On Friday evening, at the Eric Liddell Centre on Edinburgh’s Holy Corner, The Edinburgh Bookshop hosted Radio 4 Today stalwart James Naughtie for a talk and reading about his first novel, The Madness of July.
The book is a political thriller about a former spy, Will Flemyng, whose life in politics suddenly forces him to fall back on skills from his past. He said he intended it to be a more straightforward thriller, but the process of writing fiction changed its nature.
As a journalist since 1975, he said, “I’ve been telling stories all my life and most of them were true, at least I thought they were true.” Writing fiction, however, is “an extraordinary experience. When you begin writing fiction it’s entirely different to what you imagine it would be like.”
He described how at school and university he learned how to criticise and appreciate literature, but that it hadn’t really prepared him for being on the other end of it, particularly at an encounter at the Oxford Literature Festival earlier in the week.
“I was in the Sheldonian Theatre, and a woman came up and said hello and said, ‘Do you remember… ?’ She’d taught me English in 1961. She said, ‘I’m really looking forward to it.'”
“It’s fantastic fun. It made itself up as it went along. You discover that as you go along people arrive; people walk into the story and you think: ‘Where did you come from?’
“The people who have become interesting to me are the people I hadn’t thought of when I began. What I discovered was that I had written something that I hadn’t set out to.”
“It became something about the characters of people who go into politics.”
Throughout the talk, which was hugely good-humored and peppered with readings, he described how his journalistic career had informed the creation of his characters, particularly the way in which he himself first became sucked into that world. His first assignment to Westminster was during the crisis in the Callaghan government that led to a vote of no confidence (coincidentally, 35 years ago to the day) and the rise of Thatcher. It was an era in which, he said, be “became gripped by politics”.
“The thing about politics is that it isn’t about treaties and tax changes etc, it’s about the characters. I’m fascinated by the people who are driven to it and then repelled by it.”
The book is set between London and Scotland – “I always need to indulge myself about the Scotland I love” – in the summer of 1970… er… something. He won’t be drawn on a year, it’s just “set in the ‘mid 70s’. I didn’t want to say who was in government. I didn’t want a plot that was a cipher.”
And of his main protagonist: “I don’t know what party he’s in. he hasn’t told me.”
He also told us a couple of funny anecdotes which he began then quickly said should be “off the record”. You know better than that, Jim, you’ve got to say it before you tell a room of about 70 people, but I’ll honour the spirit of the request.
It was also important to move the setting back from the present day, with the ubiquity of mobile phones and social media proving a problem to the cloak-and-dagger plot: “There was liberation in going back to an era when you had to walk around London looking for a phone box.”
And, very importantly for journalists and politicians of the time, “I got the licensing laws just right!”
The central theme of the book is the way in which “the better you are at politics the more it marks you” so that the closer the top you get the more you have to compromise your beliefs and betray your friends.
The landscape is also a strong character, with his readings lyrically describing both city and country alike with emphasis on how the individual is can be alone and private even in the Babel-like world of Westminster. One passage, with Flemyng standing under a bridge by the Thames is interrupted by with the sudden appearance of a rower, passing by yet leaving no trace (which to me was reminiscent of Bede’s sparrow in the hall) before noting that London is “a city of the unexpected, always”.
Moving on to questions, the first was whether he’d started the next book. As it happens, he has, but has again changed his plans.
“I was persuaded by people wiser than me (my wife) rather than to say ‘what happens next?’ it would be much more interesting thing to go back.”
So the next book will be set in Paris, in 1968, which is handy, he noted, as one of his favourite characters, an Irish-American woman, mentions having worked there then.
How does he find the time to write? It was almost all done on the train.
“If you get on a train at Waverley to King’s Cross for four hours, four hours is a wonderful block of time.
“Since I first became a journalist in 1975 I have written words almost every day, so putting words on paper isn’t a horrible process for me. I churn out words.”
It’s easy to get tripped up, though, as Edward Wilson pointed out:
“Naughtie is not so sure-footed with things American. US passports at the time were green, not ‘dark blue’. And his attempt at New Yorkais, ‘World Series, my ass! For-ged-about-it’ is as authentic as Dick van Dyke’s Cockney”
His US publisher has been notified on necessary tweaks, he said.
One thing that he hadn’t noticed, that apparently everyone in the hall on Friday had, was the name of his hero. A spy novel featuring someone called Flemyng?
“Bond never occurred to me!” He had been, apparently, looking for something that suggested flatlands. “People find things in names. I was aiming for something that doesn’t sound too pompous or contrived.”
He’s also cheerfully annoyed at the suggestion that the whole thing is an homage to John le Carré, right down to featuring an ormolu clock. The scene in question is set in a room he knows intimately, having been there several times. It just so happens, he laughed, that there is an ormolu clock there: “It’s not an homage to le Carré. I’m just trying to describe the f***ing place!”