Inputs . . .




It all started one lunchtime in April 2001 in a busy Les Routiers restaurant situated in the delightfully-named hamlet of Massages (adjacent to the equally intriguing Les Massagettes . . .) high up in the Massif Central on the N89 from Ussel to Clermont-Ferrand. Over at an adjacent table a family was dining: father, mother, slim, dark-haired daughter in her early twenties, and shaggy, long-tailed, russet-coloured dog. The hound was eagerly seeking the scraps its pretty young mistress was casting down to it beneath the table. Its great rudder was lashing from side to side; the tresses belonging to the lassie were lashing around as she delightedly followed the evolutions of her pet. And from the expression on my companion’s face I was running the risk of a verbal lashing, a great big dollop of tongue pie, if I did not promptly return my attention from mademoiselle to my petites carottes rapées.


And as I duly consumed my crudités, my mind drifted (something that often occurs . . .) onto the possibilities of writing an adventure story featuring a pretty, cultured and intelligent young lady, perhaps with a dose of French blood flowing through her veins (and arteries, too), and involving travel to and within some of the more obscure corners of Europe where I had been living.


The family paid, rose from the table, left the restaurant, and crossed the busy main road to the car park. Being very French, Papa went into a far corner and peed against a tree. So did the dog.


Out of that little restaurant scene, which we witnessed during a marathon drive, mainly along secondary and minor roads, from southwest Spain to northeast Poland, was germinated the foetus that several years later saw light of day under the title Cantabrian Summer, Baltic Winter. It was not until the following autumn that I put pen to paper (quite literally; having only acquired a PC a few months earlier I assumed the ‘correct’ thing to do initially, as when preparing a manuscript for typewriting, was to bash out a rough copy by hand first). Somewhat perversely, I started with what later developed into a piece of action in the middle of the story (the overheating-heater-in-the-cellar incident in Rybkowo), headed off on quite a different tack after that by bludgeoning modern systems of teaching English as a foreign language . . . and became gloriously unstuck as I debated whether to use first or third person narrative.


House renovation, a flooded cellar, hacking a garden out of a wilderness, and many other diverse matters then drove the novel bug from my head until early the following spring. Another marathon drive across Europe, this time from wintry Elblag to summery Algeciras in connection with planning a study tour in Morocco for the clients of a British railtour operator, refuelled my enthusiasm. On that run through the byways of France we discovered the ‘book village’ of Montolieu, which was eventually to play a minor but significant rôle in the novel. At that time I was teaching Spanish in English to a charming and gifted Polish girl who provided (unwittingly) some of the input for the character of Tamara von Rosenberg. Memories of an idyllic summer’s day in the mid-1990s spent exploring rural Cantabria with a fastidious Austrian opera singer who shared my dislike of Ohrwurmmusik were revived. Todays cynics would describe her as an überperson; I would not. More useful character material input. And, I had to admit it, living close to the Russian border on the Baltic coast of Poland, I was experiencing ever more frequently recurring pangs of nostalgia for Cantabria and the north coast of Spain, where I had spent over thirteen years of my life.