August, 2013. The Heather Centre wasn’t a scheduled stop on our tour of the Highlands. In fact, we only really sought it out to add a punchline to a joke we hadn’t quite formulated. My wife’s name is Heather, you see, and we were on honeymoon. We were in the mood to be easily amused.
The stop did make sense in another way. We had spent the morning at the RSPB reserve at Lake Garten, looking through telescopes at ospreys, and needed lunch. In my memory, the Heather Centre was a single storey structure set amidst fir trees, comprising a shop, a café, and an exhibition. The shop was stocked with the usual things shops flog on the tourist trail, and the café served hearty school-dinners type fare. We plumped for Scotch broth, and as an afterthought bought tickets to the exhibition. Perhaps I really was easily pleased that day, but I'm also a sucker for anything historical, and was glad to learn more about how a hardy, downtrodden people had made the most of a hardy, downtrodden shrub.
Everything in that summer of 2013 is drenched in a golden light, of course. We were staying in a cottage near Drumnadrochit and my morning run took me along the banks of Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle. On our last full day, we took the boat tour which inspired The Continuity Girl. It was another two years before I began writing it, but when I started, the mood of that summer returned. I actually set the ‘modern’ parts a year later—i.e., a year before the summer when I started writing it—because I wanted the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum to form a backdrop. But the mood belonged to 2013…
August 2016. I was wary of returning to the same cottage, because I didn’t want to dampen the glow of our honeymoon stay. But the reasons for being there were different, and we didn’t follow quite the same itinerary. The Cairngorm reindeer herd were out, for instance, because it doesn’t appear in the novel, but Loch Meiklie, Kyle of Lochalsh, and Dores Beach were in, because they do. The last place we were scheduled to visit was the Heather Centre, where we planned to have more Scotch broth on our drive back to England.
It took a moment to make sense of what we were looking at. A shell open to the sky, so that the screen of fir trees was visible where there should have been a roof. Blackened panels and twisted metal instead of walls. Then a sign telling of the fire that had come in the night and taken almost everything. Perhaps my first thoughts were of the lunch that would have to wait now. But then a deeper sense of loss took hold, and one that was a little less selfish. Livelihoods had been lost, and occupations, and something built up over years. And it was hard not to find some symbolism in it. 2016 had proven itself to be a year of conflagrations, after all, and there were still four months of it to go…
First, let’s clear up one thing. There is no ‘Curse of The Continuity Girl’. Christopher Lee died on 7 June 2015, six weeks before I opened the Word doc that I’d eventually give that title. I always intended his appearance to be a kind of tribute, but I didn't intend the others. David Bowie is only half-named in the novel, making an appearance via a record played on the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In the same scene, Jim fails to recognise an early work by the seminal English folk-rockers, Fairport Convention. You won’t recognise it either, but I’m telling you now that it's there. Fairport's brilliant fiddler, David Swarbrick, died on 3 June, just as I was finishing the first draft. Gene Wilder, who is referred to in a conversation on the London South Bank, died on 29 August, a couple of weeks after our trip to the remains of the Heather Centre. Nobody had predicted that 2016 would be the year of the celebrity death, but there are articles like this one that do a good job of explaining it (basically, the boom in television and youth culture began sixty years ago, so the first of the modern celebrities are at that age when people die).
Other 2016 phenomena are less easy to explain, and if you do try to explain them, you’re liable to be accused of peddling fake news. Or of being an expert, and everyone’s had enough of them. On the morning of 24 June, I woke up to find I was living in a different country from the one I’d fallen asleep in. I hadn’t thought Britain perfect—God, I knew it wasn’t. In the previous couple of weeks, UKIP leader Nigel Farage had unveiled a poster for the Leave Campaign that was chillingly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, depicting foreign asylum seekers as a dehumanised swarm beside the slogan, ‘BREAKING POINT’. Shortly after, Britain suffered its first political assassination since the height of the Troubles, when MP Jo Cox was murdered by a Far Right fanatic. The atmosphere was febrile to say the least. But surely, I thought, there would be a reaction. Nobody would be happy to see these people win, would they?
Gemma MacDonald, the protagonist in the 2014 portion of my novel, is a 30-year-old Film Studies lecturer of Scottish and African-Caribbean heritage. She grew up in the East End, studied at Cambridge, and works now at Queen Mary University of London, a stone’s throw from her childhood home. Here she is in the first chapter, on the London Underground with her American boyfriend:
She hasn’t brought a book, because her clutch bag is too small, and so are the pockets of her coat. So while David reads off his Kindle app, she’s watching faces. The implacable, been-everywhere, seen-everything faces of the capital: that great cesspool to which Dr Watson is irresistibly drawn at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet, along with all the other idlers and loungers of the Empire. But these aren’t the faces of idlers and loungers—well, most of them aren’t, anyway. These are faces scored with experiences as various as their origins, which extend far beyond that big pink Rorschach blotch Gemma has seen on the old maps. There are foreign books being read, and foreign newspapers, and she doesn’t always recognise the languages. Even the printed characters aren’t always identifiable.
