Sunday, 10 January 2010


No. 7, January 2010

Their role in the making of stories

Part 1: Triggers as galvanisers

Researching for stories tends, in my experience, to resemble beachcombing; or the curiosity of the jackdaw, targeting the thing that gleams, the item that comes as a surprise, the crumb of information you’d rarely find in history books.

A trigger does what it says on the label: it prompts an idea, a situation, an action or reaction. If a story has stalled, is suffering hesitation as to what is to happen next, a trigger can set it in motion again. This can be an object or an occurrence in the real world, or something somebody says.

When I was preparing a book of short stories, Make Your Move, and Other Stories, I was passing a classroom in the college where I taught and overheard a snatch of conversation: this was about how the speaker’s boyfriend had been for an expensive tattoo – and the tattooist had miss-spelt a significant word and was both furious and disheartened.

This triggered a story, The Great Tattoo, in which admission to the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels is conditional upon the emblazoning of HELL’S ANGELS FOR EVER across the applicant’s chest. With the brethren assembled, Big Steve proudly unveils his mastertext, wrought in ‘imperial purple inside regal red with royal gold edging’ and complete with ‘acanthus leaf trimmings’ and ‘a bayleaf cluster on the final R’.

The revelation that Oaky, ‘the artist of the needle’, has spelt it ANGLES instead of ANGELS causes mirth and ridicule, and plunges Big Steve into a pool of despond from which his level-headed girlfriend Louise must formulate a rescue.

In researching for my novel The Freedom Tree, set during the Spanish Civil War, I came across children’s drawings of the Fascist bombing of Madrid, these curiously in the keeping of a museum in Wales. Evidence of this kind has a galvanising effect, as did the shock of seeing the exhibits in the museum adjoining the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, and described in Ticket to Prague.

Here were drawings, paintings and hand-written and illustrated letters by children: ‘Nothing nightmarish about that, except that these are the last marks made on earth by Jewish children taken from the fortress of Terezin; before their journey to the railway station’, and the gas chambers.

You are stunned, silenced; and then you do what you have to do as a writer, come to terms with such things by writing about them. You note the details; you use them: ‘Ilona Weissova. Born 6th March 1932. Taken to the camps. Died 15th May 1944.’ You hope that some of your grief or concern or anger will rub off on the reader.

These words proved a haunting message for me as I researched and wrote No Surrender, which I later dramatised in four parts for BBC radio. This novel is set during civil war in Angola, West Africa (scene of the recent attack on the bus carrying the Togo soccer team). In my story, the rebel forces of Jonas Savimbi, supported at that time by certain western countries who should have known better, terrorised the country.

A photo I came across showed the above words engraved on a fragment of an exploded footmine, the type designed to disable rather than kill. Who was the enemy the inscription was referring to? – the farmer in his field; the child playing in an open space? Who ordered its manufacture, who made it, who sold it, and who buried it in field or furrow? The novel opens with a sudden scream from the bush: a mine has found another enemy:

Until now there’s been singing, and the women’s voices have been answered by the tune of the cicadas and answered again deep in the bush by the frog battalions along the river banks.
‘Ma-lenga! Ma-lenga!’ The crowd of women opens for her. Tomas checks her progress for an instant. His face is screwed up, one hand half-covering his eyes.
‘It’s Dedo!’
Stood on a mine.

Events, present or past, are the chief triggers to whole stories or parts of them. The military coup d’etat in Chile and the killing of Allende, the country’s elected president, triggered me into pouring much of the next two years of my life into writing Talking in Whispers.

The main event, the seizure of power by the Junta led by that friend of Margaret Thatcher, General Pinochet, was prologue to a welter of triggers as tyranny took over the country. Thousands were arrested, hundreds executed. The folk singer in the story of Whispers, Juan Larreta, is loosely modelled on the real-life Chilean entertainer, Victor Jara; and they meet a similar fate.

In my latest story, Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa, there are parallels between the real-life journalist, Georgi Gongadze, and the novel’s campaigning journalist Victor Kaltsov, father of the story's footballing heroine, Natasha; though here the stories diverge.

