We fell in love talking about civil service reform! (Truly)
PUBLISHED: 10:03 21 January 2017
John and his wife fell in love talking about civil service reform. Yes, honestly!
There’s one – very obvious – opening question. Were John Nightingale’s own dreams really haunted by a beautiful, mysterious woman who evaporated like mist in sunshine when he woke up, leaving only a fleeting memory? As happened, in fact, to the hero of John’s whodunit-with-a-twist, the fictional crime writer David Knight. That’s what I’ve heard.
“I had a similar dream many times before writing the book,” John admits. “I woke with a terrible sense of loss, paradise withdrawn, even though I, like David, was happily married. The dream disappeared so quickly that I found it difficult to remember any detail at all, but I was sure that whatever had happened was very important.”
In The Appearance of Murder, David is struggling to finish writing his latest (overdue) book. He’s caused ill-feeling by ducking a holiday in Norfolk with his wife and sons to stay in London and crack his novel.
And then he lets a young woman into the house. She looks familiar, and shows him a photograph of five undergraduates. One of them, she says, is her father. One of the five faces, David realises, is his own.
It should be easy to sort out. But the result of an accident means David can’t recall anything about that time in his life – apart from the mysterious woman who haunts his dreams – and he’s dragged back into a murky past where other people have agendas.
“The other starting-off point was that I was talking to the son of a friend who had really been a very good rugby player but who had got knocked out in a match and was subsequently advised to stop playing. Like David, he found he had a six-month gap in his memory, for the period before the accident, which he was trying to rebuild.
“This led me to the basic set-up for the book – as the tag line on the cover puts it ‘If you can’t remember – how do you know what you’ve done?’”
He might have qualified as a bus conductor and then rejected the chance of selling soft toys to instead join the civil service, but it was nailed-on that John would become a writer. Eventually. Look at the rich seam of his childhood:
“In my mother’s family there were any number of ongoing feuds. I never met my maternal grandfather until just before he died, because he had run off thirty years before with a younger woman. As he was by then pretty much blind, he had to touch me to get a sense of how tall I was. It was very Dickensian.”
There’s more colour. Much more.
“One of my mother’s brothers had been a racing driver with his own team of Jowett Jupiter sports cars – Alf Thomas. He was famous for finishing a race even after he had been hit on the head by the bonnet that had flown off the car in front of him.
“I remember seeing him just before he died. He was very thin and in a dressing gown, but that didn’t stop him drinking champagne and moaning about the Government.
“While my mother talked to him I was shipped off to the billiard room to play snooker with a man who I think was a bookmaker. I was impressed by an enormous sideboard with a vast selection of drinks on the top. After a time an apparition, a beautiful woman in what appeared to be a pink tracksuit, shimmered through the room, issued a greeting and left. This was Alf’s friend, who used to drive one of the cars in the racing team and who was rumoured, after his death, to have married a Maharajah.
“These episodes made an enormous impression and I try to capture something of this spirit of extraordinary characters and situations in my books.”
John was born in Bedford. “We were sort of nouveau poor. My father’s family had owned Nightingale’s fertilisers but the only trace left in Bedford when I was born was a large car park where the main factory had once stood.
“One of the great pleasures was going to the library and getting books out to read. I used to love Biggles, Tintin, Sherlock Holmes, The Famous Five and any sort of mystery or adventure story.”
Of his primary school “I remember two things – one, that the headmaster shot himself (an early instance of the apparent arbitrariness of events); and two, that my writing career nearly came to an abrupt end.
“I still remember the ugly red line struck through my work. To be fair, we were meant to be writing about a day at the seaside. That I should interpret this as a bored boy at the seaside imagining what the D-Day landings would have been like was largely my fault. The rejection still hurts though.”
Bedford School, from the age of eight, provided happier memories. Afterwards: university. Cambridge.
“By the time I got to Gonville and Caius I was a fully qualified bus conductor – a good job for studying human nature.
“The photograph of the five undergraduates that features in The Appearance of Murder is based on one taken at Caius and provided some of the inspiration for the plot, which delves into events that had happened twenty-five years before. Mark and his haunting guitar-playing has echoes of [the late musician] Nick Drake, who had connections to Caius; and the inspiration for Peter Parchment is my old friend Andrew Cunningham, creator of the wonderful [BBC children’s TV show] Bodger & Badger.
“When I had completed my degree I did a bit of labouring in the RAF at Cardington, with the vague sense that I wanted to be a writer, and I got elected as a shop steward.
“The guys there were really nice and used to refer to me as a ‘drop in’, but eventually I decided to move to London. I needed a job and it was a choice between a temporary vacancy in the civil service or selling soft toys. Soft toys might have been a great career but you had to work on Saturdays, so I decided on the civil service job.
“They encouraged me to apply for a permanent job for more money – so I did. The first real job I got was with the NHS Staff Commission, overseeing the ’73/74 reorganisation (nothing changes) of the NHS into regional and area health authorities. I became the chief aide to the chairman, Sir Richard Hayward, who was a tremendous political operator. It was all good material for a novel about power politics.”
