I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in London in the Spring of 1941. Bombs are falling, food is rationed, soap is scarce and the blackout has facilitated an unprecedented crime wave. I’ve been to other places too. I started out at the commando school on Lord Lovat’s estate in the Scottish Highlands. From there it was a bumpy plane ride and parachute drop into occupied France. Back to London, a bit of training on one of the Solent sea forts and then off to Norway aboard a Royal Naval vessel disguised as a trawler. Though in the event, not well enough disguised. Much of this done in the beguiling company of a young woman named Amelia Dunford, who might actually be her twin sister Celine.
Before I began writing as F.G. and filling my pages with spectres I wrote as Francis. My debut novel was an espionage story set at the height of the London Blitz. This novel, with the working title Hercules Road, has the same hero, a step further on in his journey to becoming an intelligence agent in the Cold War about as far removed from James Bond as it’s possible to get. He’s a working-class lad from Liverpool with an Irish-Catholic Fenian ancestry that sees him conflicted serving his Whitehall masters. His role brings him into contact with women far removed from his own social class. But there’s not an ounce of misogyny in Jack Finlay. He has the respect for women bred in a boy brought up by his mother alone. Given the rigid class barriers of the period, he’s both an anachronism and a bit of a loner. But I quite like that about him.
Some of you will be dismayed to read this because you’re fans of ghost stories, or at least stories with some element of the supernatural about them. But I haven’t given up on writing the F.G. stuff at all. I’m well into the Jericho Society novella mentioned earlier and set mostly in The Bartered Oath, a pub not just with an enigmatic name but with a distinctly dubious past. I’m halfway through Ruthie Gillespie’s first stand-alone novel and still greatly enjoying the company of the mischievous Ventnor Goth.
I wrote the first draft of Hercules Road in 2012. It wasn’t quite there structurally and so I put it away and got on with other things (specifically The Memory of Trees and The Lazarus Prophecy). But Christopher Nolan’s track-record suggested Dunkirk would be a successful film and I knew its young cast would bring a fresh audience to the subject of WW2. So I got the novel out and fixed what was wrong with it and we’ll see what happens from there. Jack has seen a ghost, by the way. He saw his father, in his infantry uniform, polishing the blade of his bayonet at the kitchen table at his Bootle home late one evening as a teenager. Except that Jack’s father perished at the Battle of the Somme when his son was only six years old…
Ghosts. Can’t keep away from them. Just hope they go on keeping away from me. Today’s picture is the Polish cover of The Magdalena Curse. I always think of it as the Nigella cover, because I think it quite strongly resembles a certain famous television cookery person, possibly a moment after eating something rather tasty.
Reading rather than writing at the moment. I’ve both a novel and a novella to complete, but sometimes need to read because it’s inspirational to do so. It’s never a bad idea to remind yourself of the standards others have aspired to and subsequently set in their fiction. A couple of days ago I read Robert Aickman’s short story Ringing the Changes for the first time. I did so awed at how much atmosphere he manages to create and sustain over a mere 33 pages. E.F. Benson’s The Bus Conductor is next and then The Apple Tree, by Daphne de Maurier.
Novels as well as short stories are on my summer reading list and those aren’t paranormally themed. Last night I began Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I was put off Greene by reading The Power and the Glory at much too early an age. It’s grim stuff for a 14 year-old, though I did enjoy The Human Factor and laughed out loud reading Our Man in Havana. I know the setting really well and think Brighton Rock gets off to a phenomenally vivid start. It’s a potent reminder of the power of words to paint pictures and evoke moods. Great fiction writers are magicians, really.
Today’s snapshot is me at university, pictured in Canterbury outside a branch of the Nat-West bank probably long demolished. I’m grinning because I’d just been inside and successfully cashed a cheque. This wasn’t a unique occurrence, but it was usually touch-and-go. I sent this picture to my son yesterday with a caption saying this is what students used to have to look like in my day. He’s studying Politics and Economics at Sussex and replied rather wistfully that he wishes it was still like that. I think he means that life was simpler and more straightforward, which it certainly was. I might recommend Brighton Rock to him when I’ve finished it, since he knows the setting too.
That’s me and my son Gabriel on the coast at Courtown in County Wicklow in Ireland in the summer of 1999. He was born in September of ’97 and so wasn’t quite two years old. Despite appearances, I wasn’t about to drown him. He’s 19 now and about 6ft. 2ins tall and completely healthy. He’d have walked into the sea that day with me though without hesitation. Toddlers are poignantly trusting of their parents.
I’m prone to publish old photographs I think because the past so much informs the present. Certainly I believe without memory there’d be no fiction. Most of the places I write about possess an emotional weight they wouldn’t without the personal experiences undergone there. There’s only one location in my books – I won’t say which – I’ve never been to in my life. I wanted to see if I could create a landscape of imagination based only on popular perception of the place. But most of them I’ve lived in and some of them I really love.
I located Lavinia Mallory’s house in Cleaver Square in Kennington where in the mid-1980s, the Prince of Wales pub was my local. The houses in the square are austere, Georgian and very grand. Some of the more dissolute residents drank (heavily) in those days in the pub. Though none of them were as dissolute as Mrs Mallory would be when I came years later to write The Magdalena Curse.
My fey theologian Jacob Prior in The Lazarus Prophecy inhabits my old flat near the Oval cricket ground. Alice Lange in Dark Resurrection recovers her psychic gift in Shaftesbury, where I lived when I wrote The Colony. The piss-haunted lift that delivers Paul Seaton home in The House of Lost Souls would take me to my not-so-new 7th-floor abode about six months after this picture was taken. I make my stories up, but they’re rooted in the reality of recollection and a strong sense of place is extremely important to them. My recurring character Ruthie Gillespie lives in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight because it’s my favourite place in the world. Without the ties that bind, I’d live there myself.
Given that I spent a year living and working in Dublin Bay, I haven’t done much yet with Ireland. Although Ireland does feature quite importantly in Dark Echo. I was based in Bray, which has become a much more modish locale in recent years than it was when I was there. My arrival occurred in December and I remember the heavy scent of coal fires in the night air from the houses walking the streets. They were quiet streets and the nights were thickly dark. And Bray’s turn will surely come. It’s just a matter of time.