Tag Archives: Stuart Campbell

A boyhood memory shattered at Navarone Bay

There’s a default assumption that big war movies are based on fact. Think of A Bridge Too Far, Das Boot, or more recently Dunkirk. And there’s room for tolerance when the movie is clearly fictional, whether it’s Apocalypse Now with its literary boots in Heart of Darkness or the big-boy romp Inglourious Basterds.

When I wrote my third novel Cairo Mon Amour, I was meticulous about making sure the historical setting of the Yom Kippur War was accurately portrayed. That’s what writers do, isn’t it?

So what has this do with the 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone? I happened to be staying with friends in Rhodes recently. They live at Navarone Bay at Lindos, and I was looking forward to seeing the location of a movie that had thrilled me when I was thirteen.

In case you missed it, The Guns of Navarone is a WWII thriller in which a bunch of Allied tough guys led by Gregory Peck, are thrown together in a crack team to blow up a huge German gun emplacement. Our man Peck plays a famous retired mountaineer who will climb up and knock out the guns, which are concealed deep inside a high cliff overlooking Navarone Bay.

“So where were the guns?” I asked my old friend, pointing at the cliffs.

“There weren’t any. It was made up.”

“Made up?” I was stunned. The Guns of Navarone was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It has been part of my personal film canon (no pun intended) for decades. It had never occured to me that the story wasn’t true.

“Yep. In the novel. Alistair MacLean made it up.”

My friend had a DVD of the movie. It wasn’t as I remembered it at the age of thirteen. The characterisations seemed two-dimensional, and the production values were amateurish by today’s standards; the shipwreck scene had the look of a bathtub mock-up. We watched it half way through. “Maybe we’ll finish it tomorrow.”

We didn’t.

###

You can find out more about Cairo Mon Amour here.

 

Advertisements

Picture gallery: Fading traces of the Soviet era

Aeroflot ticket, 1974. Lost aesthetic or Communist kitsch? (author’s collection)

When I was studying  Russian in Moscow in 1974, it was unthinkable that in  less that twenty years, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would be no more.

For my literary invention Ivan Zlotnik, the flawed Soviet diplomat in Cairo Mon Amour, the USSR was there to stay. Zlotnik gambled his freedom on the date of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Did he win or lose? That’s for the reader to judge.

Forty-three years later, tourists buy up Communist kitsch in nostalgic homage to regimes whose harsh outlines soften over the decades. But more permanent traces of the Soviet era remain, as this small gallery shows:

Remnant plaque, Berlin (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Symbols of communist industry and military power, Prague (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Vintage URAL motorcycle spotted in a Budapest street (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Soviet Memorial, Budapest. The Russian reads ‘In honour of the liberating Soviet heroes’. (photo: Stuart Campbell)

The story of my beautiful book cover

This beautiful book cover for Cairo Mon Amour has an interesting evolution. It was actually designed for a self-published edition of the book, but I offered the artwork to my publisher, who was happy to take it over.

When I first discussed the project with my designer Rachel Ainge of Tribe Creative Co, I imagined a cover that tried to tell the story. I cooked up the idea of an aerial shot of Cairo with a pair of women’s shoes (containing feet) on the ledge of a building.

Rachel took things in hand: “Don’t try to tell the story.  Leave it with me.” We’d had this discussion before when I’d talked her into creating covers that told the stories of two other books of mine. They were lovely covers, but did they help to sell books? I wasn’t sure. Here they are, along with one of my crude sketches:

 

 

 

 

Rachel came back to me with the idea of branding the three books under a common theme, including new covers for the older books, and a new title for one of them.

Over to me for the theme. I thought hard about what linked the three books: A contemporary  Australian political satire, a psychological drama set in England, and a thriller/romance set during the Yom Kippur War. How were they connected?

It came to me in a flash while I was walking on the beach (that’s where my most creative thinking takes place): Love, betrayal and redemption. That’s what I really write about.

This gave me a formula for uniform subtitles for the three books:

  • Love, betrayal and pure theatre
  • Love, betrayal and genteel crime
  • Love, betrayal and espionage

Incidentally it gave me my elevator pitch: Stuart Campbell writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

Next, Rachel asked me for an iconic scene for each book. “I’ll give you the blockbuster treatment – a big dramatic sky and characters looking into their destiny,” she said. I came up with Martin Mooney looking at the distant mountains, Jack Walsingham approaching a rural cottage, and Pierre Farag and Mark Bellamy riding towards the Pyramids.  This is what I got:

And I’m very happy with the result!

