An old woman is beaten to death. A young girl disappears. Taken on to investigate, private detective Frank Sterling is plunged into a desperate and unconventional flight across eastern England and a race against time. Who are his pursuers, and what secret from the distant past are they trying to suppress? From the gentle landscape of Suffolk to the banks of the Thames and back to his native Kent, Sterling has to face challenges and danger that crop up again and again as he protects his client. And with help to solve his second major case from a range of unexpected sources, he has to confront and adjust his own lazy attitudes in an unfamiliar and confusing social world.
I hoped to cover a number of themes in this book, and on the whole I believe that I succeeded. It was relatively easy to write because I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to achieve – a kind of The Thirty Nine Steps for disabled people. I wanted readers to experience something exciting, fast paced and gripping, but with that difference.
I was helped by being deaf (and therefore disabled) and the experience I gained, personal and professional, in my career in post-16 and adult education and then educational policy. In particular I had become ‘expert’ in disabled issues through a large research project on the subject and a national commission for which I was the principal writer. That meant I had some of the required research and research knowledge at my fingertips. I was also heavily influenced by a blind colleague called Paul Brown, who is not only highly knowledgeable aboutdisabled issues but as an activist connects these issues to politics and political ideology in a clear and uncompromising way.
The commentary examines the disabled issues in the novel in more detail than other aspects because these issues are more technical and complex within an otherwise quite straightforward adventure.
In the tradition of Ross MacDonald and others, I wanted to write a story whose origins stretched deep back into the past and affected the present in dramatic ways. The development of radar at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk before and during the Second World War gave me the opportunity, and I used and adapted names, events and situations during the war to suit my plot. So the name of the family pursuing Emma and Sterling is Whitman-Wood to chime with the real ‘father of radar’, R A Watson-Watt (though of course Watson-Watt was not the ‘bad hat’ that the Whitman-Woodses turned out to be). The Bruneval Raid in 1942 was the inspiration for the Cauville Raid (Under the Radar p 249) and there are other inspirations from that period.
What happened 70 years ago – deception and betrayal in wartime – became relevant to the modern period, triggered by a letter (only revealed towards the end of the novel) from a dying old German ex-soldier to an equally elderly woman in southeast England. Her quest for revenge and her subsequent murder triggered the events that led to modern-day kidnapping, escape and pursuit. Twists during the Second World War led to twists decades later. The plot is complex and was hard to ‘get out’ in the desired form, but it was rewarding to achieve that in the end.
Some characters seemed to come from nowhere except my imagination. Emma Jameson, one of the central ones, fell into this category. She was easy to write because she was a mouthpiece for many of the points of view I wanted to propound. Not all readers liked Emma. Those who didn’t tended to be men, and they found her rude, aggressive and chippy. That might possibly say more about them and their attitudes to feisty, confident young women than about Emma. She was certainly difficult and challenging, but there was much more to her than that. She had a vulnerable side, for example when she was placed in a rubbish bin and wheeled through the Gravesend shopping centre (ibid pp 212-213), or when Sterling turned her down when she ‘asked him out’ (ibid p 294-296), and a charismatic one when on the bus to Basildon (ibid Ch 17 passim). She was a sexual person too (and why of course shouldn’t she have been?), and there was duly a situation when Sterling was aroused by her (ibid p 169) as well as when she suggested they dated (see above) and talked of ‘bumping pelvises’ (ibid p 294). She inspired people to help her, and she could be generous, cheeky, witty and grateful.To see just the less apparently appealing sides of her character was to miss out on her roundedness.
Her father, Nicholas Jameson, could similarly combine irritability and vulnerability – and loneliness and isolation as a result of his deafness – for instance in the pub with everyone else at the end of the book (ibid p 299). It was important for me to be able to portray disabled people as just like everyone else, with the same saintliness or bad temper or jealousy or greed or interest in sex – or whatever other human trait can be on display.
