Ambivalence

59years4dayscover1 (2)I am about to publish my first novel, called 59 Years 4 Days.

The novel’s main character is a middle-aged man called Simon who learns that he has a fatal illness. Simon is a baby-boomer, a successful member of the Tony Blair generation (TB happens to be a political friend of Simon’s, and a character in the novel). I wanted to put Simon in a desperate place, in pain and with his life running out, and see how he might behave, and what he might make of his life, how he would try to resolve things. The backdrop is London and Frankfurt during the Eurozone crisis of 2012, with set pieces in post-9/11 New York, Southern Rhodesia, Afghanistan, Oxford.

The idea for the novel, or rather the character of Simon, came to me in Frankfurt, during an al fresco dinner at an Italian restaurant. One of my companions was a garrulous and talkative German, a little fleshy, an anglophile business executive who had been posted to London during the nineties and had made a killing, he delighted in telling us, when he sold his Richmond house. The man had a jolly sophistication and rosy outlook and self-indulgence which made him an amusing interlocutor but he grew boorish with too much wine (who doesn’t?) and the steel got closer and closer to the surface, the velvet wore thinner, he was right about everything, there was a money smell. He was, I thought, a classic baby boomer, and the next day, as I thought (a little hungover) about dinner and about him, I felt fond of him, and then irritated by him and at the end ambivalent, with a leaning away from him. What was he for? (This, by the way, is a dangerous question to ask of anyone, as it deserves the sharp response “well, what are you for?” Make sure you have a ready answer).

So I made Simon a ‘winner’ in authentically Brit boomer style: public school, Oxford, bank, jet-setting, pretty wife, high-grade property portfolio, high level political connections etc. But Simon is human, and the reality is much more scrambled and less happy than it seems (these days the words ‘happy’ and ‘banker’ seem to rarely co-habit, though I suspect Simon’s generation had more fun of it than those who followed).

By the age of 59 Simon has made a lot of money and quite a mess of his life: he is morally dis-orientated, unfaithful to his wife, a clumsy father to his three children. He is human, he is a man of his time, he is a baby boomer. In moments of unkindness, I wanted to infer that the mess was a consequence of Simon’s gluttony – rich baby boomers can’t help themselves, they get dyspepsia, they are happy as pigs in shit but their lives resemble a pig sty: rootled and turned-over, swill flung abundantly across the furniture.

In moments of generosity I wanted to give Simon some context. Baby boomers arrived on earth directly after the mega-disruption of WWII, born to a generation of traumatised survivors. Here’s how I put it:

“This cohort of men and women was born into the grey and rubble of post-war rationing and reconstruction. Before anything else defined them, they were the longed-for sons and daughters of a war generation, and the value which their damaged parents invested in them – each child a precious offering of renewal – helps explain the Baby Boomers’ famous sense of fun and entitlement.”

Simon has a mother (German jew, wounded) and a father (British, wounded) who raise him ineffectively, hard-wiring confusion and loneliness into his personality. Seen from the perspective of Simon’s childhood, his adult self feels explained. He is “doing his best”. The extent to which life and events are the product of well-intentioned but flawed human beings ‘doing their best’ is perhaps the theme of the novel.

But my own ambivalence about Simon remains, three years on, and it has produced a principal readers may find disconcerting, and like intermittently. This was always going to be a problem, flagged early on by my agent: the reader needs to care about what happens to the principal, s/he needs a reason to turn the page. Is Simon a page turner? Well the publishers we approached worried he wasn’t (see below). Yet I could only be true to the ambivalent man I imagined, talented, pampered, idealistic, selfish, emotionally under-developed:

“It is dark when Simon wakes. He is alone in his Brussels apartment on the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt and the room is stifling. Simon, who sleeps in this city between Monday and Thursday when Parliament is in session, is a habitué of lonely bedrooms.

“For weeks his sleep has been consumed by sequences of memory of quite extraordinary clarity. He knows what they augur, though he dare not think too carefully, not at three in the morning.

The black, continental night is cool against his naked body when he opens the French windows.

Who needs air conditioning?” he asks, pleased in spite of everything as he stands to piss in the bathroom. His trunk is tanned from three weeks sailing in Greece. On his left wrist he wears an ancient Rolex wristwatch. Around his right he wears a playful collection of copper and plastic bangles; he likes to say that these are an ode to his inner hippy, and sometimes that they are his middle-aged rebellion against institutionalisation. Of all his characteristics the one which Simon regards as most important is his esprit: the notion that he is young at heart and generous and has a Peter Pan quality which others cannot resist. Live in the light!, his mother had instructed, and still he tries.