Cairo Mon Amour will be published in late June 2017 by Austin Macauley Publishers, an independent trade publisher with headquarters in London and New York.

###

 

The Middle East conflict that inspired Cairo Mon Amour

War makes an irresistible setting for fiction, as the never-ending flood of WWII novels and movies shows. Gulf War thrillers are almost a genre in their own right.

The Yom Kippur War has its novels – Herman Wouk and Tom Clancy both weave stories around it. But I wanted to do something different – my novel set during the Yom Kippur War Cairo Mon Amour, is set in Egypt – not Israel.

I felt especially well qualified to write this book: I was a student at Cairo University when the war broke out in October 1973, and I had a ringside seat – or sometimes a seat under the kitchen table when the air-raid sirens went off.

If you can’t remember the main points about this particular conflict, Egypt invaded Sinai to reclaim land lost to Israel in 1967, and Syria attacked the Golan Heights. The conequences of the war included the 1978 Camp David Accords and the final withdrawal of Israel from Sinai in 1982.

What compelled me to write this book was the extraordinary lengths that Egypt went to in concealing the date of the attack. How did President Sadat keep preparations for a massive ground and air attack secret? And how could I spin a story of espionage and romance around this?

Details have emerged in memoirs and works of research: Hospital wards in Cairo were emptied under the pretext of epidemics in anticipation of floods of wounded troops; a military sports carnival was scheduled for the day of the attack; false stories were planted about the attack date. When I did my research, I found so many events that I could dramatise: The sudden evacuation of Soviet families just days before the outbreak of war; the last ship to leave Alexandria, crowded with Americans desperate to get away.

I also wanted to write a very human story, so I created a handful of flawed characters who all have a personal stake in finding out – or concealing – the date when the attack will be launched. We have a Cairo private eye of mixed Armenian and Coptic background; his childhood sweetheart who is now a notorious actress; a Soviet diplomat with divided loyalties; and two British spies who happen to be former lovers.

I made a decision to stick closely to the historical record: The chapters in the first part of the book follow exactly the days just before and after the start of the war. When the Soviet diplomat Zlotnik, drunk in his flat, hears the rumble of the huge Soviet aircraft flying in armaments, it is real; I heard them on that very night myself.

And I tried to capture the day-to-day atmosphere in the streets of Cairo, when, as a British student taking Arabic courses at Cairo University, I found myself in the midst of a populace that swung between elation at the first flush of victory, and distress as the dead and wounded began to stagger home.

###

Cairo Mon Amour: Recreating 1970s London

The fourth and final part of Cairo Mon Amour is called Exile, and includes two long chapters when I send Pierre and Zouzou to London, and Lucy and Bellamy to Moscow. I thought that recreating 1970s London would be easy – after all, I was there. But there were some tricky challenges.

There’s a mystique about seventies London. People younger than me have said they envy the fact that I was there. Well, they wouldn’t have envied the ratty bedsits where I lived, and they’d be shocked at the lack of money, the strikes, and the IRA bombs. They’d be puzzled by the primitive technologies and by living in a pre-silicon chip world. On the other hand, I think they’d be astounded at the intellectual freedom of the time.

I had two distinct challenges: One was to make a seventies London that would resonate with the natives – readers who had been there, and at the same time that would convince the tourists – those born after about 1970 who missed it.

For the natives, small tokens will evoke the era: Green Shield stamps, pressing button B in a phone box, the Benny Hill Show. But I felt I had to work a bit harder for the tourists. How many thirty-year-olds know what a trading stamp is? Can they imagine a city with no ATMs?

And this is where the second challenge comes in: How much detail? How can the writer prevent making the text a cluttered museum to the seventies? Somehow, I had to sketch the background to the seventies, leaving the foreground free for the drama.

The public phone box was one of my favourite strategies. The technology gives an instant distinctive edge to seventies life. Phones had wires. There were no answering machines. You could get ‘stood up’ (a rare phrase these days) because your date couldn’t call you on the mobile to say they were delayed. London phone boxes had a special smell -stale fag smoke, old piss, and damp cement. They had little glass windows that steamed up and invited itchy fingers to write initials or draw hearts or penises. They were often adorned by little cards coyly advertising prostitutes.