Frank Sterling himself, the other central character, has been a difficult character to write in this and other books. He is not as ‘hard-boiled’ as I originally intended, but his humour is wry, he is willing to learn and he is honest, tenacious and determined. People seem to like him and be willing to help him. Narrating the book in the third person singular allowed more distance than the first person singular, and although there are aspects of me in him, his views and beliefs are often the opposite of mine, or a very pale reflection of them.
It was easy to write about the ‘good’ characters because the book was written from their point of view. Their opponents, the Whitman-Woods family, were more difficult because I didn’t choose to explore things through their eyes. Their shadowiness was meant to add to the suspense and fear they generated, but this didn’t necessarily come through very strongly.
Many characters were fusions of or largely based on people I know or have known. For example, Simone, on the bus to Basildon, was based on a colleague and friend from the The Gambia with whom I worked at the long defunct Learning and Skills Development Agency, and Lily, on the same bus and in Socketts Heath, was based on a close friend. Characters based on combinations of people I know were more rounded than those with no obvious links.
The triumph of ‘little’ people, helped by ‘little’ people (ordinary people doing extraordinary things)
A prevalent themewas the idea of ‘little people’ (principally Emma and Sterling), never mind whether they were disabled or non-disabled, succeeding against enemies with far more power and many more resources. This is deliberately reflected in the artwork on the covers of the book. The small boat on the front, in fact a ferry over the river, contrasts with the huge container ship on the back. Against all the odds, Emma and Sterling succeed in escaping from Bawdsey and making it home to East Kent.
They are assisted time and again by other ‘little’, i.e. ordinary, people, and this was an aspect of the writing that gave particular pleasure, even when some of the assistance seemed far-fetched. From the offer of a lift from the Tesco van delivery woman at Bawdsey Quay and the help of the river Deben ferryman, to the ambushing of Marcus Whitman-Wood’s Range Rover at Basildon by Simone and her ‘rag-tag army’, to everyone’s support back in Sandley, and numerous other examples in between, ordinary people did extraordinary, and extraordinarily kind, things, showing their solidarity with the underdogs. The gulf between the powerless and the powerful is articulated by the character Jon-Jo, the young cleaner in the shopping centre in Gravesend, who recognises the inequality and imbalance in an ideological way, railing against injustice and his lack of opportunity and articulating his resistance by wanting to find a daily means of ‘sticking it to the Man’. In doing this, he significantly links economic inequality and inequality associated with impairment by telling Emma ‘You’re not the only one who’s oppressed, girl’ (ibid pp 217-218).
Many adventure and action novels are based in exotic locations. My aim was the opposite. I wanted to create something exciting based on places and journeys that were utterly ordinary but still interesting and stimulating to read about. The chase therefore takes place with Emma and Sterling fleeing by passenger ferry (on three occasions), bus and train. The landscapes of Suffolk, Essex and Kent are invoked rather than the glitz and glamour of Paris or New York. For me, Felixstowe, Harwich, Manningtree, Socketts Heath, Tilbury and Gravesend can be just as interesting and evocative as anywhere else, and Sterling seems to find himself on cases that suit his temperament and small town mentality (at Gravesend, he’s glad to be back in Kent, and is sure that Emma would mock him for showing it (ibid p 205)).
The impairment theme
The book is primarily a crime noveland a chase novel, but the theme of impairment is woven into the narrative at many junctures as another prevalent theme – and sometimes, in the view of some readers, overdone. I was aware of this, and tried to make discussion and treatment of it natural, lapsing into humour and variety if things were going too far. If disabled issues are tedious to some non-disabled people, imagine (I submit) how tedious the daily struggle to function is for disabled people. It was helpful to me that Sterling had no awareness of issues, but to his credit he was willing to learn.
