I am delighted to publish the below guest post by my dear friend, Jeff Grant. I have known Jeff for some 10-11 years and have looked forward to the publication of his novel “Albatross”, which is now available as a paperback or a Kindle download. Do please check out Jeff’s book.
One evening six years ago, in a bar in Buenos Aires in Argentina, I sat chatting with my son Alastair, a teacher of English in that city. The conversation drifted to the subject of my father. I had never known him – not in any real sense. He and my mother separated when I was less than three years old. I never saw him or heard from him after that. The only conscious memory I have of him is as a participant in a family argument. Even then, all I am aware of is a tall male figure whose face is way above my head.
As I grew older, my natural curiosity about him developed. My mother however, would never talk about him. But some instinct which I sense is unerring, tells me that most of the real love and care that I received in those very early days, I received at the hands of that man. His departure from my life was, consequently, devastating.
In my twenties and thirties, I made various attempts to find him. But I discovered very little. My all-demanding career as a director of TV and cinema commercials in London gave me no real time for anything else. Only much later, when I’d met my present partner, Anita, did concrete details start to surface. Anita had worked for a long time in adoption and was adept at finding things out via the internet. It was a sad day when we came across the evidence that my father had died in the mid 1980’s.
We also discovered around the same time that I had a half-sister in the north of England. She sent me a photograph of my father. Until that moment I had no idea what he looked like. It was a strange, almost spooky, first view. I look so much like him. But in his eyes – and it was the same in many of the photographs I was subsequently to see of him – there was a wistfulness, a sadness. Rightly or wrongly, I attributed that look in part at least, to what I feel sure must have been a permanent facet of his existence after he and my mother split – that of having been separated, for the remainder of his days, from one half of his own self.
As Alastair and I discussed all this, it became obvious that that permanent separation must have had a profound effect on my father – on the way he led his life, on his later relationships, on how he viewed himself and his future; and that the older he grew, the more painful the whole thing must have become. Did it ever prompt him to try and get in touch with me? I’ve no idea. What I do know is that had he done so at any time while I was still living in the family home, I would never have been told. And I guess that in any case, a time eventually comes when, in order to be able to lead a reasonably peaceable and balanced life of your own, you have to do your very best to blank that sort of thing right out of your memory. Forget it; make it seem like it never happened. But of course you can’t; and it did. So to his dying day my poor father must have been living a monumental lie.
And so the idea for ‘Albatross’ was born. In the few days I had left in Buenos Aires I made some notes on whatever ideas came to me in that time – structure, characters etc. Then back in London I started to write it. It took me five years.
I cannot work to a structured plan. I have an overall idea of where and in what direction I want the story to go. But the details of place, character, twists of the plot etc. come to me only as I work. Which I do every morning for at least three hours. It’s occasionally longer, but I’ve found by experience that three hours at the keyboard is enough. However well things are going, my concentration and creativity almost always start to fade after that. And if things aren’t going well and ideas are not coming to me – which, I’m pleased to say is rare – I’ll nevertheless sit there until the three hours are up. It’s like being at a football match. You may be a goal down – but until the final whistle, you can never be sure the equalizer won’t come!
‘Albatross’ – subtitled ‘The scent of honeysuckle’ – is the story of a man’s search for his only child, a son he abandoned when the boy was just three and the marriage with his mother over. The man concerned is Barnaby Marechal – born Bernat Gyorgy Horvat-Marshall of Hungarian mother and English father. A successful and popular back-bench politician, he is regarded by the public generally as a likeable maverick. But his long-abandoned son is a subject that in all his adult life, he has spoken about to no-one, not even to his present wife, Ellen. The older he gets, the more he is plagued by shame, guilt and regret. The time comes when he finds it difficult to concentrate on his work. He is convinced he has transgressed against some fundamental law of nature.
Returning one day from a speaking engagement in the north of England, his train pulls into an intermediate station in the Midlands. Suddenly, without any conscious forethought, he finds himself getting off and standing on the platform watching the train disappear from sight as it continues on its way to London without him.
He books into a run-down hotel. A night of turmoil brings a sort of clarity – he has to do all he can to find his son; there will be no rest for him without that. If it means giving up all else, including his career and even his marriage to Ellen – then that’s how it will have to be. The alternative – a slow psychological meltdown under the burden of an intolerable moral debt – is unthinkable.
The story proceeds in a number of strands and sub-strands, all of which, it is soon apparent, are ultimately convergent – the search itself, his early married life, his often dubious exploits in the years immediately following his divorce, his wealthy family background, his childhood and teenage years, his troubled relations with an alcoholic mother and workaholic father.
The search begins in Halifax and ends in the infamous Tenere Desert in the central Sahara of Niger. In between, it ranges across the UK, from rural Lincolnshire where Matthew was brought up with his mother and her second husband, to London’s Soho and the world of films and TV advertising, back to Lincolnshire where he meets and has a brief but life-altering sexual fling with the strange and unknowable Celeste Johannson. He meets the boy’s bizarre stepfather, now himself divorced, and who regards Barnaby as the source of all that went wrong in his own marriage. It takes him to a lonely house by the sea where he meets up again with Stella, Matthew’s mother, living a solitary life with just two dogs for company.
But Matthew, it turns out, has had good reason to disappear, and all trails go cold. Weary and despairing, Barnaby gives up his quest and moves to the north-east of England planning to live a life of quiet retirement. He buys a motorhome and plans an extensive holiday for himself in Scotland. He is about to set out early one morning when, on an old mobile phone he has resurrected and charged-up for this trip, a voicemail from a young woman in London tells him she thinks she knows where his son is.
After meeting with the woman, a vodka-addicted pop-singer from Eastern Europe named Katalin Varga, followed by a late night interview with the chain-smoking, wary-eyed Kit in a pub in London’s Soho – a confrontation which frightens the life out of him – Barnaby finds himself en route for the desert town of Agadez in Niger.
In a five-man expedition led by a Tuareg guide, he sets out across the desert on the trail of a red Suzuki pick-up, the vehicle in which Matthew – if indeed it is him – is reputed to have been travelling when Katalin Varga last heard from him. The boy’s purpose in Niger remains a mystery. But the signs are ominous – this is drug country. The shock and disorientation of his surroundings force Barnaby so far out of his comfort zone that he struggles to retain intact his mental faculties. When the red Suzuki is finally spotted, abandoned on the dunes of the Tenere Desert in temperatures nudging 55C, Barnaby, all warnings, all caution gone, sets out across the sand towards it like a man on Clacton beach in summer.
To find out what, if anything or anybody, he finds there, I’m afraid I’m going to refer you to the book itself! It’s available on Amazon as a paper-back and Kindle here –
I shall also be starting up my blog once again very soon at –
It’s a blog I’ve been forced through pressures of time and work to suspend for a long time – and I shall be posting extracts from the book on it. Those extracts will be chronological as far as the book’s concerned – though the book itself does not always follow a chronological order.
But however much of the book you read, and wherever you read it – I hope you enjoy it! I’ll be interested in your views.