He stands sleepily, pissing, truculent and vulnerable looking, and runs one hand through his wild hair. And then back to bed, hungry for more dreaming. An ambulance siren measures the length of the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. Now his bedroom is filled with continental winds, sleep is very close; he closes his eyes and underneath him time falls away and he is looking out over Sheepdrove, right at the beginning, and he and Alice are happy and a good life is still just about feasible.”

Towards the end of 59 Years 4 Days Simon lunches, unexpectedly, with a dis-illusioned US intelligence officer. The two men discover a surprising connection, one which spooks Simon and prompts him to try to assess, in words of one syllable, the impact of his life – the good bits and the bad bits, and to mull on what he should have done differently. The American reciprocates. Thus I have the baby boomer generation climb up onto the psychiatrist’s couch, lie back, and confess its sins (domestic avarice, hard hands on the global stage). This was fun to write. Perhaps a little ambitious. But fun.

But if I am honest, I feel a little ambivalent about 59 Years 4 Days.

Try writing a novel and one quickly realises what miracles the good ones are. I mean a properly good one, the sort we read when we were young, and which one foolishly aspires to write oneself. Last night I walked into the field in front of my house to hit five golf balls. (A seven iron and unlimited supply of golf balls would be my Desert Island luxury).  The field had just been mown for hay, and so in theory the grass was short enough to show a golf ball. It was grand hitting the five balls far away, five clean hits with a seven iron in the direction I wanted. The ground was hard so that I heard each ball land with a thud on planet earth, 140 (?) yards away.

Finding the five balls was not so much fun, and took a great deal longer. The perspective from the point where I hit the ball was entirely different from the one I assumed when I reached the landing area. And of course the grass turned out to be a little higher than one would have liked, and the planet surface below it rutted, and the mower had left behind slight drifts of pale hay which might hide a golf ball and did in fact hide one cock pheasant, quite invisibly until I was on top of it for a moment and then it was taking off with a terrific yell. I slipped my hand into its nest and the hay was warm.

I wondered about, searching the surface for my five balls. I looked back again to where I had hit from, and tried to re-estimate where they might have landed. But my perspective was now unprecedented. Keeping a grip on the landing area was difficult. Then I found one of the five balls, and felt relieved because I was sure I would now be able to judge where the others had landed. But my perspective from this spot was also new. I was lost, in part because I had failed to mark the balls properly when I had hit them, in part because I was standing in an enormous field full of longish grass and drifts of hay looking around my feet for small golf balls. I was no longer sure exactly where I had started from, or where my five balls had ended up.

I suspect these feelings will be familiar to anyone who has tried to write a novel.

The ambivalence of author and principal led to a novel which generated an ambivalent response from publishers. Here are some of the rejection letters (polite, generous, disarmingly consistent) which my agent received.

“Many thanks for sending me Alex Hickman’s novel. I admired the ambition behind this and Hickman’s knowledge and understanding of the worlds he depicts is evident, but I’m afraid that in the end I felt the novel suffered a little from the author’s desire to cover so much ground. As a result, I wasn’t sure that the characters came to life quite as much as they could have done, and so I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass.”

“Thanks so much for sending 59 Years and 4 Days and I’m sorry for my delay in getting back to you on this. It’s a really thought-provoking novel, executed very well. I enjoyed the view into the political elite the story gave us and the obvious depth of the author’s knowledge makes for a nicely balanced level of detail that isn’t worn too heavily. It’s very well handled in that respect but I’m sorry I just never found myself attached emotionally to Simon’s character or to his demise and as a result I didn’t fall for this story in the wholehearted way that I would have liked. I’m sorry but I wish you every success with it here and thanks again for thinking of us for this submission.”

“Thank you very much for sending me Alex Hickman’s novel and apologies for my delayed response, I’ve been away and out of the office. The premise for this instantly appealed to me and I’ve enjoyed reading it. The author sets up a good story and evokes the backdrop skilfully, using the breadth of his political and international knowledge. However, I’m afraid overall the narrative voice and characterisation didn’t draw me in completely, and sadly I don’t think this is one for us.”

My brilliant agent, Jessica Woollard, has now found a new route to market, and we will be up and running on Amazon in the next few days. I hope you will read 59 Years 4 Days, and let me know what you think. In the meantime, here is an extract: Simon, now established as a semi-influential New Labour MEP, has been called in to meet Tony Blair, who is two years out of Downing Street and running his global portfolio (an advisory firm, three charities and his Middle East role as Representative of the Quartet) from The Office of Tony Blair in Grosvenor Square. Tony wants Simon’s opinion on his chances of becoming President of the European Council, an opaque process of backroom deals and political trade-offs between Europe’s powers which bears similarities with the current controversy over the appointment of a new President of the European Commission.

