Today's guest blog is by Joan Brady who was the first woman to win the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (now Costa) with Theory of War. It also won the prestigious French Prize called the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. She lives in Oxford but was born in California and danced with the New York City Ballet in her twenties and also the San Francisco Ballet. Her novel Death Comes for Peter Pan was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Her latest novel The Blue Death is out now.
I’ve been afraid all my life. Death, things that go thump in the night, performances on stages: that’s only the beginning. You name it, I’m scared of it. People like me learn to control their faces and keep the shameful secret hidden. So when the Chief Enforcement Officer of the Devon’s South Hams District Council started in on the police caution – ‘You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence…’ – he was annoyed at how calm I seemed.
My crime doesn’t matter. I had a brilliant lawyer; he forced a very determined Council to drop the charges, but they sure as hell taught me some lessons before they did. Fifteen times those bastards summoned me to Magistrates court in Totnes. The first time I showed up – suit, high heels, a neat and tidy lady – I remember looking at my ill-clad fellow felons and thinking, ‘Well, they’re all guilty, look at them, slouching against the walls and glowering.’ Then I presented myself to the court.
And then I understood.
You want to know why villains don’t repent? Courts are about humiliation, that’s why. Forget pretty sentiments: you’re guilty until proven innocent, and it takes less than five minutes to realize that. If you have any spirit, you end up full of hate. By the time I got home from that very first appearance, all I wanted to do was kill people.
But I don’t know how to do that; don’t really want to do it either – not with my own hands. So I started writing thrillers instead. My hero? A glowering felon full of hate, but big, strong, young, male: all the things I’m not. Here was somebody who could do my killing for me. I called him David Marion – my David – and I sent him against my Goliaths, the courts, the town worthies, the local politicians, anybody in power. I never cared much about politics before this, but the way I figure it now, it’s the school playground all over again. The big kids beat up the little kids. The skinny kids torment the fat kids. The prettiest kid gets to run the show. The only immune one is the tough kid, who slouches against the wall and can beat the shit out of any of them.
When the big kids, the skinny kids and the pretty kid grow up, they’re the ones who have the deciding say on real issues just as they did when we were six years old, and the rest of us playground riffraff itch to show them a thing or two. No wonder Christ reserved revenge for himself. It’s fun. In The Blue Death I take a whack at a representative clutch of bullies living in a town called Springfield. It’s a real place. My husband grew up there; he said Springfield killed people if they had talent. He got out, made a success of his life and should never have ended up dying there: a cruel death, very much in tune with a place that kills its gifted. I see it as one of those cold, provincial boroughs, buried deep in Middle Western corn fields, surrounded by great swoops of highways, desperate to make to the gossip columns in St. Louis and Chicago. I know I’ve got all kinds of things wrong, but years ago I asked thriller writer Desmond Bagley how he could write about exotic cities in Asia and Africa when he’d never been to them. He shrugged and said, ‘Most towns are alike.’
So I’ve taken Bagley at his word and fleshed out my half-imaginary Springfield with the jealous and creaking social structure of all the other provincial towns I’ve run across.
Springfield is the capital of Illinois, and the bullies who inhabit it are politicians and powerbrokers gathered from hundreds of miles around to wheel and deal. Huge washes of money disappear under tables in every restaurant and get hung out to dry in every law firm.
In The Blue Death, the big money has its eyes fixed on Springfield’s public water supply. Most of the rest of us don’t think about water much, except to gripe about cost and the occasional summer shortage. Serious water problems belong in TV newscasts about third-world poor, who’ve been at war over it for centuries. My Springfield learns the hard way that any people, anywhere in the world, can find themselves facing the threat at its most desperate level.
This isn’t just a writer’s fancy. When I arrived in England 40 years ago, it was the green and pleasant land right out of poetry. Now it’s almost as brown as California, where I was born. There just isn’t enough water anymore, and multinational corporations based all over the world are trembling with anticipation of the billions of dollars, pounds, euros, and yen to be made. These days, I live in Oxford where the supplier is Thames Water. Once upon a time Thames water belonged to the people who used it, to you and me. Twenty years ago, private business stole it right out from under our noses. They kept the name Thames Water to make us feel comfortable, but ten years later, they sold this most British-sounding of companies to a German conglomerate called RWE. A few years after that, the Germans sold it to an Australian multinational. The Spanish bought a chunk from the Australians, and now the Chinese have signed a cheque for £500 million of it. Who knows where decisions are made about water purity, to say nothing of supplies?
