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Sunday, 11 July 2010

RIP ‘Peter Cotton’-2: ‘I Do Hope I Can Help You’

I had some intrigued reactions to my post last week about my meetings with the ‘real’ Peter Cotton – but they didn’t start particularly well. I had three long interviews with him in his house in Guadalajara. All quotes from him come courtesy not of a remarkable memory but a tape-recorder and nine hours of tapes.

Three steps down from the main floor he had a long, rather narrow, room, with two walls of glass and two, one punctured by the steps, book lined. At the beginning he thought I had come along to chat about what he later called ‘stuff for fantasists’ that is, books about a hero. When he found out that the protagonist I had in mind was ‘in intelligence, swimming as he could as the British Empire went down the drain,’ he kittled up. This was not, in fact, quite what I had said but I was happy to let him talk.

‘I don’t subscribe to the heroic generation stuff you keep seeing in obituaries,’ he said. ‘I have met some of those Second War heroes. They varied. At least two I met were quite unfit for later life. Most service people soon learnt they would have to be lucky to survive the stupidity of their own side. Those on that ship that kept going to Singapore, for example, after the Japanese had taken it because nobody had thought to countermand the order. They were unlucky.’

‘Perhaps it would be better if you thought of us as a disturbed generation – we grew up in the depression, had the war, in a sense did not get to grow up until we were in our late twenties.’

I was, of course, aware he was rather enjoying himself. “I am an old man and I get to talk frankly,’ he said with relish more than once.

He was equally blunt about Intelligence. ‘You will find it difficult to accept that it could have been quite that incompetent. I remember getting out of a cab in the sixties. On the radio The Rolling Stones were singing Satisfaction. Inside the Intelligence building, candidates for a job in the secret services were being asked to put the ranks of the British nobility in order. You know, Duke first, down to Baronet. This was after Philby and all the rest. The thing was, still is to some degree, utterly class ridden.’

‘In Intelligence work there is a large component of what is now called PR. Most of it is a sort of post event Dunkirk. You get a plucky miracle to overlay the very bad planning. The other parts, all the men that were ordered to surrender with the French, for example, like the entire 51st division, go into the historical out-tray. And little mention is made of the six thousand troops bombed on a passenger ship. Some of them died you know jumping into the water in full kit. The jump was about eighty feet and if a man did not take off his helmet before hitting the water, his head come off with it when he did.’

He nodded. ‘The chaos is fairly simple, the brutality often accidental, keeping up morale takes over.’

At the end of the first session he asked me what I was going to call my protagonist. ‘Peter Cotton,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s quite good,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why but most of the Peters I have come across have tended to be awfully prim in one way, utter pricks in another and always prone to self-delusion, sometimes grandiose. In one way all involved in Intelligence are Peters.’

To be honest, I was not initially very encouraged. On my way back from Guadalajara to Madrid, I began to wonder if another visit would be such a good idea. It wasn’t until my husband asked me a couple of questions that I began to see something else. The questions were about the books on the shelves. And then I remembered one on the coffee table. It was part of Javier Marias’ trilogy. I flicked at it. In that trilogy the protagonist’s mentor is called Peter Wheeler, the real name of Sir Peter Russell, distinguished hispanist and Second World War spy.

‘The old bastard,’ I said. ‘Maybe this is who I have been looking for.’

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Washington Shadow Paperback

Less than a month to go before publication day (August 5th) for the paperback of Washington Shadow - available for pre-order from Amazon

For US readers, I'm pleased to say that now has both paperbacks available for purchase (The Maze of Cadiz) and for pre-order (Washington Shadow).

Sunday, 4 July 2010

R I P ‘Peter Cotton’

I regret to say that the ‘real’ Peter Cotton – or an elegant flesh and bone version of my character - died on June 22nd, 2010 in his house in Spain. He was 91 years old. I am indebted to his step-daughter Caroline for information of his last days and for her permission to quote the following:

“On June 10, he slipped in the shower and broke his left leg – ‘the one that hadn’t been broken before’ as he put it. It was a bad, multiple break, difficult to set and after a week in the excellent Spanish hospital he asked to go home. He was quite clear he was going to die. ‘I don’t know that it is a decision but I certainly feel I’ve had enough and it is time to go.’

We made him as comfortable as possible. He remained lucid, though he remarked that he felt rather ‘high’ from the painkillers. He died soundlessly after lunch, while having a nap, the kind of death most of us would like. As is normal in Spain the funeral was the next day. His body was cremated and his ashes will shortly join my mother’s in the trees above the house”

There is a biographical section on this website that keeps pace with the books. Here I wish to say how I came to know him and how he influenced the series.

I first met him in 2005. I was asked to voice-over what the Spanish mother of a victim of the Atocha bombings was saying for a documentary for US television. It was quite a production and I could not help noticing that there were a lot more people around than usual. There was even a confab of men in dark suits.

I already knew Caroline because she and her husband Alberto run the studio. They told me that ‘because of the sensitivity’ of the subject, everything and everybody was being observed ‘by officials of both governments’ – of Spain and the USA, that is.

Voice-over has a kind of short hand for instructions. Shortly before last Christmas I went along to a recording studio and was given the name ‘Margo’. This refers to the character of Margo Leadbetter in a British TV series called The Good Life, as played by Penelope Keith quite some years ago. Why shoppers in places like Inverness should want to be encouraged by a version of Margo and a famous (an unmet) male actor who really was in the series, is for the marketing people – I am guessing at some respectful sounding nostalgia. And, naturally, they wanted a toned down Margo. Imagine turning 25 on the central heating scale down to 20.

In Spain, my instructions took a long time, most of them unnecessary, while the men in dark suits thought about them.

While we waited, Caroline asked me what else I was doing and I told her of my plans for a series on the decline of the British Empire as experienced by a young spy, aged 25, in 1944. We were interrupted then by a Spaniard in a dark suit who asked for input to match the tone of the original voice. I gave him a Margo-type name in Spain and he instantly agreed. His next problem was that he did not know how to communicate what this meant. ‘Desolate dignity,’ I suggested. We tried a take. Nods, thumbs up.

It was then about five thirty, and some of the men in dark suits decided they had worked enough. The recording session was over.

It wasn’t until they had gone that we realized how much tension they had brought with them. Both Caroline and I got the giggles. This was slightly unfortunate because a dark suit came back in, but after he had gone Caroline suggested I meet her stepfather.

‘Desolate dignity just about sums him up since my mother died last year. Nobody is supposed to know this but we all do. He was a spook and started about the time your man did. I think you might find it interesting and it might cheer him up. At this time of year he lives near Guadalajara.’

Guadalajara should have a more extreme climate than it does. In fact it is relatively mild, the summers cooler than in Madrid, the autumn gentler and longer. About a week later, I went to a discreet but sizeable property set into the side of a valley and surrounded by trees.

There I was met by a tall, relaxed gentleman who did not look 86. We forget how much accents have changed. When he first spoke it was like hearing the male equivalent of Margo speak, a kind of time capsule.

It was only later when I saw and heard him speak Spanish that I realized his English accent was not quite as adrift as it sounded. There was a small cross-over, particularly at the vowels. There was also quite a crackle of irony.

‘I do hope I can help you,’ he said.