It was September 2009. Simon had been summoned to morning coffee at Tony’s office in Mayfair’s Grosvenor Square. Next door neighbour: the US Embassy, in the process of being decommissioned. An armed policeman stood guard outside the black polished door. A girl opened it and Simon recognised her from Downing Street. She was called Rachel. Had Tony managed to bring across all the pretty girls? The air in the building was chilled with air-conditioning. Natural light was permitted into the reception area through tall windows. The white walls of the reception area were hung with abstract images which felt a little too big and he knew that Cherie had chosen them. A bookcase full of copies of Tony’s autobiography. The carpet a pale grey. Chrome and glass coffee tables and Rachel to escort him to the meeting room.

“They’ve put Myrobella on the market.”

Rachel was walking fast and her pony-tail danced in front of him like a sprite. Should he remind her he was here to discuss the European Presidency, not Tony’s property portfolio? Did she have him confused with another banker come to count his money, or whisk it away somewhere? If they were looking for some free advice, he wanted to tell her, they should take Myrobella off the market immediately and wait for house prices in the north of England to stop dropping like stones.

“Great.”

“Brussels?”

She tossed the question over her shoulder.

“Great fun.”

Rachel turned them left and then right.

“How’s life at headquarters?” he asked, trying to keep up.

Rachel gave a jolly laugh. She was weighing precisely how to answer him, and what he was entitled to know.

“They’re in a really good place.” Her accent was on the plural.

“Tony’s busier than ever. Cherie’s loving her new life. Travelling a lot.”

A new chapter, met together. Forward not back. Bright young brains had framed this and it has been submitted to the highest authorities and nodded through and now it was to be disseminated; permitted speech. Rachel had told him nothing. He was an undeserving soul.

“Busy?”

She shook her pony tail at the stupidity of his question.

“Insanely. Here we are!”

They were standing in a meeting room. In the empty fireplace a collection of polished marble eggs. Above the fireplace a print celebrating British military hardware: submarines and Destroyers, Challenger tanks, a brace of new RAF Typhoons, a patrol of heavily armoured infantrymen departing their compound in Afghanistan. In the right corner three signatures and an inscription: “A Gift to the Prime Minister from the Chiefs of the General Staff, 2007.”

“Tony will be down shortly.”

Photographs hung on one wall: Tony with Jonathan, Alastair and Peter, Tony and Cherie walking hand in hand up Downing Street past a pavement of ecstatic union flags, Tony and Bill at Chequers, a group photo of a European Summit in Brussels, Tony and George at Camp David, Tony addressing Congress, Tony in his shirtsleeves in a Kosovo refugee camp, in Iraq with the cavalry, in Afghanistan with the infantry.

“He’s just going through this month’s schedule with Cherie.”

Simon was too absorbed in the photographs to respond. In Downing Street, where the going was always hard and there had never been enough time, it was not judged compulsory to reply to pretty girls of a certain grade and Simon was at that moment back in Downing Street, where the air crackled with Tony’s imminence and Alastair’s fury and on the other side of the door there was a policeman to keep the real world at a respectful distance.

“Hello, Simon.”

He was in a beautifully cut petrol blue suit, and a snow-white shirt, open at the neck. He held a coffee mug in one hand. They had not seen one another since Tony had left office and now he saw with his own eyes how his old friend had aged.

“Well, what do you think?”

Tony wore an amused face: look at me, a Prime Minister in a little Mayfair town house; the one much too big for the other. Simon thought suddenly of George Bush sitting in the little schoolroom in Nebraska with a story book on his knee while the Chief of Staff whispered catastrophe in his ear.

“Very smart.”

Tony leant in the doorway. He drank some coffee. He held the mug in his left hand and his right hand was in his trouser pocket. His face was bronze and his hair the colour of aluminium not steel and the mouth pursed below his celibate eyes and there was not an inch of fat on him and Simon knew Tony was running over everything that had gone before and reminding himself why he was having this meeting and whether or not to fuck Simon around or not.

“You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“Brussels cuisine.”

Tony smiled.

“Family well?”

“Fine fettle.”

“Yours?”

“Terrific.”

“How’s your dad?”

“He died.”

“I’m sorry” said Tony. “He was a real parliamentarian; a good man.”

He thought you mad. 

It was his father who had insisted he march in 2003. He had pushed the old man in a wheelchair up Whitehall and when the great mass of people had halted because the speeches had begun in Trafalgar Square they were standing outside the Cabinet Office where Simon had had an office less than a year before and he had tugged the visor of the Yankees cap down over his eyes so that the journalists working this stretch of the crowd might not see him. When a woman, fussing over her screaming child, handed him her banner to hold he had taken it without thinking and only afterwards had he looked up and seen a parody of Tony, wearing an upturned tea-cup on his head and brandishing an AK-47 in his hands and the slogan said ‘Make Tea, Not War’.

“I miss him.”

“I bet you do.”