When I read such passages now, I wince a little at my own naivety. I see my optimism about mixed-heritage Britain and the excitement I always feel when I encounter it. I wanted my ‘present day’ chapters to reflect a reality about modern urban life that would make an interesting contrast with the reality of the Scottish Highlands in the late-1960s. But on 24 June, I realised I’d been writing inside a bubble. When I strayed out of it in the following days, one of the things I found was this video of a London Underground journey in the late ’60s. It’s interesting, of course, as all old films are interesting, but the comments below the line are something else. At time of writing, the top one reads, ‘Look at all the white people, a city like the rest of the island of Albion that had been occupied by white northern Europeans for 1'000's [sic] of years only to be replaced by unwanted, uncivilized, barbaric immigrants…’
Later on the 24th, at my multi-ethnic inner-city workplace, I sought out a colleague who had read the first draft of the novel for me. ‘I’ve got it wrong,’ I told her. ‘The novel’s set in a country that doesn’t exist.’ Of course, she assured me I was worrying unduly—how could she not?—and that the novel contained just the kind of optimism we needed now. Still, it bugged me. Then, going over my novel later in the week, I found some clues that I hadn’t been completely blind. Here’s Gemma on her way to meet David after visiting her parents:
Half an hour later, and Gemma is running the usual gauntlet of the Mile End Road. Pavements strewn with cartons and beverage cups from the fried chicken shops, dark-screened Mercedes turning sharply into side roads without bothering to indicate, catcalls from men of all colours and most creeds… Perhaps she should worry more about this last item than she does, since many of her students walk this way to their accommodations. But it’s a long time since she has been bothered by it personally—this is her manor, and give or take the odd riot, or Olympic Games hysteria, she got used to its ways a long time ago. She’s more unsettled when she gets the treatment elsewhere, in places she doesn’t feel she should be making any kind of impression.
I was in the East End during the summer of 2011. I heard the riots in the night and saw the results in the morning. Protests had been sparked by the killing of a man the police had mistakenly believed to be carrying a gun, and these had then given way to looting and arson. Commentators were quick to blame a broken society. Famously, the arch-conservative TV historian David Starkey pointed to a prevailing culture among the young which he summed up with the phrase ‘the whites have become black.’ Meanwhile, The Guardian concluded that the riots had been ‘a consumerist feast’, the end product of the neo-liberal revolution begun by Margaret Thatcher.
My novel is what it is: i.e., a comic love story that plays out in beautiful surroundings with some playful musings on the nature of perception. As another friend put it, ‘it isn’t White Teeth’. But no novel set over a 45-year-period can fail to reflect how things have changed in that time. When the main protagonist, Jim, is first asked by Gemma about his activities in the ‘60s, it leads to a kind of confusion I think many older people experience.
For a moment, he thought that perhaps she, too, had been here all those years ago. He even tried to place her among those faces that had crowded the bar every night at the old Drumnadrochit Hotel. But he was being an idiot. Not only was she far too young—what was she: thirty, tops?—but none of the faces in those days had been anything other than very white indeed. He was making the same mistake he’d begun to make with his students towards the end of his lecturing career. Losing a sense of their place in time, of what they might be expected to know, and of where they might reasonably be expected to have come from.
Brexit isn’t over, of course, and now we have a Trump presidency to contend with, too. On both sides of the Atlantic, institutions long believed vital to the health of a liberal democracy have been labelled ‘enemies of the people’. Hate crime is on the increase, directed towards those belonging to minority races or religions, or—handy, if you’re a busy bigot—minority races and religions. I personally know people who voted Brexit for reasons that aren't racist. Some are leftists who have always decried the EU as a club for bosses, others have been turned into cynics by decades of broken promises or sheer neglect. But whatever the reasons for people's voting choices, the swing towards authoritarianism has resulted in a wave of fear and pessimism among Western liberal types (I’m holding my hand up here) which hasn't been seen since the worst days of the Cold War, or perhaps even the 1930s.
Which leads me to my last-but-one observation. After the Trump triumph, I re-watched Powell and Pressburger’s masterful comedy, A Matter of Life and Death, simply because it’s one of my favourite films and Heather hadn’t seen it. It was released in 1946, but like P&P’s wartime efforts, is partly a morale-boosting bit of propaganda. Mainly, though, it’s a love story, and a profoundly touching one at that. Afterwards, I tweeted, ‘Art should confront present horrors. But there's value too in works that offer hope & consolation (i.e. cinema in the 30s & 40s).’ An old university friend replied, ‘I’m planning to watch Powell and Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ this weekend.’ I Know Where I’m Going—what a dream of a film! Wendy Hiller escaping the city (and the war) to live in the Hebrides… I should have watched that in preparation for writing The Continuity Girl. Instead, I watched Local Hero, which I think exerts a silent influence. That film’s director, Bill Forsyth, had made his name with a couple of soft-centred comedies set in gritty urban environments, but nobody who’s watched Local Hero begrudges him that blissful swerve into Highlands fantasy.
All of which is a long way of saying that perhaps we need some light comedy to nourish our new Blitz spirit, almost as much as we need honest journalists, brave lawyers, and principled politicians.
My last word is about the Heather Centre again—or rather, about those who run it. To one side of the burnt-out case, we found a cottage and a temporary hut that was operating as a tea room. Another sign proclaimed that money was being raised to restore the Heather Centre to its former glory. Of course, we partook of tea and cake, and then watched the red squirrels frisking among the birdfeeders behind the cottage, keeping the bullfinches at bay. When we asked the staff about what had happened, they were reluctant to make too much of it. What mattered to them was what they were planning next. We’re going to open again, they insisted. What’s done is in the past. Now, which cake was it you wanted?
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