His first struggles on the case are when he first receives a Text Relay phone call and soon after meets his client, Nick Jameson, who is a profoundly deaf man. Sterling soon gets into trouble not just for poor initial communication with his client but because of the language he uses. For politically aware and politically active disabled people, language and specific means of expression are vitally important. Both Jameson and his daughter, Emma, espouse the social model of impairment. In this approach, neither of them believes that they have a ‘disability’ (Nick Jameson his deafness, Emma her paralysed legs) and prefer the word ‘impairment’. They agree that they are ‘disabled’, but not by their impairments. Rather they are disabled by society, its attitudes and the way it is organised. In this way they can be ‘disabled’ but not ‘have a disability’. Emma articulates this argument in Lily’s flat in Socketts Heath (ibid p 166).
The social model is in contrast to the medical model of impairment, which locates the problems within disabled individuals and looks for cures. Emma isn’t against the idea of a ‘cure’. ‘Am I glad I fell off that sodding horse? Of course I’m not. Would I like a normal life? Of course I would.’ (ibid p 167). But if that isn’t in prospect she wants the best life she can get. Interestingly, some disabled people aren’t interested in ‘cures’. There is resistance in parts of the Deaf community to cochlear implants. Having got one myself after a dispiriting journey into profound deafness, I don’t share that resistance as the effects have been staggering. Most servicemen who have been injured in warfare would be in mine and Emma’s camp.
Emma deals with other models of impairment. She dismisses a ‘celebratory’ approach to impairment (how an impairment can develop moral fibre etc.) and the ‘bio-psycho-social model’ (though she doesn’t mention it by name), a kind of all-things-to-all-people stance which acknowledges that society needs to change to accommodate disabled people whilst also recognising the pain, sadness and difficulty wrought by impairment. She’s not necessarily against this argument, but sees the social model as the driver for the change required. Any other approach, in her view, lets society off the hook (ibid. pp 166-167). Sterling isn’t averse to taking advantage of his new-found knowledge and understanding, for instance outside a Spar shop with a ramp and automatic electric sliding door when he and Emma need provisions: ‘Fine. Yeah. I’ll wait…’ [he says]… ‘Alright, alright. Lazy bugger [says Emma]. ‘Well, society’s not disabling you here’ is his riposte (ibid. p148). There are a number of occasions where Sterling challenges Emma and her attitudes, and her behaviour.
Sections of the book deal with ‘sub-aspects’ of impairment. Universal Design, an inclusive approach to buildings which makes them accessible for disabled people in a way that is natural for everyone is explained (ibid. pp 114-115). Emma uses ‘health and safety’ and their intricacies on the bus journey from Colchester to Chelmsford to her advantage rather than in the way they are sometimes used (i.e. to exclude disabled people) in a cycle of identifying hazards, assessing the risks they pose and then managing the risks (ibid chs 15 and 16 passim). Health and safety concepts and legislation are often misused and misunderstood. Legislation and monitoring have saved hundreds of lives, and where they are weak (e.g. Quatar in preparation for the next football world cup) thousands have died).
There is ‘banter’ about disabled (wrong) and accessible (right) toilets (ibid p 193). There is an episode about the much disliked ‘business case’ (the disabled community as an extra and potentially profitable market segment) rather than the ‘equality case’ (disabled people should have equal rights) for accommodating disabled people (ibid pp 298-299). That most human beings are only ‘temporarily abled’ (ibid p142) and can be temporarily disabled is dealt with (ibid p142). There is brief discussion of reasonable adjustments for disabled people when Emma comes to Sterling’s office, and (though not by name) ‘objective justification’ – when what amounts to discrimination against disabled people can be legally justified (ibid pp 285-286). Other impairment themes such as mental ill-health, cancer and HIV are included.
Anyone who is deaf, or in a relationship, family or friendship with someone who is deaf, hard of hearing or deafened, will recognise my use of mondegreens. Sterling’s client, Nicholas Jameson, seemed to be constantly ‘behind the curve’ in terms of his understanding what was going on, and often isolated and unconnected with the social interaction taking place around him. A way of dealing with not hearing can be to produce phrases that sound like the phrases that haven’t been heard, and some deaf people are experts at doing this – ‘fairy snuff’ instead of ‘fair enough’; ‘bop the cattle yon’ instead of ‘pop the kettle on’; ‘shit, shit’ instead of ‘grip, grip’ – all examples from the novel. I wanted to try and make this humorous whilst at the same time making a serious point for non-deaf people to understand. Jameson’s use of Text Relay (ibid ch 1 passim) on the telephone was another opportunity to show what it’s like for deaf people, and how laborious it can be, whilst also showing that hearing people can be disadvantaged if they are not familiar with it (the tables being turned, as it were).
