A family’s testament of endurance in occupied Amsterdam
Talking Location With … author Edward Wilson – SUFFOLK and MASSIF CENTRAL
15th October 2020
#TalkingLocationWith… Edward Wilson, author of Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man – SUFFOLK and the MASSIF CENTRAL and the locations that have inspired
Tripping into Fiction
The location that most inspires me as a writer and sustains me as a person is the Suffolk coast. My latest in the Catesby series, Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man, is a coming-of-age novel in which Catesby, just out of his teens, is parachuted into Occupied France as an SOE officer. While fighting alongside the Resistance he witnesses both unbearable tragedy and remarkable bravery. Later, at the age of 93, Catesby reveals to a curious granddaughter that a watercolour on his office wall, a South of France landscape full of ‘warmth and colour’, was painted by the murdered Resistance hero Jean Moulin. Catesby then tells his granddaughter, ‘Moulin had Provence and I have Suffolk. Had they executed me, my last mental picture would have been the deserted beach at Covehithe.’ Unlike the Lowestoft born Catesby, I didn’t discover Suffolk until the age of 28, but I’ve never left. The subtle beauty of the county has always drawn artists and filmmakers to her shores, but it also drew nuclear scientists. The stark ruins of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Orford Ness show that something dark and sinister is also woven into Suffolk’s strange landscape. If you listen to Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, you can also hear it.
Another location that haunts my mind’s eye is the Massif Central of France. I first got to know the remote hills and valleys of central France when I had an exchange year at the University of Limoges. The sparsely populated region provided hiding places from which Georges Guingouin’s résistants attacked the Germans and their Vichyiste allies. Joining the maquis was a courageous choice – as even a brief walk into the countryside will prove. The hills of the Limousin are scattered with monuments in the exact places – Ici est mort pour la France – where members of the Resistance gave their lives. Any visitor to the Massif Central will not just be struck by its remote beauty, ‘a wilderness of ancient forests, pastures, lakes and streams’, but also by its vastness and the sense of having stepped back in time. Catesby and his female radio operator often ‘paid back the farmers who sheltered them by helping with farm work’. As Catesby finally achieved the steady rhythm of flailing sheaves of wheat, he began to feel ‘like a character in medieval painting’.
Unlike Catesby, I fought in a senseless war, but my memory of patrolling behind enemy lines with Vietnamese irregulars provided a similar visual experience to that of a résistant setting off into the night with a heavy load of explosives. The confusion of mountain valley darkness – and fear in a setting of great beauty – leapt across time and continents. In the photo, I’m in the middle. The soldier in front of me had already lost the sight of one eye in battle and the one behind me, Mr Bong, was killed two weeks later by a double agent. Like the Massif Central, the valleys and mountains of Quang Nam Province were a place of stunning beauty – but a beauty that was scarred by napalm, bombs and artillery.
A number of settings in my books are places I’ve never visited. They include Budapest, Havana, the Falklands and Argentina. In some cases, what would have been the point? Budapest in 1956 and Missile Crisis Havana were vastly different places than they are today. So instead, I read about them, talked to people who had lived there and searched for images online. As these were places unknown to me, I strained for accuracy. A Budapest born friend corrected my first draft by pointing out certain street names were different in 1956. An Argentine friend told me which quarters of Buenos Aires were posh and which were scruffy – and a memoir from 1962 Havana described washing hung from balconies as young Pioneers tramped by singing, ‘Uno, dos, tres, quarto, Cuba sí, Yanquis no…’ In some ways, these second hand impressions made better fiction because they depended on imagination rather than memory.
In the end, it will always be Suffolk. In The Envoy, CIA agent Kit Fournier pretends to be on a sailing holiday, but his real mission is to investigate the top secret UK atomic research installation on Orford Ness. After a day of spying, he decides to anchor in the Butley, a ‘river that seemed in turns, desolate, wild and mysterious’. As he settles down to sleep, Kit listens to the night call of the curlew – curr leek-leek-leek, cu-r-r-r-r-leek – and the piping of oyster catchers and discovers the real secret of England.
Be not afeard this isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
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‘A Portrait of The Spy as a Young Man’ by Edward Wilson is published by Arcadia books on 15th October at £14.99’
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