Thinking about this – and getting into a twist over it – made me realize that all three have a thread running through them, and it is what keeps me returning. At heart, they are about stories of major decisions or crises in people’s lives or affairs, and what happened. All three have a profoundly human-interest angle.
As a criminal barrister I was mesmerized by the daily chance to be allowed a glimpse into strangers’ lives. This was heightened by the ancient drama of the trial going on around us, pitting competing versions of what had happened against each other, testing all of them to destruction. All the evidence needed to be laid out on the court room’s mortuary table, dissected, examined and understood. Only then could the history of that particular story be written.
It is a funny way of coming to a definitive view on the past. It gives 12 members of the public the power to define reality. On their say so, a person was or was not murdered by a suspect. But I felt absolutely at home in that world, as before starting as a barrister I had spent my days in libraries and archives poking around the evidence of the lives of people from the Middle Ages. As with a court trial – although with fewer wigs, prison visits, and obscenities – it involved laying everything out on the table and testing it from all angles to decide what the historian thought had happened.
So I have realized that is what I enjoy equally in writing history and fiction. Both require the assembling and analysis of evidence. Although in the case of fiction there is the added fun of being able to muddle up all the clues to wrongfoot the reader!
I am re-reading the amazing ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’. It was written by Carlo Levi, a doctor from Turin, banished in the mid-1930s to a remote southern village in Campania for his anti-fascist views. His account of the isolated communities he found is magnificent, conjuring up a harsh, rural world in which the inhabitants feel a profound sense of having been bypassed and forgotten by history.
Kurt Vonnegut summed it up. Timing and luck dictate the success of even the best prepared plans.
A felafel pitta sandwich in the Gaza Strip. I have no clue precisely which pickles and vegetables were in it. But it was heavenly. I dream of that sandwich.
I am a total font geek. I love dozens. Different fonts for different jobs. I think I’d like to have been a typesetter in another life. If I have to choose, John Baskerville of Birmingham’s italics always make me happy.
From my pupil master (an experienced barrister who allows a brand-new barrister to tag along for a year to get trained). Things you think will be a real problem often aren’t. It’s the things you’re confident are not a problem that most often tend to go horribly wrong. A close second was from a wizened old Benedictine monk, who counselled to always wear a hat in a hailstorm.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of ‘Dracula’. It’s just … perfect. It captures the epistolatory form of Bram Stoker’s book so well, and is captivating in the way it opposes visions of Victorian London and Transylvania.
Playing loüd guitar (or bass or drums). I have been in bands on and off since the age of 14. It never stops being fun! ‘Plug it in and turn it up’ is the best advice I could ever give anyone looking for a way to relax.
Baguette, pâté de campagne, cornichons soaked in vinegar. A mouth-watering classic that needs nothing else. I’d like to eat it at sunset on the harbourfront at Marseille, looking out at the ancient battlements the Abbey of St Victor, as the sun drops lower towards the burnished sea. Preferably with my family and a glass of local rosé.
Ships. I love the romance of the great early-twentieth century liners. I’d also very much have liked the old trains, like the Orient Express.
Salvatore from Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’. Not necessarily Ron Perlman’s captivating depiction of him in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s stunning film. But the character. His individual fusion of heresy and orthodoxy is probably true of most people. And his spectacularly garbled vocabulary is perhaps one of the greatest literary inventions ever!