One evening, my exiled Armenian-Egyptian private eye finds a card on his door. It’s from his hard-boiled landlady and she’s reminding him not to over-use the shared bathroom. Later he’s in a phone box. ‘Call Rita for French polishing’ says the square of cardboard stuck to the window.

This is Pierre’s seventies London: a ‘city of little cards’.

The Armenian thread running through Cairo Mon Amour

In 1973, the world was in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and its allies were locked in an ideological struggle with the West, a struggle that was enacted through proxy wars. Egypt found itself at the epicentre of the Cold War in October 1973 when it launched an attack on Sinai to regain land occupied in 1967 by Israel. For a few weeks the world stood on the brink of a direct conflict between the USSR and the US, the respective patrons of Egypt and Israel. The wartime atmosphere of Cairo, where I happened to be a student at the time, provided a rich setting for my story.

At the same time, the Cold War was being fought by way of elaborate espionage tactics, unseen by the public except when spy swaps and defections broke through into the press. The fictional Cold War spy exploits of my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik are as plausible as anything that might have happened in real life.

I have connected the settings of Egypt and the USSR with a third thread: The Armenian genocide and diaspora. I was lucky enough – in retrospect – to observe the mood of a city at war in 1973 through the eyes of Egyptian Armenian relatives I had acquired through marriage. Their community lived a sometimes uneasy existence in Cairo, and many had already left for safe havens in the West. Some Armenian families had been ‘repatriated’ to the USSR in the fifties at Stalin’s invitation. At the same time, many Soviet citizens of Armenian origin attained senior positions in science, administration, industry and the arts. Perhaps the quintessential symbol of this link is Artem Mikoyan, the Soviet Armenian aircraft designer; the MiG aircraft that led Egypt’s air attack on Sinai are named for Mikoyan and his co-designer Gurevich. Coincidentally, Cairo Mon Amour was written in the years before and after 24 April 2015, the centenary of the Armenian genocide.

Zouzou, My femme fatale in ‘Cairo Mon Amour’

Cairo Mon Amour started out as a noir novel. Whether it ended up as one, you can be the judge. But in the noir tradition, I needed a femme fatale, and that’s why I created Zouzou Paris.

She’s the childhood sweetheart of Pierre Farag, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye. But they’ve been long separated. The sweet girl he knew as a teenager on holidays in Alexandria is now a notorious film actress, protected by powerful men.

But she’s in danger, fearing that a high-ranking official wants her murdered. And that’s how she and Pierre meet again after nearly twenty years – she summons him to her private apartment to ask for his help. He sits agog as she levers off her luxuriant wig, peels off her eyelashes and wipes away the make-up: She’s no longer the hard-bitten Zouzou Paris, but the girl he knew as Aziza Faris, who fluttered her eyelashes at Pierre in their teens.

Well, with a reunion like that, how could I hold back? They’re bound together for life. But first I have to get them out of Egypt. I put them on the last ship to leave Alexandria when the Yom Kippur war breaks out, and then I follow them through France, where they are married – a condition that Zouzou imposes before she will allow Pierre into her bed. There’s a curious reason for her stipulation on wedlock, but you’ll have to read the book to know what it is.

We leave them in exile in 1970s London, both trying to negotiate a city of coin-fed gas meters, evil landladies, cambric bedspreads, and Dixon of Dock Green on the TV.

I’m fascinated with Zouzou – her volatility, her odd wisdom, the depth of her loyalty, her resignation to fate. I purposely didn’t give her a point of view; rather than writing from inside her head, I allowed the layers of her character to build through Pierre’s observations. My aim here -and I think it worked – was for Zouzou to be enigmatic and unpredictable.

A final word on her name: Zouzou is an affectionate version of her real name Aziza. But there’s a connection with a a film that was showing in Cairo around the time the novel is set: Khalli baalak min Zouzou, or ‘watch out for Zouzou’. In the movie, Zouzou is a college student who has to work secretly as a belly dancer to make ends meet – the nice girl with a shameful secret. How could I resist calling my femme fatale anything else? And of course, my Zouzou claims to be half-French, although nobody believes it. The surname Paris is her clumsy attempt at European sophistication, and it’s not so distant from her real family name Faris.

OK, I confess: I’m smitten.