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Tony Broadbent London
Tony Broadbent London

Reflections on 'Writing away from home'

I originally came to the US because of business. And I've worked as a copywriter, creative director, and strategic planner in advertising and marketing in the UK and the US for over twenty years. I suppose advertising gives one a pretty good base from which to start writing in 'long story' form. Advertising is really about determining and then delivering a series of propositions—or telling a story—clearly, concisely, and honestly. So to me there's a definite link between the two disciplines. And I'm very much a child of 'brand' advertising, and have stayed true to some brands for much of my life. And I tend to trust certain name brands, because they always deliver on their original promise, in much the same way that one returns again and again to certain authors, because they always deliver a rewarding experience, be that Shakespeare, Graham Greene, or whoever.

As much as I love the US—even after fifteen years, I'm still a British citizen—I didn't much fancy writing about a 'Brit' in America; the classic 'fish out of water' story. But all the advice I've ever had about writing essentially comes down to two things: 'be true to yourself' (I know it sounds like shades of what Polonious says to Laertes, in Hamlet, but it's still terrifically relevant stuff.); and 'write what you know about, and about what moves you.'

And then, of course, there's the reason why you write, and what motivates you in the first place. With me, even though I had several unfinished scripts and half-finished novels in my bottom drawer, and notions that one day I really would get round to completing something, it all came about because of the death of my father. And I don't care how old you are when it happens; it's a tough rite of passage for any man. Anyway, it was for me. And it just so happened that about six months after my dad died I was having lunch with a friend, another Londoner living in the Bay Area, who'd also lost his father a couple of years earlier, and we were both swapping tales about our respective dads. The two men would've been contemporaries; they'd both gone through the Depression and the War and come out the other side, very much marked by it all. And the more we talked about them, the more apparent it became that the two men were polar opposites, but were similar in many of their fundamental beliefs. And it just so happened that my mate's dad had, among other things, been a professional cat burglar; and my dad hadn't been anything of the sort; but nevertheless, I thought the two of them would have really liked one another and got on together like a house on fire. And toasting to the memory of them both—in a particularly fine San Francisco beer—I said that I wished the two of them could have met. And then I added, 'and they will, and I'll write it.' And that's what I did. Only I took the story back to just after the end of the Second World War, when both men would've been forging their new lives in and around London. And that's the basis of the book called 'The Smoke.' (Cockney slang for London Town.)

Some people have asked me why I thought that writing a mystery about another era (in another country) would be of any interest to a contemporary (American) audience. And I suppose it's really a question of offering up the fruits afforded me by my own journey of rediscovery. After all, the past is another country to all of us. And if nothing else, 'The Smoke' offers a perspective of sorts, and provides a different context as to how people faced the problems of the day.

The old Jesuit credo, "Give me a boy till he's seven and I'll make you the man," holds true for the place and times that each one of us is born into. England very much 'made me.' I was born—a child of the Fifties—into a country very much still defined by World War Two, an event that radically changed the political map of the world and its peoples, and led directly to the Cold War. And those events of forty, fifty, sixty years ago are still directly influencing events today.

In England, after the War, the government was forced to introduce severe austerity measures that went on well into the Fifties. Bread was rationed; and it wasn't rationed once during the war. Sweets only came off ration in 1953 as 'gift' to the nation's children to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Meat was on ration until 1956. All of which led to a British 'make-do-and-mend' mind-set that harked back more to the 'Thirties' than to the future. And which, in many ways, laid the ground for the 'angry young man' movement of late-Fifties British theatre and literature and film ... and the 'teenage addiction' to rock 'n' roll and ultimately the explosion of the 'Swinging Sixties'. All themes I've examined in another novel I've just completed about the early days of The Beatles.

But as much as I learn and re-learn and reflect about England, I think the things I miss most are the things hardest to define; the sort of things that in the end make up one's own picture of England. So I miss the countryside; the hedgerows and the trees; the colours and the smells, and the ever-changing seasons. I miss the scale of it all; the architecture of city, town, and village. I miss the music of Delius and Elgar, and the sound of a brass band, and a Welsh male-voice choir. I miss not being able to drive to the bookstores in Hay-on-Wye on a whim. But mostly I miss London; as much for its history, as my own history from living and working there. I miss London's museums and I miss London theatre. And maybe that's part of why I write about London and the people I've known or have heard about. It helps keep me connected. And even though the London of the late-Forties and Fifties I write about isn't real, I do my best to try to make it a reality.

And so my research is really never ending. I use the Internet when and where I can; to access the London Museum and Pathe News archives amongst other things. But beyond that, as I can't just get into a car and drive out to check the geography or details of any area, I've also collected photo books and atlases and travel writings of the period. I have books on London history, architecture, theatre, and crime, and contemporary memoirs and autobiographies of all kinds; in fact anything and everything that can help give a telling detail. And as attitudes and language are very much key to time and place, I've also tried to keep in mind that the social expectations and sensibilities, even the jokes and the slang, of the time were very different to what they are today. And luckily, with London, I've alighted on a subject and place I'm sure I'll never be able to exhaust.

© Tony Broadbent

A piece for journalist, Adrian Muller, as background for his column, The Trans-Atlantic Eye. Mystery Scene. Fall Issue. Number 81. 2003


Tony Broadbent