Sunday 3 January 2021

Work in Progress

Update: I'm still here, still quietly working away in these strange, unsettling times. I can't say I've worked all through last year, but I have a rough draft now of the hardest and most rewarding book I have ever attempted. Its scope has expanded though, and I now envisage a two-part work in the same volume. The first will be a fictionalised novella based on my mother Joy's diaries, set in Moscow in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War. The second will be a memoir of her, and our experiences as a family - what happened next, in other words.

My thinking is that this might seem odd at first glance, but actually could be very satisfying. And sometimes writers have to try new formats, surely, or all books would conform to the same dull template. This is the idea I'm currently working with, anyhow. It's a way to avoid compromising the drama of a spy story based on real, known events, in particular the continuing enigma of Kim Philby before his unmasking as a Soviet spy, while also examining the personal price paid for what she herself called "an interesting life".

There's a true romance in the fiction, too. It was in Moscow that my mother met my father. Their tales of their dates trailed by the KGB became part of the fabric of our family history. Some of their adventures sounded fantastical when I was growing up, but research has proved it all to be true, and much more besides that I never realised. 

In the end, this personal memoir of her is a universal story about how families and their stories evolve; the narratives we thought we knew and understood, yet missed the point due to familiarity and mistaken assumptions, or lack of courage to ask, or lack of curiosity at a given time. And sometimes, secrets kept until the last.

A short extract from the first draft:

My mother never discussed any specific work she did. But I read and then carefully transcribed her diary for 1958 knowing what she had finally told me in her final years: that she had worked for MI6 and that “There were four of us who knew all the secrets” at the British Embassy in Moscow.

She would have had a natural aptitude for intelligence work. Despite her beauty, she was self-effacing almost to a fault, did not court attention and was irritated by those who did. She was analytical and patient, interested in psychology and sociology; her nature was self-sufficient and she had deep inner resources. 

Some people - perhaps most people - want to seem more than they are. Very few people are content being more than they seem – but Joy was one of them.

What was always clear was that the past was never all that far from the present. It resonated throughout my childhood. The war my parents experienced as children. The lucky near-misses in wartime bombings. The fateful meeting in Moscow. The Cold War. Kuwait. Peking. When they entertained, which was often when we were abroad, the talk was all of foreign postings and people and upheavals, political and personal. Communism. The Cultural Revolution. The grey oppression and underlying threat of Soviet Russia. It was a lot for a silent, observant child to take in. I would sit quietly, lest I be told to go out of the room, absorbing it all, as the tales rolled out of people who had disappeared, what had been tried to save them, or find them, or help them across a border, like the European nuns who had taught me and other international children at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the last Catholic school in China.

When my sister and I were growing up, she made sure we knew that she thought satisfying careers for girls were far more important than finding husbands. Though in the long run, husbands and families were to be encouraged, they shouldn’t be considered until we were in our thirties and had had more experience of life. (When I married at 28, it was with a sense that I might have rather let her down.) It was typical of my mother that when I left school after taking Oxbridge entrance examinations in December, I found she had booked me a secretarial course starting in January. Her reasoning was simple: with typing and shorthand skills, I would be able to earn good money in the university holidays, and would always have something to fall back on. I did wonder, though, whether there was a subtext. She wanted me to understand that clever girls could forge interesting careers by careful choice of which typewriters to bash.

My parents in Moscow in January 1959, at the wedding of friends - Joy was a bridesmaid. They would marry later that year in London.

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