The story behind the ‘Shelter’ series.
(Please scroll down for the story behind The Poet And The Private Eye)
The ‘Shelter’ series of novels – currently comprising Gimme Shelter and Secret Shelter are crime novels that don’t actually begin with crimes. They both began with a question and that question was simple.
If someone gave you the chance to live a totally different life – the chance to start again – to wipe the slate clean, erase of all that had been – and all you’d been – before; would you take it?
And could you handle it if you did?
And that question arose out of a stray sentence I read in a report a year or so ago on the growing number of protected witnesses in the UK.
Because over three thousand witnesses are now taken into that protection scheme each year it seems – and that somewhat-startling statistic first began to fascinate me – and then began to haunt me.
That’s thousands of people living a life in the shadows, leading a life that isn’t their own. Thousands of individuals having to assume identities that are alien to them, having to memorise a life story that isn’t their story at all.
It’s all forced upon them by crime of course. And there’s crimes – and some quite gruesome and harrowing crimes at that – at the heart of Gimme Shelter and, now, Secret Shelter.
But, for me, it’s the psychological impact and effect of the protection programme that’s the completely compelling aspect of all this.
And that – to me again – is at least as interesting as the circumstances that necessitated that wholescale abandonment of one life and the assumption of another life completely.
That was the starting point of the story that’s now become Gimme Shelter. But it’s only the first in a number of stories I now want to tell, because hot on the heels of that first question came more and more questions the more research I did into this whole field, most particularly;
What are the long term effects of all this?
What, indeed, are the consequences over a lifetime?
And so the sequel to Gimme Shelter – Secret Shelter – continues this story, a novel that was published in July 2015.
The Poet And The Private Eye
I’d just like to sketch in a little background – and explain how and why I came to write this novel.
It’s always been one part of the Dylan story that really fascinated me right from the start – and that was the American angle. When I first moved to South West Wales at the end of the 1970’s, I used to sit on the wall at the Boathouse and imagine what it must have been like to journey from there at the start of the 1950’s to New York and beyond.
The opportunities, the pitfalls, the possibilities – and the price.
So I read as much as I could about all that only to find that at the time, in the late 1970’s, there wasn’t an awful lot to read. Dylan’s original biographer devoted just a few pages in a three to four hundred page book to Dylan’s, final, American experience, Paul Ferris, another biographer at the time, wrote more but there was still not all that much to mine.
It just seemed to me, at the time, that there was a whole, almost forgotten – and largely unheard – group of people a few thousand miles away who were obviously intimately involved in the Dylan Thomas story but whose own story seemed somehow excised from the general account.
At the same time I began a correspondence with Dan Jones, Dylan’s great friend and literary trustee.
Dan Jones was certainly too clever and astute a man to blame a nation for the death of a friend. Nevertheless, there was a curious undertone to all he wrote to me – perhaps more than an undertone in places – and I caught echoes of it elsewhere. Maybe it’s understandable. Dylan went out to America alive and came back dead. And the feeling, not stated, but there, was that somehow America was responsible.
And all the time, the Americans, John Brinnin aside, the ones Dylan journeyed to meet and work with and sleep with and fall in love with, remained largely silent.
So – it all began in a simple way. I wanted to hear what they had to say. I wanted to meet them. All these names I’d read about – John Malcolm Brinnin, Liz Reitell, Roy Poole, Al Collins, Rose Slivka, David Slivka – could I somehow get to them?
This was, now, 1983. And television companies love anniversaries. November 1983 was going to be the thirtieth anniversary of Dylan’s death. I went to see a man who at that time was Programme Controller at HTV, Geraint Talfan Davies. Geraint’s father had produced some of Dylan’s radio talks and readings and I wanted to see if Geraint could help persuade some of those people to meet us, to talk with us.
We met, I explained what I wanted to do, Geraint was dubious I think, it really all depended on who would talk to us and if they hadn’t for all this time, why would they now?
Nevertheless he contacted a researcher out in New York and asked for feelers to be put out to all the main parties.
John Brinnin, Dylan’s agent, said, yes. All the surviving members of the original production of Under Milk Wood said yes. The key witness to those last days – Dylan’s lover, Liz Reitell said, yes.
Rather than fly all over the States to record individual interviews – they were, variously at the tme, in Massacchussets – Montana – Arizona – we asked if they’d all fly into New York for what would then be a thirty year reunion. They all said yes. So that was it. We were going to New York and the ensuing documentary – The Far-Ago Land – won awards at the San Francisco and Celtic Film Festivals.
After the broadcast, various broadcasters and film companies, including the BBC, talked to me with a view to turning that material into a feature film and I tried, time and again, but could simply never make it work, at least for me. It just seemed grim. Dylan went to America, he was in a bad state, he behaved more or less badly and he died. It might have worked as a documentary but it didn’t work as a drama and I gave back the commissions I was offered.
Then – years ago now – I read back through some of the notes I’d made and came across a reference to the private eye who was tailing Dylan throughout the whole of that last trip. Dylan had sued Time Magazine over a profile of him they’d published and which he’d decided was libelous. Time Magazine, in return, hired the private eye to try and collect dirt on Dylan in case his libel suit ever came to court.
And all of a sudden the way into this story, for me anyway, became clear. Because this isn’t a story about Dylan Thomas. It’s a story about a private eye. You don’t make Dylan the hero, you make the private eye the hero. This is a story about a man in crisis – the private eye – who gets a job, a tail job. He’s never heard of his mark, has never met a poet, hasn’t ever read a single line of poetry and is in some considerable crisis in his own life anyway.
But what happens over the course of his tail job changes him out of all recognition. He becomes absorbed in the story of his mark. He even starts reading poetry. Above everything, he begins to find in one story – Dylan’s story – the means to resolve his own. And Dylan’s poetry becomes a route map, a guide if you like, piloting him along the way.
Above all, to me, it then becomes a story of hope – which is what, personally, I was missing in just a straight retelling of the last days. We can’t change history. Dylan will always die. But my private eye doesn’t. And one of the reasons he doesn’t, is the fact he connects to the important part of the Dylan story if you like – and that’s his work as opposed to just his life.
In the end, to me again, that’s his legacy – not what he did, but his effect, through that work, on others. It almost doesn’t matter what he did. My private eye, in that sense, is the reader, the audience, me and you.
We’ll always be fascinated by all he did of course but ultimately – and as with my private eye -we’re ultimately changed by his work, by all he wrote.
I really hope enjoy the book.