Even the profit goes offshore.
In The Blue Death, this theft from citizens is about to happen in Springfield, Illinois. The mayor is doing his damnedest to sell out to a multinational shark, and to his surprise he meets resistance. The fight gets dirty. The weather behaves badly, and Springfield’s citizens find themselves facing not just real drought – standing in lines to collect water from tankers like poor Somalis on TV – but plague and military occupation as well.
It’s the plague that gives me my title. Water-borne diseases cause severe dehydration; the blood literally congeals in the veins and turns white-skinned people blue. Cholera is one such disease – though not the disease of my title – and on the net you’ll find drawings of Victorian victims in London whose bodies are daintily water-coloured in blue. The blue doesn’t show on dark skinned people like the victims of the recent epidemic in Haiti; that’s the only reason we’re not familiar with it.
As for the people I’m subjecting to these disasters, most of them are pure imagination. The hard bit is finding the key to each. There’s a story about Laurence Olivier, trying to catch hold of some role – I can’t remember what – and having a hard time of it. Then he picked up a moustache, put it on his upper lip and, lo, he knew who his character was. For my hero David, it’s the powerful shoulder muscles, the boxer’s slight slouch. The Springfield mayor? Something to do with his hair; it doesn’t lie flat on the back of his neck.
The exception is the ancient matriarch of the Freyl clan. She’s modelled on my sister-in-law who arrived in Springfield, the fresh young bride of its most eligible bachelor, to find a wasteland where the men boozed and the women despaired. She set out to change things. When she died, the town had a University and practically every other cultural nicety a capital should have. That takes somebody tough as nails, but there was humour and compassion as well as evangelism. When doctors prescribed antidepressants for me, she said – and this despite her many accomplishments – ‘Never mind, Joanie, I’ve spent my life taking antidepressants and looking for a parking space.’
But going back to school bullies – and she was one of them – what about the tough kid slouching against the wall of the playground? Kids like that usually end up in prison. That’s where David Marion went when he was only 15 years old and where he stayed for nearly 2 decades. More writer’s revenge: I named that prison in honour of the South Hams District Council. I put it south of Chicago, Illinois, once known as the ‘hog capital of the world’. People all over America send out Christmas hams from there.
The concept of a prison is a centuries-old nightmare reaching its apotheosis in America, where many prisons are privately owned. Many British prisons are private enterprises now too. When I first heard about this, I thought it sounded like a lousy way to make money, but the profits turn out to be very promising. In both countries the state pays a fee per prisoner. A slice off the top has to go in bribes for the inspectors. After that, money heads right for the bank. Feed prisoners for less than you feed the dogs that guard them. Break guards’ unions and pay the scabs badly. Hire as few of them as you can get away with. Minimal maintenance. Minimal medical care. Minimal everything that can be made minimal. And then just think, you have all these functional men and women: why waste the labour? Get government contracts to build more prisons, and use the prisoners to build them. If they refuse to work, increase their sentences, put them in solitary, deny canteen privileges. Profit upon profit, this time from old-fashioned slavery and slave quarters to go with it. When they’ve finished building the prisons that will hold them, hire them out to private enterprise. There are shoes, jeans, computer parts to make, streets to clean, telemarketing to do. Learning skills? Forget it. Outside, these jobs go to immigrant women.
So in The Blue Death, prison labour builds a vast canal to line corporate pockets by shipping water all the way down from Canada.
This kind of exploitation is a logical follow-up of what began in the courtroom and what continues in the prison block. A slave is a piece of property like a cow or a dishwasher, something to be worked for a slave owner’s profit and for no other reason on earth. The debauched pleasure of forcing such absolute depersonalization on another human being who’s fallen into your power: this is what spirited defendants see in the faces of the court.
No wonder they hate.