more pleasurable than painful to listen to. And I must make honourable mention of another reader here, because Sean Barrett’s rendering of The Lazarus Prophecy is absolutely masterful. These vocal magicians enhance the text and make me understand why audiobooks are a booming area of publishing.
That’s pretty much it for today. Except to say that in the period between my laptop expiring before Christmas and replacing it a couple of weeks ago, I had an idea for a story that made me put everything else aside. Not being able to start it actually evolved from a frustration into an advantage, creatively, because I was able to clarify the story in my mind rather than revise it on the page. It will feature some familiar characters, but I’m taking them to some unfamiliar places. Out of their comfort zone, if you like, though there’s scant comfort to be had anywhere in any of my novels really. Except perhaps at Ruthie Gillespie’s cottage in Ventnor. That’s a safe refuge, so far at least.
The release of the film Jackie reminded me that years ago I interviewed Oleg Cassini, the man who designed the outfits for Jacqueline Kennedy everyone now describes using that massively over-employed word, ‘Iconic.’ There’s no question he dressed America’s First Lady in a way that was original, stylish and distinctly European in character (Cassini was a Russian aristocrat born of maternal Italian ancestry in 1913 in Paris). When I sat down for a conversation with him in a London hotel 20-odd years ago, I did so expecting someone sophisticated and maybe slightly world-weary. Also possibly a bit bored – he’d done a lot of interviews over a long lifetime, after all. What I didn’t anticipate was meeting someone so insightful he seemed almost to be psychic.
Cassini was a friend of the Kennedy family with strong Hollywood connections. At one time he was engaged to be married to Grace Kelly. He played tennis regularly with Errol Flynn. Flynn was pretty good, he told me; ‘Powerful serve and strong forehand and like all Aussies, he hated to lose.’
Cassini became spectacularly successful in pre-war Hollywood. Then after Pearl Harbor he served first in the United States Coastguard and then in the U.S. Army as a cavalry officer. After the war he settled in New York and became one of the most feted of American fashion designers and then in the early 1960s ‘Secretary of Style’ to the White House in the ‘brief, shining moment’ of Kennedy’s Camelot. And he kept up the A-list film wardrobe work right up to his death in 2006, winning accolades and awards and competing in Harness Racing at the age of 74.
You’d think a man like that would be pretty preoccupied with his own status and achievements. And the interview ran its course with some fascinating anecdotes about the people he’d met and the momentous 20th century events he’d been a part of. All par for the course (and why me and my tape recorder were there in the first place). But then at the conclusion of our conversation something happened that just astonished me and when I reflect on it, still does. The exchange went like this:
‘Are you happy being a magazine editor, Francis?’
‘It’ s a pretty good job.’
‘Which isn’t answering the question.’
‘Why do you ask it?’
‘Because you’re totally unfulfilled. If you have an unspoken ambition, and I believe you do, you need to do everything you can to try to realise it. You’ll never find contentment otherwise.’
Careers advice from someone who achieved pretty much everything he wanted to. And the novel pictured at the top of this post is its direct consequence. I went home and pondered on what had been said to me and began to think seriously about becoming a writer of fiction. This was my first novel -published when I still wrote as Francis rather than F.G. and my pages weren’t peopled by ghosts. F.G. came about when my fifth novel manifested a strong paranormal streak and its author needed to sound a bit more sinister.
Fourteen novels on from The Fire Fighter, eleven of them as F.G. Cottam, I honestly think I’d have written fiction eventually had I never met Oleg Cassini. Of course I would. But I’m still very grateful for the truth with which he confronted me all those years ago at the conclusion of our chat.