The fate of Gongadze – another journalist brutally murdered for attempting to publicise the truth about a corrupt government – caused in me a haunting that brought pen to paper. Thus, triggered into action, the writer becomes the inveterate, the obsessive beachcomber, digging out facts, using every means of exploration possible; sampling those facts, spreading them across a mental table in search of meaningful connections, forging them into a readable progression.

The above is a personal account: other authors are invited to check through their own galaxy of triggers, and maybe share these in a future Watsonworksblog. (email:

Next time, a visit to, and dusting down, of the Props Room, packed with odds and ends awaiting animation into a narrative: to be dramatised, symbolised, mystified.

Notes in passing…
The walk over Seaford Head to Cuckmere Haven was our all-time favourite. I like to think my wife Kitty is still by my side as I pause for breath, gaze back towards Newhaven, then turn as the Head flattens out and offers a first glimpse of the magnificent Seven Sisters to the east. It’s a walk now tinged with sadness, yet inspiring and invigorating.

I thought I knew every inch of it until, on a recent visit, I discovered that a bit of history had come back to life. In a meadow above the Cuckmere, and a hundred yards from the cottages picturesquely teetering on the edge of the cliff, I spotted a pyramid of flint. This was a newly-built memorial to an incident that happened, on the spot, during the 2nd World War.

The plaque on the memorial describes how a troop of Canadian soldiers, fresh from home, arrived and set up camp in the meadow. A local man, Leslie Edwards, walking his dog, watched the arrivals with consternation. This estuary, he knew, was a regular route of German fighter planes.

The Canadians, he feared, would be a sitting-target. Mr. Edwards sought out the officer in command, explained the risk to him and his men. His warning was ignored. Pursuing inland targets, Messerschmitts had a field day. Returning from their mission, they destroyed the Canadian camp. In the nearby cottage, the officer was killed as he shaved.

Such was the grief and compassion of Leslie Edwards that every Remembrance Day till his death in 2004, he laid a wreath of poppies on the spot. The memorial was built to commemorate a terrible and largely forgotten event of war; and to record a situation when an officer ignored the advice – of Corporal Leslie Edwards (1920-2004), either because he knew better or could not be bothered to shift camp on the advice of a corporal.

Talking of triggers, this story prompted me to scribble my own tribute:


The meadow above Cuckmere
Behind the cottages standing tip-toe
Above the sea, is tranquil now.
Since I came last a pyramid of flint
Draws the visitor to a sad inscription.

The phoney war was over; Britain
Was occupied by friendly allies
Far from home, innocent as dew.

Walking the Head from Seaford,
A local man watched as the Canadians
Pitched their tents against a vista
To write home about – the winding estuary,
The Seven Sisters dipping chalk-white feet
Into shingle and shallow sea; aglow.

The walker paused, filled with concern,
Ventured to approach the busy officer
With this warning: ‘Sir, this site is dangerous,
Exposed.’ He pointed to the valley, ‘The enemy
Fly this way, there’s no defence,’
En route to Alfriston or lordly Charleston.
‘Your men will be sitting ducks!’

The officer had made secure his quarters,
Cottage residence, idyll over sky and sea,
Something of a treat for his men, conspicuous
In bell-tents on the sloping meadow, soothed
By the sigh of tide on pebble shore, unaware
Their destiny was target practice.

The Messerschmitts arrived out of the blue
Forging on to their destination; then recalled
No doubt with amazement and relish
The sleeping tents below; swiftly about-turned,
Headed back through their own slipstreams
And served the Canadians their last breakfast.

As for the officer who knew best
He was caught at his shaving mirror
And blown like his men into oblivion.

Nothing remained but the conscience
Of the local man, haunted by doubts –
Whether he had spoken strongly enough;
Should have taken the matter further and higher,
Had shrugged too soon, let other matters
Distract him from one more tale of war.

Though no one asked him, he did what he could
To assuage his regrets; each Remembrance Day
Brought poppies for the sons and brothers
Who came to war and never fired a shot;
Confirming in a bitter way that the prospect
Over Cuckmere Haven is a view to die for.

March 2009.