Friday, August 5, 2016

THE ENGLISH WITNESS - A Brief Introduction

On the 9th April 1973 (I still have my old passport with the date stamped in it), I arrived in San Sebastián for the start of a six-month study placement. It was a marvellous and unforgettable experience. This elegant resort city, with its beautiful beaches, rugged hinterland and vibrant social life, was paradise for a couple of dozen language students from a wet and windy university campus in England’s industrial heartland. Food and drink cost a fraction of what we were used to at home, and aside from a few hours a day studying we threw ourselves into socialising with a vengeance.

There was a dark side to the experience, however. San Sebastián was, and is, the cultural capital of the Basque Country – the beautiful, hospitable but politically volatile ethnic enclave that straddles the Atlantic border between France and Spain. In the embittered twilight years of the Franco regime, when suspected Basque activists could disappear in the night, and where an innocent foreign visitor could receive a police beating just on suspicion of speaking the forbidden Basque language, the potential for dire mishap was constantly lurking in the background. Indeed, and tragically, for decades the region was a byword not for its beauty or hospitality but for terrorist atrocities.

And most of us were not the types to keep at a safe distance from local preoccupations. On the one hand, we were cultural explorers well before the age of the gap year; we were smitten with the idea of alien cultures and world-views, and constantly open to new ways of living. But at the same time, most of us still revelled, at least to some extent, in an awareness of our social, economic and educational superiority over the local people (people with whom we nevertheless forged close friendships and a great deal of solidarity). That mildly patronising attitude of which some of us were guilty – that rose-tinted perception of a rather simple Ruritanian society to whose threats we ourselves were immune – risked blinding us to the very real dangers.

It was inevitable that some of us would get close to people who were actively engaged with the region’s deep-seated political tensions, and that one or two might get a little too close for comfort. I know that in my own case, enamoured as I was with the local culture and not always totally at ease with my lovely colleagues and compatriots, there was more than one occasion on which things could have taken a dangerous turn. In later years, I reflected at length on how any one of those rash moments could have turned out; how they would have affected my subsequent life, and the person I might have become in one of those parallel universes of causality.

I had long fantasised about setting a novel in that beautiful but potentially deadly setting, but lacked the literary skills to do so. But over the years business writing, public speaking, teaching, and the successive arrival of children and grandchildren gave me the confidence to make the attempt. And so it was that what started out as a more modest memoir and travelogue metamorphosed into what I have described as “a tense psychological thriller with some quite nasty bits”.

Inevitably, the traumatised protagonist of the story is largely me. Or perhaps more accurately an anti-me – a darker, and (I like to think) more dysfunctional version of myself from an alternate reality in which the ever-present potential for disaster has actually materialised. And the travels and casual encounters of that summer are pretty much as they happened. But at each stage I have explored how things might have turned out, and what the short- and longer-term consequences might have been. Strangely, perhaps, the hardest thing of all was allowing characters I had nurtured into life to be bad people and/or to get hurt.

All the other characters and the main storyline are entirely fictional, and (in publishing-speak) no resemblance is intended to anyone living or dead. Even certain places and establishments have been camouflaged or anonymised out of respect for the privacy of others. However it is possible, given the genesis of this work, that some of those who shared the author’s real life experiences may be reminded of real people or their words or actions. As I say in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, I hope they will take any such parallels as a sign of enduring affection and respect. 

Finally, a massive thank you to everyone who helped to make that phase in my life so memorable, as well as those who have patiently read the manuscript at different stages and given feedback. It's far from perfect, even in my own eyes, but the next one will be better.

THE ENGLISH WITNESS by John C. Bailey is exclusively available via Amazon's Kindle store.
Link to Amazon UK page   (Other countries: please search on title from within the Amazon site)