There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no-one knows what they are.
- W.Somerset Maugam
I’ve spent most of my adult life in universities, teaching about politics and policy. I’ve written some rather dull and arid textbooks, often wanting to let my creativity soar and tell a story rather than stick to the facts. But that was a long time ago, before the advent of social media, when opinions were frowned on and objectivity was the order of the day. I now work advising health and social care organisations on service transformation.
I find it hard to start writing, even harder to finish. I hate writing and love having written, as Dorothy Parker may have once said. I am a little in awe of my characters, which is perhaps how things ought to be.
I’m currently editing the first draft of my first novel, Acts Of Remembrance. It’s a thriller. Here’s the draft description:
It’s 1947 in London and the word on Fleet Street is that Fenwick is back. He’s still working at the Chronicle, but he’s out of favour, a bitter man. Meanwhile Violet Tanner is leaving Yorkshire to live and work in a frozen, austere London.
Fenwick thinks he’s got the story that will redeem him. He makes sure his path crosses Violet’s – he needs information and she can get it. They both make discoveries that render them reckless, but surely someone has to pay the price. Just how far will Fenwick endanger Violet to restore his reputation?
Enjoy the extract below!
Fenwick walked up Aldwych past the Royal Courts of Justice.
He turned as he heard his name called and groaned inwardly. Was it too much to expect to be able to go about his business in a city without being seen? It was Henry Kew, looking shorter and even more rotund in a heavy overcoat, beaming at Fenwick and swinging his arms about his body in an attempt to keep warm. Kew's complexion was ruddier than usual, due as much, Fenwick suspected, to one too many morning drinks at one or other of the Fleet Street hostelries, as to the icy wind. His large nose was almost luminous in the bitter cold.
'Hello Fenwick. What are you up to today? Has the Chronicle got a sniff here?'
'No, Kew, not here for the salacious gossip and society scandal that passes for news in the Express.'
Kew laughed. Fenwick had known him for years and Kew wasn't about to take offence. Kew had been an established journalist when Fenwick had first made the long journey from Tyneside to take his first job on the nationals. Unwilling to stand in the sleet, Fenwick stepped in to the arched porch from where Kew had hailed him.
'Are you joshing me Fenwick?' asked Kew. 'Are you in the gallery for anything at the moment?'
'No, and thankfully I won't be appearing in the dock either. I'm at the Bailey today'.
Fenwick wasn't quite lying, he would have to show his face there at some point today, buy a drink, get some second-hand gist of proceedings in case there was some space to fill. Not that it was very likely. With the paper shortage, any story of the courts was unlikely to make it past the editor and into print unless it was a big case, and
Fenwick was around just frequently enough to know that there wasn't anything that big at the moment.
Kew was making small talk and Fenwick let it wash over him. His thoughts were far away, stretching back to the years before the war. His gaze was fixed on the middle distance, staring across the court yard, watching the sleet start to turn into small, spiteful snowflakes. He turned back to Kew. Kew could read him too well.
'It's not like it used to be, John. I know you still long for the job, how it was before the war, but I wonder if, even if you did get your old job back… if it would be the same. It's the old life we long for, son, not the old job. And that's long gone now, it won't be back anytime soon'.
Fenwick smiled ruefully at his old friend.
'I am sure you’re right, Henry' he said as he clapped Kew on the shoulder.
'But what days they were, old man. I should go now before I freeze to this bloody spot'.
Fenwick took his leave. Kew wasn't quite the mindreader he thought he was, it wasn't the loss of the old way of life. It had been good, Fenwick acknowledged that. The gentlemen of the Press, quite a force; whether for good or ill Fenwick would not want to speculate. In his own case, by and large a force for good. Exposing greed and corruption, shining a light in the darker corners of democracy, that was good. Seeing into the souls of men who sold their integrity for money or sex, that wasn't so good. Fenwick felt that as someone who had not succumbed to either in return for doing something he found untenable, he had, on the whole, been on the side of the righteous. On the other hand, of course, he reflected that he was hardly the most moral of men. Enjoying the charms of Vivienne Bell was hardly a passport into Sunday School. The Press had been a life, not a job. It was competitive, certainly, but by and large men watched each other's backs and turned the wheels that drove the news machine. There was purpose and there was belonging. There was the drink, the talk and the sense of being ‘in the know’ for everything that happened in this dirty, broken city. This dirty, broken country come to that. Now, it was different, and Kew was right about that. Men lost to the war, empty spaces at the bar. The controlling fingers of censorship extending long after the end of the war, riffling through the stories that the public had a right to hear. Some newshouses lost to the Blitz, piles of rubble and twisted metal still carrying the smell of the rollers and presses when the wind whipped up, where once the great organs of state had bellowed. If only it was just the job that Fenwick missed. He could blame himself he supposed, and there were many nights when he had bemoaned his loss to Kew, over too many glasses of beer and scotch.
