John Tagholm (Eliot, 1965) has a new novel out! A Girl Called Flotsam is John’s fifth novel and here he gives us a fascinating insight into his inspiration.
A Girl Called Flotsam was written at a desk in Islington, after an uncertain birth on a kitchen table in Provence. Mind you, before that it was conceived over the course of year, the time it took for two ideas to meet and get together. Let me explain.
I was volunteering for the Charity Thames21, whose near impossible mission is to clean the foreshore of the River Thames and its tributaries, when the first of the events occurred that would lead to this book, although not directly. Not at all.
I was on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs and about a hundred of us were picking up the detritus of generations that the departing tide had left behind: supermarket trollies, scaffold poles, plastic bags, old tyres, panty liners and rusting metal. The work wasn’t pretty, but it was in a good cause. We had protective clothing, of course, and we toiled for hours as the river slowly came back towards us.
And then I was aware of a commotion to my right and a group of my colleagues were clustering around an object. I wandered over to see what the fuss was all about. I found them staring down at the barrel, or what remained of it, of a sawn-off shotgun. What excitement. The police had to be called and two constables duly arrived and with a stick picked up the gun by its trigger guard, as we’ve seen done in many police dramas on television, and took it away.
Well, for me as you might imagine, this was manna from heaven. A few days later I called the press office of Thames21, who told me that after examination the police thought that the gun had been thrown into the river about fifty years earlier and that as far as they could see it wasn’t associated with any outstanding crime.
Fascinating. But I didn’t want to write about sawn-off shotguns. Too obvious, perhaps.
By now my juices were running and I enquired after any other unusual findings. I was told about two suitcases washed up near Battersea, both containing designer clothes wrapped in protective polythene. One of the bags also revealed several passports for the same person but under different names. Honest.
By now my mind was racing. And then there was the skull, I was told, almost as an afterthought. My senses were alerted. It turned out to be a thousand years old, I was told. I was on the edge of my seat by now. The press officer explained that it had been sent to the Museum of London for further examination and was later dated back to the Anglo-Saxons.
A thousand year old skull. I couldn’t wait to find out more.
However, when I phoned the Museum the trail ran out. They had no record of such a skull but told me the previous year a near-perfect skeleton, still in its grave, had been uncovered at an unusually low tide and had been dated back to the fifteenth century. Perhaps it was being confused with this one.
Well, never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. Like a jackdaw taking a piece of silver foil back to its nest, I stored the imaginary Anglo-Saxon skull away for future use.
A year would pass before the next stage in the creation of Flotsam. I had been hoping to write the biography of the celebrated food writer and restaurateur, Robert Carrier but it seemed that no one was particularly interested in the man who did more than most to transform our attitudes to food in the 1960s and 70s. My proposals found no takers and I was disappointed. I had worked with Robert, making several television series and later become a friend.
But all was not lost. I can remember being in the south of France, staying just below the hill village of Bonnieux and scribbling in my notebook an entry I still have. Could I write a fiction in which a charismatic and flamboyant foody would play a significant role?
In that curious alchemy that takes place before a book is born, I began the process of linking the find on the Thames with a celebrity from the world of food.
I needed an overall story, however. I had long wanted to write about a particular sort of modern women, one who had taken advantage of the hard fought rights that her sex had achieved over the last forty years. She would be successful in a field that had once been the almost exclusive domain of men, in this case that of being a TV director. And she would be sexually liberated and free of the compulsion to marry and have children.
But somehow she wouldn’t be happy and I wanted to explore why. So Flotsam was born and even before I had left the cicadas and rosé wines of Provence, I had begun to sketch out a plot and when I returned to England I had a head of steam sufficient enough to begin the book.
I was to learn a lot along the way, particularly about the Anglo-Saxons, who were both creative and enlightened. And about skeletons. For example, I discovered you can’t tell the sex of a pre-pubescent skeleton, an important fact for the development of the book. And I came across a new word: osteoarchaeologist, an expert in old bones.
I wanted to write about history near and far and just how difficult it is to establish the real truth about why things happened, about how the passage of time obfuscates, covers and distorts facts. I immersed myself in the back streets of Marseille, the German war archives and the fate of collaborators in immediate post-war France.
And so my heroine, who is part of a group who discovers a small skull on the foreshore of the Thames one grey day, is prompted to find out more about this ancient remnant of, as she discovers, a child. She is also about to make a documentary about world famous restaurateur Joseph Troumeg and become embroiled in the truth of his own background. Layers of truth waiting to be uncovered.
The search for the provenance of both the skull and the restaurateur leads her to discover more about herself.
I hope that if you choose to read A Girl Called Flotsam, it gives you as much pleasure as it gave me to write.