The Big Idea: Nick Harkaway
You never know what you’ll find when you go to the cafe down the street — that is, if you take Nick Harkaway’s word for it. His latest novel Angelmaker owes a debt to what he found in a cafe… and more importantly, what that found thing did when it met a delightful but dicey character rolling around in Harkaway’s head. Let’s get right into it, shall we?
Picture an English gent in middle age, round-faced and fleshy. Fix a glint of mischief in his eye and give him an almost soldierly bearing, for it’s true, he did enlist to serve his country, though life conspired – as he will tell you with some sorrow – to keep him from active service. At one stage, in an effort to repair this deficit, he stood as a candidate for parliament and was defeated only by a campaign of slander and slurs. He is an intimate of aristocrats and celebrities, of famous sportsmen and even of famous criminals, because in this year of Our Lord nineteen sixty something a mobster can still be a species of hero in London. The Krays, it’s widely known, keep crime off the streets. Banks may get robbed, but little old ladies can walk in safety down quiet residential lanes. This portly fellow lives in a world of corduroy and shag pile carpets, stuffy clubs in St James and swinging bars in Soho. He’s a regular at St Moritz. He’s a veritable man for all seasons. Just don’t invest your money with him.
His name is Ronnie Cornwell, and he was my father’s father: a con artist so fluently persuasive that at least two published autobiographies of well-known men make reference to being fleeced by him, and hotels around Europe lost fortunes to his charm. Ronnie could roll up at a grand establishment with an entourage of dozens and gull the manager into giving him an entire floor for his court, the best service and the best champagne, and a fortnight later they would vanish in a carefully choreographed magic trick leaving the Maître holding the tab. But that isn’t the clever bit. The clever bit is that six months later he’d be back and would somehow, against all reason, contrive to run the game again on the same people. He was never a gangster, though he knew them, but Ronnie was a genuine dyed in the wool crook – and not, in the end, a very nice man.
Fast forward to 2008: in a small café around the corner from my flat, I saw a broken clockwork toy skitter across a table and drop to the floor. To the child who owned it and to his mother, the toy was on its way out. It had gone from a plaything to a piece of rubbish, the weird, wiry spiderlegs twisted out of shape so that instead of walking it now bounced and juddered, pathetically syncopated and wayward. When they left, the toy stayed where it was.
To me, it was perfect. It was a machine which made you care about it; its very flaws were what made it special. Rowland Emett, whose kinetic sculptures were something like Rube Goldberg’s, once said that ordinary machines perform a function and therefore excite fear and loathing, whereas his creations performed no function of any use and thus excited only love. The skittering thing bounding gamely around on the floor felt like a kindred spirit, and I asked the waitress if I could take it home. In my mind it was already growing, becoming part of something larger, something huge and unexpected and weirdly 19th Century: a machine which could make the world better, not indirectly like a washing machine, but directly, by action upon the mind of mankind.
Ideas like that have been around for a while, products of the Enlightenment: better living through knowledge. The seductive idea of the Big Fix, the single solution which sorts out the world’s problems, keeps coming up. This year it’s quantum computing and biotech. A few decades ago it was industrial-scale agriculture to feed the world and Mutually Assured Destruction to save it. When you come to it, nothing quite pans out the way it’s supposed to.
Those two concepts – the crook and the machine – were zinging around in my brain, knocking over the furniture and throwing parties for all sorts of other little ideas which had been around for a while quietly awaiting their time: a fabulous, heavily-armed old woman, John Ruskin’s Arts & Crafts movement, mad monks and war elephants so on. But there was still a piece missing: the right villain. The wrong bad guy, or a bad guy who isn’t wrong enough, can kill a story stone dead. You can’t admire a hero who defeats a merely ordinary threat. For the hero to shine, you need an antagonist with real teeth.
All right. A gizmo which changes the world – a revolution machine, whatever the precise details of its function – is the territory of the high concept villain. Well and good, but I needed someone who would be scary rather than laughable. Where would such a man come from? Well, inevitably, from Britain’s imperial past. That’s where most of the real life enemies we deal with come from: old, bad choices. And there he was, waiting for me: a monologuing monster who understood that he risked being ridiculous if ever he failed to deliver on the promise of atrocity, and wasn’t going to. And all I had to do was let him loose.
So truthfully it wasn’t one big idea, it was more than that, all woven together – which is the cheat of writing, at least the way I do it: simple enough thoughts, produced one at a time, woven together until they look impossibly complex and spectacular. It’s like being a stand-up comedian, except that you get eighteen months to be funny that onetime, and as many redos as you like.
So… how does it all come out? Well, it turns out that machines which change the whole world all at once are maybe a little dangerous; that elephants are not universally good sailors; and that sometimes you have to be a crook to be a hero.