He turned up his collar and adjusted his scarf again, as he left behind the paltry shelter of the courtyard and turned once more into Fleet Street. The snow came down and the sky was an undifferentiated solid white.
Fenwick trudged on in the snow that was now lying, and turned into side road. Once a dark and sheltered alleyway, the icy wind was now free to gust through, where buildings had been flattened into rubble. Fenwick still found himself on occasion momentarily lost. As a long standing denizen of Fleet Street he knew the area well, several of the landmarks he didn't even realise he navigated by had been blown to single bricks in the Blitz. He often thought that this would be what the landscape would be after an apocalypse of the kind he'd often read as a boy, some invasion from outer space that all but obliterated humanity. But then, there were more terrible examples than this, he thought grimly, having seen photographs of the aftermath of the A bomb in Nagasaki, taken by one of the photo-journalists he had worked with before the War. The ones that didn't make it into print.
As the remnants of a neighbourhood gave way to a solid street with both sides intact, he entered the warmth of a cafe, a fug of steam and smoke greeting him. He breathed in deeply, his nose running from the cold. He took a small table by the window, pausing to wipe the steam from the glass. The elderly waitress approached him.
'Afternoon Sir, what will it be today? I've got a beef stew fresh today'.
Her cheery voice was at odds with the bleak weather and the rather shabby surroundings. He searched his memory for her name – Ada, that was it.
'A plate of your best stew then Madam, and a cup of tea please'.
Fenwick kept his own tone light while wondering what gristly, grease-laden delight would be on the menu today. He wished fervently that his observations could be made from a decent chop house or restaurant. He removed his hat and coat, handing them to Ada, but kept his scarf.
Even in the cafe it was cold. He took his seat and nodded to the only other diner, a man probably of seventy years, shabbily dressed and hunched over his cup of tea as if it were a brazier. Fenwick would have been warmer further back, nearer the kitchen and further from the door, but then he would not have an obstructed view across the street. He felt thankful that there was a cafe nearby at all. Keeping watch outside in this weather would be intolerable. He leaned forward and used the end of his scarf wipe a hole in the condensation. He leaned back and waited, lighting a cigarette and cheered by the momentary flare from his lighter. He'd hardly smoked half of it, and nothing had happened across the street, when his lunch arrived. His head dodged round the waitress as she obscured his view, placing the plate in front of him. Not wanting to be the watcher watched, he turned his most winning smile on her as she set down a cup of weak, murky tea. He thanked her, still keeping an eye on the three storey, double-fronted house opposite , with its peeling, dark green door and tarnished lion-head knocker.
Fenwick looked at his watch; 12.45. Late today then, his quarry had left the office at 12.30pm prompt on the two occasions Fenwick had already observed him. He stubbed out his cigarette in the tin ashtray and leaned back from the curious aroma that rose from his lunch. It was vaguely savoury with a greasy undercurrent. He didn't want to offend Ada however, she might be useful at some point. He ate, grimacing as his teeth got caught in some grey and slimy piece of sinew that was masquerading as meat.
A gust of wind blew a flurry of snowflakes into the cafe and the bell rang, the door opening to admit two more refugees from the bitterly cold day. Fenwick cupped his hands around his tea and shivered. He drank deeply to take away the taste of the stew, and finished off his bread. What passed for bread at least; an off-white, grainy lump of dry dough. It stuck in his throat as he tried to swallow. He glanced quickly at the newcomers, a badly dressed couple who were known to the waitress. Across the street, the door opened but Smith did not appear. It was a woman of perhaps fifty, looking stout and stiff in her layers of winter clothing. Fenwick lit another cigarette and leaned back. He accepted Ada's offer of another cup of tea with a smile and looked for all the world like a man replete after a fine lunch.