John later had a major hand in trying to make the best out of the pensions tangle that followed the death at sea of tycoon Robert Maxwell. “When the Maxwell occupational pension schemes got into trouble after Robert Maxwell’s mysterious death in 1991 the Government established a special arm’s-length organisation to act as an honest broker between the parties to see if enough money could be found to ensure all the Maxwell pensioners had their pensions paid.
“I was the acting head of the unit when the parties under Sir John Cuckney’s (later Lord Cuckney) leadership reached a major settlement which safeguarded the pensions of almost all concerned.
“There was a lot of background material for the novelist in the wheeler-dealing of bankers and lawyers that I witnessed. Some of this went into The Sky Blue Parcel [his debut, published a decade ago].
“Sir John Cuckney had also been a spy in MI5, and to quote The Guardian ‘operated for nearly half a century in that shadowy area where the secret state, government and the private sector overlap’. Again, all good stuff for the writing mill.
“Once, when we were concluding a conversation in the gents, he suddenly raised his fingers to his lips and then proceeded to check all the cubicles to ensure there was no possibility of anyone overhearing us.” With John Nightingale’s career taking in a wide variety of jobs, including Private Secretary to a Permanent Secretary, I’ve got to ask: was the TV satire Yes Minister close to the truth? “I think it is the best series on the civil service and one that has stood the test of time.
“I had long conversations with one of the two writers, Jonathan Lynn, in 1978 and 1979 about what civil servants were like, before Yes Minister came out. He was then the director of the Cambridge Theatre Company and I’d written a play, Outside In, about a civil servant in the health service who stays at home because he can’t see any point in going to work.
“I seem to remember – although Jonathan was understandably discreet about what he was up to – that the original concept was much blacker than what actually made it to the screen: the civil servants ‘won’ every time and the Minister was never able to get his policies adopted. In the series that were actually made it’s a more even battle, with success switching from one side to the other.
“I used to like the inexorable logic that Sir Humphrey used to apply to situations and I’m sure there is some of that in my writing.”
Which leads us to John’s good lady, Caroline, who a decade ago was head of the Equal Opportunities Commission. They married in 1990. How did they meet?
“We fell in love on either end of civil service phones, talking about civil service reform. Caroline was in the Cabinet Office and I was at DWP (Department of Work and Pensions). The first time we met in person was at a meeting she had contrived for the two of us with a consultant in Ernst and Young.”
She was special in more ways than one, wasn’t she?
“Caroline was the first ever woman Private Secretary in No 10, serving both Margaret Thatcher and John Major and working closely with them in their inner office. She was the only other woman in the room when Margaret Thatcher resigned.
“The press were interested in her progress. We got married when she was still in No 10 – prompting a Daily Mail headline ‘Caroline Slocock Weds Unknown Civil Servant’.”
They have two grown-up daughters.
John turned to writing full-time when he left the civil service.
“I left about a year early to concentrate on writing – it was at the time of the financial crisis in 2008. I’d had my first book The Sky Blue Parcel – a financial thriller featuring a high-flying early-thirties Treasury civil servant, Jane Charles – published. That had gone quite well and people found the setting particularly authentic.”
The couple now split their time between Suffolk and the capital. “We live in the middle of Dunwich Forest. We used to visit friends for many years, so we know the area very well. One wet and miserable February day we saw this empty, forlorn-looking house hidden by overgrown pine trees that was up for sale. We had no intention of buying it but thought it might be interesting to find out the price… anyway, we found we owned it a couple of months later.”
John’s working on the second David Knight novel. It should be out in the autumn.
“I’m determined to make the book as good as or better than the first. It’s a slightly daunting task because The Appearance of Murder was one of John Sutherland’s books of the year in The Times and Ian Rankin’s pick for his Christmas stocking!”
* The Appearance of Murder is published by Spider Monkey Books, in hardback, paperback and ebook formats.
John’s appearing at Felixstowe Book Festival on March 5. Tickets on sale from January 27 via www.felixstowebookfestival.co.uk or The New Wolsey Theatre: 01473 295900
The magic of Suffolk
“We love the fact that you don’t have to get into a car and you can walk to Dunwich or Walberswick or Southwold on forest or coastal paths,” says John. “We particularly like going for pub lunches at places like the Harbour Inn near Southwold. I’m addicted to the Suffolk Smokies.
But almost everywhere you go there are great shops and places to eat, and there are also some great bookshops: like WH Smith and Wells in Southwold – the latter also has a brilliant jazz/classical music section – and others in Halesworth, Beccles, Aldeburgh and elsewhere.
“If I had to pick a favourite place it would probably be a narrow win for Southwold because of the Summer Theatre, the literary and crime festivals, and Tim Hunkin’s machines on Southwold pier!
“I can remember Hunkin, who was also an undergraduate at Caius, trying to pick a handkerchief out of my pocket with a pair of mechanical hands he had invented!”