Stanley Johnson outside Daunts
I suppose, with ten published novels, I can be allowed to call myself a novelist. Surveying these ‘collected works’ suggests that I have specialized in the ‘political novel’. My first novel Gold Drain published by Heinemann in 1967 was a spoof about how the Secret Service planned to fight budget cuts by robbing the IMF of a US $10 billion bond. I had to clear the text with MI6 since, soon after leaving Oxford, I had had a brief stint in that organization.
I remember taking the train up from Exmoor to London to be interviewed by the MI6 security officer. I explained that my novel was fiction, not fact. ‘Oh that’s all right then’ he said and sent me back to Paddington without asking me to change a word.
I have noticed over the years that the line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred. In the mid-sixties I worked in Washington DC for the World Bank. It was a grim time politically. The United States was in the middle of the Vietnam War. In the streets crowds gathered to chant ‘Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ The burning issue was would Lyndon Johnson run again for election in November 1968.
Panther Jones for President – my second ‘political novel’ - had a most ingenious plot. My LBJ-type President (I called him Ellsworth Barnes) chooses an Afro-American Vice-Presidential candidate, Panther Jones, a Black Power activist. Barnes is duly re-elected President only to be disbarred when he goes out to Guam to meet a returning astronaut. Congress decides that he has risked contamination from outer space, must be quarantined for at least five years and therefore invokes Article 25 of the US Constitution, which provides for the President to step down on grounds of incapacity. Panther Jones duly succeeds and brings the Vietnam War to a rapid end!
I have written novels about the outbreak of a global virus, a terrorist attack in the Channel Tunnel, a disaster on China’s Three Gorges Dam, and global warming. In some cases, what I predicted, has actually happened. Take Ebola and Climate Change.
In the 1980’s, when I worked in the European Commission, I wrote a book called The Commissioner which (a) foresaw a major pollution episode on the Rhine (b) the arrival of the first female Commissioner and (c) the sacking of the whole Commission. All those events occurred soon after the book came out!
Now of course, with Trump and Brexit, the dividing line between fact and fiction is so blurred as to be virtually indistinguishable.
At the beginning of this year, I decided that for my next novel, instead of taking a fictional view of the near future, I would take a fictional look at the near past. I would write a “what really happened” book situated in the run-up to the Referendum of June 2016. I imagined that the book might be called “The Brexit Conspiracy” or “The Brexit Memorandum” or something along those lines. But as I settled down to work against a tight schedule I quickly realized that focussing on Brexit was too one-dimensional. The skulduggery I wanted to write about extended to both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the links between the Referendum campaign over here, and the US election, seemed both strong and continuing.
I don’t use real characters in the book. I point out in an Author’s Note at the beginning that the book is a work of fiction and satire, and not a work of history. I state very firmly that “readers of this novel should not conclude in any way that any living person misbehaved in the manner that some of the characters in the book regrettably seem to have done.”
I don’t want to give away the plot of the book here. But I’ll give one major hint. There is a lot more to British Prime Minister, Jeremy Hartley, who calls for – and manages to lose – the Referendum than at first meets the eye.
Though I was on the Remain side in the Referendum Campaign (I founded and co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe), I am not trying to make a political point with KOMPROMAT. Not much of one anyway. This book is just meant to be fun. A good read. Something to take to the beach or on a plane.
Oddly enough, the character I most empathized with, as I wrote, is my Russian President, Igor Popov. Popov spends a lot of time doing macho stuff, like shooting hypodermic darts into tigers and flying the Russian Presidential plane at speeds in excess of Mach 1.
Of course, Popov isn’t Putin, but I know I was at least subconsciously influenced by the three days I once spent in St Petersburg at a meeting on international wildlife conservation brilliantly organized and chaired by President Putin himself.
Picture by Mark Rusher
Stanley Johnson’s novel KOMPROMAT is published by Oneworld-publications. His best known novel, so far, is The Commissioner, published 1989 by Century Hutchinson and made into a film starring John Hurt in the title role. KOMPROMAT has been bought by Channel 4 for a six-part TV series –and he is hoping for a cameo role. (Ed. note- OT will follow with interest and update)