Tuesday, 20 September 2016

How I Came To Write 2017

In early 1999, our son decided he would like to be a writer. Always keen to encourage our children in their endeavours, we paid for him to enrol on a correspondence course for creative writing. At the same time, I agreed to come along with him to the local Writers' Circle, in Alsager. Everything really started from there.  2017 is the result after a long period of gestation.

My intention had been to only go along for the first couple of meetings, until my son had settled in. As Obi Wan Kenobi might have put it, writing has always been strong in my family. My uncle, for many years, had run the Writers Circle, in Alsager, but he was quite old by this time, and had ceased activity. His grandfather, my great grandfather, was Swedish. He had come to this country, learned Pitman shorthand, and became a journalist, also living in Dublin for some time, where my grandmother was born. That literary bent seems to have carried through into most of my mother's siblings, several of whom have written poetry and short stories, and my mother has written a lengthy auto-biography. When I first went to senior school, I was frequently writing stories, and gathered an audience, in the playground, for their recital. In part, it was a way of avoiding getting beaten up by fourth formers; a bit like Scheherazade, and The Arabian Nights. I grew up with a plethora of literature in the house that had been handed down, and my wife and I carried that forward with our own children.

My son was able to read at a ridiculously early age, and to spell the most complex of words by the time he was five, so, given the background, I was not at all surprised at his interest in becoming a writer. We turned up to the “Little Tin Hut”, in Alsager, where the Writer's Circle met, and which gave its name to a series of anthologies of writings by members of the circle, over the years. The numbers in attendance were rather diminished, but everyone was very friendly. Existing members read pieces that had been prepared, which we discussed, and an exercise was set out for the meeting the next week. It was a newspaper cartoon, which we had to use as the basis for a short story or poem.

By the time I left the meeting, I already had the outline of a story in my head. It took me about an hour, a day or so later, to write the story, which I thought I might as well offer for consideration. It received universal acclaim with a number of people asking if I was a copy writer or some other form of professional writer, and so I was hooked. In coming months, my son, who had also written several pieces that were very well received, and some of which were included in an anthology, became too busy with his university studies, before going to study, for several months, in the US, and so dropped out of the circle.

Over the next, few months, I felt a bit like being back at school again.  A series of short stories blossomed in my imagination that I tested out on work colleagues, before submitting to the circle that week.  After a while, people at work began to ask me if I had a new story for them to read.

In September 1999, we had gone on holiday to France. We were staying in a 16th century farmhouse in the Dordoigne. One evening, I picked up a paperback from their library, and began to skim through it. It was about a British mercenary who went to South Africa to organise a coup. “I could write something better than this”, I thought to myself. Given my experience of being a member of a revolutionary group, for thirteen years, and my knowledge of politics and economics, I was also confident that I could write something more realistic. When I was fifteen, I'd started to write a spy novel, but never completed it, because, well, when you are fifteen, other interests are more pressing on your time. But, now, the idea of an action novel, grounded in revolutionary politics seemed to me an exciting project.

Over the next few weeks, I began to put together the skeleton of the novel. But, other things fell into the mix. Towards the end of 1999, stock markets were going crazy. I remember thinking at the time, “this can't go on, and is going to end badly.” For several years, as our children had grown beyond the stage of having toys for Christmas, we had spent the holiday in the Canary Islands. We prided ourselves on being able to trawl the technology of the time, Ceefax, to find great bargains. As it turned out, because of the millennium, that had seemed an impossible challenge that year. The cheapest we had found was a fortnight for £3,000, about six times what we would normally have paid. We'd given up the idea, but as Christmas approached, we thought we would give it one last go. We found a holiday for two weeks in Gran Canaria, two separate studio apartments for a total price of £600. “Don't tell anybody what we paid, when we get there, I suggested.”

