CODES OF CONDUCT
In her new novel, Kate Atkinson draws inspiration from the secret transcripts of a bank clerk turned war spy
Erica Wagner on Kate Atkinson’s spy thriller
It isn’t quite behind the scenes at the museum, but close enough. Kate Atkinson has come down from York to meet with me, and we are cosied up in the Members’ Room of the British Museum, chatting over good coffee and fluffy scones. We’re here to talk about her 10th novel, Transcription – the third book she has set largely during the period of World War II, following on from the marvellous Life After Life and A God in Ruins. Transcription is the story of Juliet Armstrong, recruited in the early days of the war by the Secret Service; 10 years later, in 1950, she’s working for the BBC, making programmes for children. But then it turns out that her wartime life is not as buried in the past as she would have liked to believe; she must come to terms with the consequences of her youthful idealism. It’s a gripping, yet slippery book, and Juliet, an orphan adrift at the beginning of the war, ripe to be snatched into the arms of a cause, is one of Atkinson’s most memorable protagonists. That’s saying something of the woman who created Jackson Brodie, the hero of the stunning series of crime novels that began with Case Histories.
Despite the confidence that shines through every page of Transcription, she insists: ‘Historical fiction ties me up in knots!’ The knots come ‘because I want to be truthful. And it’s in the nature of fiction, of course, not to be truthful – so you have to find a truth that works’. She found Transcription trickier to begin than Life After Life or A God in Ruins because this novel was sparked by a true story, which she discovered when the National Archives released wartime papers about the espionage activities of a bank clerk known by the alias ‘Jack King’, whose work was spying on fifth columnists in the very early days of World War II. King posed as a Gestapo agent to get close to them.
‘This is an amazing story,’ Atkinson says; though she felt it was too tied to real events to work into a novel. But when King met with his unsuspecting targets, their encounters were recorded by hidden microphones – and eventually transcribed. ‘When the National Archives made all the transcripts available, that was my light-bulb moment. My way into this story was the people who are completely anonymous. People like that are the perfect vessels for opening up the rest of the story. Once I’d realised that the transcripts themselves were the key, the rest sorted itself out.’ It’s a fascinating insight into her working method: a historical novel can’t be too true. As she writes in her Author’s Note: ‘Roughly speaking, for everything that could be considered a historical fact in this book, I made something up – and I’d like to think that a lot of the time readers won’t be able to tell the difference.’
It is the feeling of truth, the truth of a time of peril, that she conjures so well. Why this fascination with World War II? She is careful to note that in the sections of the book set in 1940, the war had hardly begun; the killing, she says, hadn’t started to bite. Rather, it was a period of paranoia. ‘People were looking for the enemy within. They were hugely suspicious, but in a very narrow-minded way. Patriotism hadn’t kicked in, like it did during the Blitz. I liked exploring that ambiguity. And with the decision of whether to go to war: I can imagine it would be quite like Brexit, with half the people going, “Yeah, OK,” and half going, “Don’t be silly.”’
But the war looms hugely in our national imagination. ‘We’ve never let it go,’ she says. ‘We’ve hung onto it in our collective minds. It’s so simple to look at the cliché, “We were at our finest” – but we did function as a nation in a way that we just don’t in all sorts of ways now. And we wouldn’t, if we were put under threat. It worked, in part, because we were a pretty compliant population. People got up at some unearthly hour and went to work at some rotten job and came home. We don’t have that anymore. And people were very trusting. Now you constantly question, you don’t know what’s true and what’s not.’ But she wonders if that fascination with the war years will itself fade away. ‘I speak to my grandchildren,’ she says, ‘and the war is nothing to them. It’s something they have to do in history class. They have absolutely no personal connection to it. They don’t have that sense that I do, that my daughters’ generation does.’
It’s a striking thought, how far World War II is moving beyond memory: but Kate Atkinson’s remarkable work keeps it alive. ‘Transcription’ by Kate Atkinson (£20, Doubleday) is published on 6 September.