Se­cret Suf­folk

Paul Si­mon talks to Ed­ward Wil­son cre­ator of the fic­tional Low­est­oft-born spy Wil­liam Catesby

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE -

The per­fect set­ting for Ed Wil­son’s spy, Wil­liam Catesby

Suf­folk is the per­fect place to both set and write spy nov­els, ac­cord­ing to Ed­ward Wil­son whose sixth novel, South At­lantic Re­quiem, was pub­lished re­cently. The county and espe­cially its coast­line makes fre­quent ap­pear­ances in his out­put, partly be­cause his pro­tag­o­nist, Wil­liam Catesby is a Low­est­oft boy and partly be­cause of Suf­folk’s place on the es­pi­onage front­line dur­ing the Cold War, with its mil­i­tary bases and the lis­ten­ing sta­tion at Or­ford Ness.

Ed­ward Wil­son is much more on the John Le Carre wing of the se­cret agent genre than the Ian Flem­ing one. In­deed, the for­mer is some­one he ad­mires. “Aside from my­self he is the clos­est to be­ing an anti-es­tab­lish­ment writer within the spy fic­tion genre. He is very good and, con­trary to the clichés, he has gone to the left as he’s got older. He is the most west­erly spy novelist in the UK and I’m the most east­erly one.” I’m speak­ing to the au­thor in the sum­mer house in his Chedis­ton gar­den, near Halesworth. He ex­plains his love for this part of Suf­folk.

“I’m a low­lan­der and I don’t care for moun­tains. What I like about th­ese coasts and marshes is the se­cre­tive­ness of them. For me Suf­folk was a hide­away. I like the quiet­ness. The beauty of Suf­folk is low-key. I like that.” But what was Ed­ward hid­ing from? A barely de­tectable Amer­i­can ac­cent, that is just oc­ca­sion­ally no­tice­able, pro­vides the vi­tal clue. He was born in Bal­ti­more and served as a Special Forces of­fi­cer in Viet­nam. He re­ceived the Army Com­men­da­tion Medal for his part in res­cu­ing badly wounded Viet­namese soldiers from a mine­field. His other dec­o­ra­tions in­cluded the Bronze Star and the Com­bat In­fantry­man’s Badge.

“The five root­less years af­ter I left Viet­nam were not par­tic­u­larly happy, although I did get an MA in English Lit­er­a­ture and learnt how to speak Ger­man. I was un­set­tled. I think in ret­ro­spect it was PTSD. I was at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity and the Amer­i­cans pulled my grant, a veter­ans’ ben­e­fit. They passed a law say­ing you couldn’t get th­ese benefits if you went to a for­eign uni­ver­sity.” As well as tak­ing up Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship, he needed to get a job. “As I had a teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion, I got an in­ter­view at Low­est­oft Col­lege. It was on the train be­tween Nor­wich and Low­est­oft that I fell in love with the Suf­folk coun­try­side.”

It was dur­ing his teach­ing ca­reer, that Ed­ward be­gan to write, although it has only been since he re­tired that he has achieved both crit­i­cal suc­cess and high sales vol­umes. His Catesby se­quence of nov­els fol­lows the Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice (SIS) or MI6 op­er­a­tive from the hotspots of World War Two, the Hun­gar­ian Up­ris­ing of 1956, at­tempts to desta­bilise Harold Wil­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tions and onto the Falk­lands War, the sub­ject of his lat­est re­lease. Each book is a mas­ter­piece of in­ter­wo­ven real events and re­al­is­ti­cally imag­ined se­quences within and sur­round­ing them, in­clud­ing gun­fights be­tween Soviet and SIS agents on Shin­gle Street and in­ter­ro­ga­tions at RAF Lak­en­heath, which Catesby en­gag­ingly trav­els to by bus.

Catesby is cer­tainly an im­pres­sively mul­ti­di­men­sional char­ac­ter – and a con­flicted one at that - be­ing a so­cial­ist work­ing for the Bri­tish Es­tab­lish­ment. What also makes him such a fas­ci­nat­ing and poignant char­ac­ter is the fact that he doesn’t re­ally fit in any­where, ei­ther at work or at home. He is to­tally loyal to Bri­tain, un­like most of his co-work­ers. “In one of the books, he looks around his col­leagues in SIS and reck­ons

‘What I like about th­ese coasts and marshes is the se­cre­tive­ness of them’

that half of them are spy­ing for Moscow and half for Wash­ing­ton. He was the only one work­ing for Bri­tain,” ex­plains Ed­ward.

And Catesby has also grown away from his beloved Suf­folk. “When he meets Harold Wil­son in A Very Bri­tish End­ing, the Prime Min­is­ter speaks with a broad York­shire ac­cent, one of the first things he re­prov­ingly says to Catesby is that ‘you’ve lost your ac­cent.’ So here you have a man who can pass as a na­tive speaker in three dif­fer­ent lan­guages, he’s be­come mid­dle class and he’s mar­ried into the up­per classes and has a com­fort­able lifestyle. So when he goes back to Low­est­oft to meet his old school friends at the pub they can tell he’s speak­ing ‘fake’,” Ed­ward ex­plains.It is this sense of per­sonal alien­ation and be­trayal that makes him feel guilty. He gets over the guilt by se­cretly be­com­ing more and more left-wing. By 1982, Catesby is in­volved in bro­ker­ing the Pe­ru­vian peace deal be­tween Bri­tain and Ar­gentina to cease the Falk­lands con­flict. This deal was scup­pered by the sink­ing of the Ar­gen­tinian bat­tle­ship The Gen­eral Bel­grano as it was sail­ing way from the Bri­tish ex­clu­sion zone around the is­lands.

How to deal with the rich and pow­er­ful is an­other rea­son why Ed­ward Wil­son feels so at home in Suf­folk. “I think be­cause of the iso­la­tion, the peo­ple are also se­cre­tive and there are usu­ally good rea­sons for this. You go back and look his­tor­i­cally and look at all the poach­ing and other things they did, touch­ing their fore­lock with one hand and giv­ing the ‘V’ sign with the other!

“I like that du­plic­ity and se­crecy. They’re a very quiet peo­ple. Much qui­eter than other non-cos­mopoli­tan types. They’re al­ways watch­ing!” he adds ap­prov­ingly. Watch out care­fully for more Wil­liam Catesby nov­els, set in the mid­dle of ma­jor crises, but al­ways rooted in Ed­ward Wil­son’s beloved adop­tive county.

South At­lantic Re­quiem is pub­lished by Ar­ca­dia Books at £14.99. For more in­for­ma­tion about Ed­ward Wil­son ed­ward­wil­son.info

ABOVE: Ed­ward Wil­son, for­mer Low­est­oft Col­lege lec­turer and now a suc­cess­ful au­thor. LEFT: Wil­son’s book A River in May was nom­i­nated for the Booker prize.

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