Tony was truly sorry. Tony was good at being sorry. And he was in a hurry, and now he was closing the door behind him and then putting his mug of coffee down on the table.

“Shall we get down to it?”

“Yup.”

They sat facing one another.

“So what do you want to know?”

“Do I have any kind of chance?”

The EU had decided to appoint a new front man, with the title President of the European Council. It was an opportunity for Europe to speak with one voice on the world stage. Tony’s people had encouraged speculation that he might consider the role. None would do it better. He would relish the job. This much went unsaid between Tony and Simon.

“Nicolas has started telling everyone who will listen that I should have the job. Even offered to set up a campaign headquarters at the Élysée.”

Tony was letting Simon into his confidence and his voice was soft and somehow sorrowful. Regret maybe; regret of the political persuasion. Princely disappointment. Nicolas had messed up.

“He’s fond of you.”

“Not sure it’s very helpful.”

“You could have worse sponsors.”

Tony raised his eyebrows humorously.

“Silvio?”

Simon buried his head in hands in mock despair.

They both laughed.

“The question is, would the Parliament accept me as President?”

“The smaller states are the problem. Belgium and Luxembourg think it’s their turn.”

“In 2007 I got a really strong response from the Parliament. It felt… heartfelt; like people had moved on.”

“At the moment it’s hard to build consensus around anything.”

A hint of aggression now. The faulty transmission, the inability to work events to his ends.

“You know we’re winning, Simon. Iraq is a democracy with a good constitution; the oil production’s going to overtake Saudi one day. The Kurds are happy and sovereign. A tyrant is dead.”

But Simon had the number of all the dead in his mind. Campaigning organisations were constantly emailing him ghoulish updates. Six figure sums. Women and children. Do you really think it worth that many lives? That there was no better way? He resisted his desire to provide Tony with a rival list. They had had their arguments on this subject.

Tony placed his hands palm down on the table.

“Same old story.”

“I’m afraid so.”

Tony shrugged.

“You followed your convictions.”

So they were still friends.

“History will be the judge.”

“How long do we need to wait?”

Tony gave him a look.

“We are all the products of our parents!” he said, to change the subject. As if he knew precisely what Simon was thinking.

Simon wished to talk about their common ground.

“We dodged a bullet on the Euro.”

Tony’s eyes crackled. Simon’s choice of words was unfortunate.

Tony was back on his feet. The mug thumped down on the table, he was staring out through the bomb-proof glass. Over the canopy of plain trees rose the US Embassy, a huge gold eagle on its roof. The Embassy was moving to a high security compound south of the river and the Embassy would one day become luxury flats.

“Sometimes events work out that way.”

“We’d be in a terrible mess now.”

“I had to prioritise, Simon.”

“I know.”

Tony was silhouetted against the light.

Neither man saw any point in recalling how fervently they once wished Britain to join the currency, or how they had despised and called enemies anyone who had warned against it. The art of politics, Tony liked to say with earnest solemnity as if he was uncovering a deeply buried truth, was being pragmatic enough to change direction when you realised you were heading in the wrong direction – you couldn’t look around corners, you couldn’t be expected to.

“I still believe in sorting Europe. It’s more fundamental than ever.”

“I know.”

“If we’re not careful Europe will be left behind. I’ve seen what happened to the old mining villages in my constituency. Imagine that across an entire continent. Europe needs reform.”

“Go tell the Belgians and the Luxembourgers. Tell the French.”

“Is there nothing I can do?”

Simon shook his head.

“I doubt even our Conservatives would support you.”

A flash of something in Tony’s eyes. An expectation of thunder and then, sotto voce, “then they’re fools.”

They went around the houses a few times until there was nothing more to say. Rachel’s head appeared around the door.

“Ten minute warning.”

She didn’t look at Simon.

He and Tony got to their feet. Tony jerked his thumb towards the door.

“Luckily I have some other options.”

Simon smiled.

“I don’t think you’ll starve.”

Tony’s hands were on his hips. He looked down at the floor. He was composing.

“The Quartet stuff! The embedded hatreds – it’s extraordinary. Like Northern Ireland but a thousand times over. We’re making progress.”

Tony was shaking his head; his aluminium hair was cut close to the bronze and didn’t move.

“If anyone can pull it off you can.”

“It would help if I could be in two places at the same time.”

“There’s never enough time.”

“We’re getting old!”

“We’ve put Myrobella on the market.”

“I heard.”

“I think we’ll get a decent price.”

Simon realised that he was looking for reassurance.

“They say quality always sells.”

Tony stood still before him, then threw out his right paw and squeezed Simon’s arm.

“It’s been good to see you.”

When he got back to Sheepdrove he told Alice about the air of sadness and discontent. She said nothing. Tony fused the good and the brave in his generation, Simon insisted. He had done his best.

“Well it wasn’t good enough.”

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