But mondegreens were also useful to help me with the plot. When Daphne Jameson was murdered, were her last words ‘Bart’s kneebone’ or ‘Bawdsey Manor’? In fact, though the latter constituted a most helpful eureka moment for Sterling, it was incorrect (his wrong assumption leading in the right direction). The old woman actually (it turned out) said ‘Bathsheba’.
Hostility to disabled people
It would be unrealistic to assume that everyone is always kind and helpful to disabled people. In Tesco’s in Swiss Cottage recently (October 2014), a blind young woman with a guide dog was shouted at by staff when doing her shopping, an incident that received national media coverage, and there has been a long procession of other incidents.
On the beach at Landguard Fort, Emma was refused permission to board the little passenger ferry to Harwich, and her reaction was dramatic. Similarly she was aggressive rather than assertive on the bus from Colchester to Chelmsford when faced with a truculent bus driver (ibid chs 10 and 15). Although it can be argued that in some areas things are improving for disabled people, progress is not uniform. From the writing point of view, tensions between people (and not just between strangers and/or on the grounds of impairment) helped add drama and pace to the plot.
Some things recurred unexpectedly throughout the novel as themes or ‘riffs’ and almost took lives of their own. One was the grip bag Sterling bought to replace his original abandoned one, when he and Emma are in Harwich, and they come to take joint responsibility for looking after it. It became the source of repartee and tension between them. It was symbolically handed over to Sterling by Emma as a present (newly restored and with useful contents) at the end of the book. It helped advance the plot, when they both manage to leave it behind at Tilbury and Sterling jumps of the ferry to rescue it. It is even the subject of a ‘mondegreen’ when Nicholas Jameson (ibid p 301) asks Sterling why people are chanting ‘shit, shit, shit’ (they are actually chanting ‘grip, grip, grip’ – see above).
Another example is the ‘legs, not back’ mantra they use when Sterling lifts and carries Emma. Again, this became useful as a way of developing Emma and Sterling’s closeness and comradeship, and even provided a point of reference when others did not follow their good practice – Jon-Jo in the shopping centre at Gravesend (ibid p 212), and Marcus Whitman-Wood not handling his disabled grandfather correctly towards the end (ibid p 272). I came to be surprised at how useful these ‘riffs’ were for developing relationships, adding lightness and humour and helping advance the story. Other themes include the ‘female solidarity’ between Emma and various other women throughout the journey (Esther at Landguard Fort and Becky in the Cinque Port Arms for example) though notably not between Emma and Angela Wilson.
I hope I succeeded in writing an exciting and engaging detective and chase novel, with twists and turns in an interesting plot populated by engaging characters, and intertwined with the themes of helping the underdog and impairment. In the end, Sterling became aware of and knowledgeable about a new social world. He began to look at the world through new, disabled eyes. I am not aware of any other novel that addresses impairment in the way I have done it – with an emphasis on the social model and the need for society, not disabled people, to change.
I would be happy to correspond with anyone who has queries about the novel and its themes and wants to explore further.
Recently, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former consigliere, declared that he was leaving the Labour Party as it had departed from his values. I’m not sure of the ins and outs, but he had already been expelled or suspended for voting Liberal Democrat in the EU elections, in clear and direct contravention of LP rules. I…
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Following the release of The Golden Spurs, these two articles about me and my writing might pique some interest: – https://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/david-r-ewens-exclusive-life-of-crime-1162816.html David R Ewens: ‘Deafness doesn’t confine or define me’read more...