Gerald Seymour on the historical inspiration behind his novels
Thriller author Gerald Seymour tells us more about the history behind his novels.
Posted on October 31, 2018 in Uncategorized
I have a love of history, its romance and excitement, its inspiration for really good stories, and the confidence it gives me in exploring locations and the characters I want to create.
From being a child obsessed with stories of King Arthur, through teenage years of discovering the brilliant and chilling thriller A Tale of Two Cities, an undistinguished degree at London in modern history (along with mundane DramSoc, FilmSoc, and the university cricket team!), and then the chance when I was an ITN reporter to go on fast learning curves to Ireland or the Middle East, Africa, and take in the Vietnam experience: the past and its lessons to us today have fascinated me.
It is a prop I like to lean on, and has served me well.
In my story The Fighting Man, a young British mercenary leads a rag-tag mob of wannabe guerrilla fighters from Castro’s Cuba on an invasion of Guatemala. I took as my theme the march south by the Young Pretender in the 1745 rebellion, culminating in the collapse of the campaign amid back stabbing and inflated arrogance which caused the Highland army to turn back at Derby, and start the retreat due to end at Culloden. That was my theme: I loved it and all the stresses and tensions they would have felt then, felt now. It is a heaven-sent chance to marry history with our contemporary world.
For Holding the Zero, I wrote of a young woman becoming an inspirational leader in the fight by northern Iraqis to rid themselves of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule. The Joan of Arc story guided me: on the point of a victory of sorts, she was abandoned by scheming, jealous tribal leaders, left with only the support of a single trained marksman from a Somerset haulage firm, when all others had backed off. I rate that as one of my best stories.
And, in The Journeyman Tailor, I wanted to show the paranoia three decades ago of a nationalist community in east Tyrone, Northern Ireland, for traitors living amongst them – touts. I found the gold edged connection. Local historians have chronicled a Journeyman Tailor who travelled the rough roads between Dungannon and Pomeroy in the 18th century, had sold fine materials, taken commissions for ladies’ frocks, and used his slow meanders to observe then report back to the British garrison. A prominent local rebel was betrayed and hunted to his death as a result.
And so to A Damned Serious Business, and Boot – that’s the name given to an MI6 operational organiser who is obsessed with the Duke of Wellington and the epic of Waterloo. When he can he sneaks off to the battlefield, spends his weekends there, and learns much. What grips him is the study of the loneliness of command. He feels that same isolation himself because he has responsibility for the safety of many. He handles matters of life and death for his agents and those ‘volunteered’ to help the mission succeed. Some he will write off – and will not show weakness when lesser men might panic. I’ve walked the battlefield, have an idea of the size it covered but also stood where the small squares were that beat off the French cavalry, and the Duke had retreated inside one at a critical moment. To have been there, and to have stood on the banks of the Narva River, the frontier between Estonia and the Russian Federation, where Boot would have waited in the hope his man would make it back from danger as real as it can get, gave me huge confidence when writing. Boot even has, in his office overlooking the Thames, a set of Waterloo teeth – those original dentures using the gnashers of the young men killed that day in June, 1815. The fine teeth, not yet diseased, were available in such quantities after the battle that the science of utilising replacement teeth was revolutionised . . . I love it when in the mood for discovery. I’ve made Boot an eccentric, such a welcome trait in these days of drear bureaucracy.
But – a big one – I don’t live in the past, only try to learn from it. A Damned Serious Business is a picture, I hope, of modern warfare at its most confusing. Boot has taken on the star-quality hackers living up the road from the river, in St Petersburg. A cluster of them has been identified and gives an option of Strikeback. These kids, who are under the protection of their government and can threaten our whole digital society, our critical infrastructure, our way of life, are more important in security terms than squadrons of tanks or fast jets – that makes for a story about tomorrow, not yesterday.
By the by, I sometimes feel I’m getting to be a bit of history myself as I approach another rather more serious birthday, and did suggest to my wife that if I retired I could help with the weekly supermarket expedition, spot some special offers – she immediately purchased for me another 500 sheet pack of printing paper . . . so, am still at the treadmill.