One of my regular habits, when on holiday, was to read the FT, and in one of the Weekend Editions, there was a short story, about hackers causing a collapse of stock markets, using the Millennium Bug, as cover for their activities. I was never convinced by all of the scare stories about the Millennium Bug. In fact, we were due to fly back home on January 1st 2000. I remember, watching CNBC in the days up to New Year, and the continual leaps higher of the stock markets, as the NASDAQ soared past 5,000. On New Year's Eve, 1999, we stood out and watched from the elevated position of our hotel, as fireworks exploded into the night sky across the resort. By that time the novel was formed in my head.

Without giving too much away, because obviously I want people to buy the novel, the story involves a group of revolutionaries hacking financial markets, to cause a financial crash, as well as providing themselves with extensive finances with which to build an international revolutionary organisation, and thereby to spark a revolutionary situation. By March 2000, my expectation that the bubble in financial markets, particularly of technology shares, would burst, had been born out, as a market crash took the NASDAQ down by 75%.

As my intention was to weave the story into a series of actual events, the 2000 stock market crash, together with the possibility that it would lead to a recession, led me to have to revise some of the existing structure of the novel. In fact, that was useful, because it meant that I could also develop a number of other existing, real life events into themes that could play into the overall story line. So, for example, the fall in the oil price, and its subsequent sharp rise, was a perfect opportunity to use as an example of market manipulation; the growing anti-capitalist movement and demonstrations across the globe, fed into the narrative of an international organisation, in the background co-ordinating events; the known manipulation of the gold market by governments to save the banks, was another theme that lent itself to inclusion in a series of conspiracies.

In fact, I've often wondered what some of the other members at the writers circle, who graciously read the novel, and offered their support and suggestions, might have thought, in recent years, as many of the ideas contained in it, have actually played out. For more than a year, I was unable to work on the book, because of suffering with depression, but by the middle of 2002, I had the first drafts completed. In some ways, the delay had been useful, because, by that time, the attacks of 9/11 had happened, and, given the nature of the book, it would have been impossible not to have included them. In addition, by that time it was obvious that the “War on Terror” was building to an inevitable attack on Iraq.

It was also clear to me, at that time, that a financial market bubble was again being inflated, and that it would mean yet another financial crisis. So, I was led into another re-write, to accommodate these actual events, and the potential events I now saw as flowing inevitably from them, over the next few years, and which could be integrated into the story being woven around them. I set the date for the financial crash as May 2009, which was then still six years away, and began to construct the story around that timescale. Further drafts of the story followed, and were handed over to my friends in the Writers Circle, who provided extensive criticisms and suggestions, for me, before I completed, what was then, I thought the final draft.

In fact, a number of events prevented me from publishing the book at that time, and when the financial meltdown of 2008 occurred, not only did it confirm the ideas I had been developing for some time, but it meant I had a choice of including it into the story, as part of the predicted deliberate collapsing of the markets, or else of working this too into a longer series of events. I decided on the latter, which meant a further re-write, but again, it proved beneficial, because it gave me the opportunity to include a wider range of events and scenarios not originally dealt with; it meant I had time for further research on actual events, and places, so as to make the texture of the novel richer.

The further complication of intending to move to Spain in 2010, and then of being homeless for several weeks, delayed further work on the novel for some time. But again, the delay was useful to be able to connect the storyline to the anniversary of the 1917 revolution. The rise of Syriza, Podemos, of Corbynism, of Bernie Sanders in the US, of the Left Bloc in Portugal are all developments presaged in the first drafts of the novel, back in the early 2000's. The volatile movements in the price of oil and other commodities, the huge rise in the price of gold, and its subsequent decline, the stock market crashes of 2000 and 2008, were all envisaged in the early drafts, and I think attest to one of my original ambitions, which was to utilise my understanding of finance and politics to create a story that is credible and yet, as a political thriller, and action adventure, necessarily also incredible and requiring the reader to suspend disbelief.

So, I wait now to see whether the further predictions of the book materialise. After all, 2017 is nearly upon us.

No comments: