MURDER! SUSPENSE! STEAM TRAINS!
Once I left teaching I found a part-time driving job. It involved ferrying children to and from a special school and the route took me through the North Dorset village of Shillingstone on regular and numerous occasions throughout the weeks of term. The signs advertising the Shillingstone Railway Project are impossible to miss, but not regarding myself as a keen train enthusiast, I used to drive past Station Road without a second glance and with no more than a vague promise that one day I would maybe pay a visit to a place I considered to be mildly interesting.
My wife and I like to walk in the countryside and Dorset offers a great range of tracks to cover beneath its wide skies, over its hills, along its village lanes, down by its coast. Unbound by guide books, I prefer to open a map and chart my own routes, and, curious to follow the trailway to Hammoon, I planned a circuit one morning that would end at Lamb House Bridge, a stone’s throw from the station at Shillingstone. The bridge features significantly in the novel, binding it together from the very early scene with the young Mary Abbott to the final one where the exhausted Erika Fleet shelters from the rain.
I knew there was a café at the station and so a pit-stop there was inevitable. I fell in love with the spot straight away. For a renovation project run by volunteers it is remarkable: lovingly preserved, neatly spruced up, well staffed, and genuinely inspirational. The visitor is effortlessly transported back to a time of steam trains, a time before Beeching, a time before mobile phones and motorways. And the view from the platforms, sweeping over the wide green valley of the Stour up to the ribbed flanks of Hambledon Hill, itself an iconic presence in the novel, must be amongst the loveliest of any railway station in the country. I do hope that readers of my book will feel encouraged to visit what I believe is a most underrated visitor attraction, well worth an hour of anybody’s time.
Standing on the northbound platform, I was overcome by a feeling of 1960s nostalgia and began to imagine stories of travellers on this line in its heyday, rattling up to Bath and Bristol or down to the Channel coast. It was a short hop to link a thread from these thoughts to an idea for a Cold War spy story. I had been thinking about writing such a story for a while, as this is a genre that I enjoy reading myself and one that a few of my literary heroes have successfully turned to. Graham Greene fashioned what is typically a plot-driven thriller into a novel of compassion in his brilliant study, The Human Factor. Much more recently Ian McEwan produced his own slant on the workings of the intelligence services in the wonderfully devious Sweet Tooth. In both these books serious issues are treated with an arch lightness of touch. But still John Le Carré is the captain of the team: even now, even in his old age he produces modern, perceptive, intelligent novels, and I re–read his great novels of espionage with as much pleasure as I did the first time around. At his peak, writing the Smiley trilogy and The Secret Pilgrim, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House and Absolute Friends, he set the bar for all writers of the spy novel to aim at.
The history of the station at Shillingstone gave me the chance to approach the genre at a fresh tangent, however. I discovered that for many years after its closure, the buildings were part of a small industrial estate and housed a company manufacturing furniture. The renovated tourist attraction of the 21st century was its third incarnation. To tie these together I would tell the story not of a spy but of his son; I would tell not so much a tale of Cold War espionage but of the generational consequences of spying, and more to the point, of lying. And so it is Andris Fleet and not his father Edward Fleet the secret agent who is at the heart of the novel. It is to Andris I give a voice as the narrator of the two central parts of the book. At each end his parents have their no less significant but considerably smaller parts. The death of Edward is something of a steal from a similar incident in André Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican: in his book the tossing of a victim from a moving train is presented as an acte gratuit, a motiveless crime, and, as such, is a prelude to existentialist musings, whereas the crime in my novel is purely a plot device-cum-shock tactic.
For the period detail of the railway in 1960 I turned first to a second-hand book I discovered in the station shop, a marvellously evocative little paperback The Somerset & Dorset Railway, by Robin Atthill, originally published in 1967. Next I was directed to contact Derek Lester-Jones, volunteer and Retail Manager of the station shop who provided me with helpful background as I strove for something approaching authenticity.
The station may provide a structure to the novel (and justifiably its title), but of course the greater part of it is not set there at all. I have visited the cities of London, Cambridge, Southampton and Bristol. Needless to say, I have travelled extensively within the county of Dorset. However I do admit that I have never seen the Baltic, nor have I ever set foot in Latvia. As one of several small countries in eastern Europe whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed in the years since the Second World War, I chose it as an emblem of both the Cold War and the fall of Soviet communism, rising out of political constraints in sync with Andris’ own pursuit of self-assurance. The city of Riga and the country’s turbulent history came alive in books courtesy of the library in Dorchester and through pages on the web. I hope I have been able to do both justice in the passages of the novel relating to Erika’s resettlement in her native land. One day I would like to see it for myself, to have a beer in a café in Vecriga, to walk along the shore of Kisezers, to look out for Leons Lapsa’s Golf GTI coming towards me at top speed.
Read an extract from the book, the novel’s early pages, by clicking the link below: