RED DIE Questions & Answers
with ROGER NORMAN
'An unlikely trinity: a ghost story, an anti-war book and a dash of Tintin!' Roger answers questions.
Q: World War I has held a unique fascination for many writers and still seems to do so for later generations (Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks, etc). Were there any particular reasons why you choose that war as the historical background for Red Die?
A: The Great War has 'a unique fascination', and will continue to do so, I think. Look at all the attempts to show it on film, and none of them quite get it. My favourite is an early Kubrick film about the execution of three French soldiers, basically in order to distract attention from the stupidity of the commanders. I also liked a TV series with Paul McGann, called The Monocled Mutineer, which was mainly about the hunt for a deserter in England. The Aussies loved Gallipoli, of course, which has some rather convincing action sequences. You'd think that by now everything has been said … but my idea is that each generation should try and come to terms with The Great War, because of its ghastly, lunatic, extra-terrestrial nature. I mean extra-terrestrial in the sense that the trench landscape itself was something unique and unimaginable as if part of a different planet, burnt, battered, blasted, bogged, buggered … and afterwards the extraordinary floods of blood-red poppies. There is nothing in terrestrial fact or fiction to match it.
Of the books about the war, the contemporary accounts by writers like Henri Barbusse and Frederic Manning (Private 19022) and Robert Graves are eye-witness history and incomparable for that reason. I recently read some unpleasant comments about Graves' book (Goodbye to All That), how he'd set out to write a best seller and invented episodes and so on. But whoever said that ought to try reading the book again, and eat their words. Later books are partly a re-invention, or re-imagining and can never be more than that, but that doesn't make them worthless by any means. I always very much liked Oh What A Lovely War, a very brave play, considering how many people might have been (should have been) offended.
One of the things that influenced me was looking through copies of the Illustrated War News and having a very distinct vision of 'the lost generation'. The facial types, even many of the surnames, seem to have disappeared. As well they might have, I suppose. If you 'take out' a million boys and men between the ages of eighteen and thirty, a lot of families must simply have 'expired' at that point, gone without trace. Names, faces, histories. Gone. There's a wonderful passage in Barbusse, perhaps it's near the end, when three or four French soldiers are discussing the point of the war, why they are fighting. What's touching about it is that they do discover a point. Despite the unutterable dreadfulness around them, they believe that it is right for them to be fighting, so that succeeding generations do not have to do so again. The war to end all wars, you see, which it should have been, if the kings and politicians and warmongers had been awake. Neville Chamberlain - along with a lot of the other so-called appeasers of the 30s - remembered the 'war to end war' and was totally committed to the idea that there must never be another. The failure of Munich was a tragedy, and he knew it. But nobody in the '30s could comprehend the inhuman villainy of a man such as Hitler. This has become such a commonplace that I hesitate to say it. But what needs emphasising is that all of Hitler's contemporaries, perhaps even Mussolini, expected a certain level of ordinary decency among politicians and leaders. An elected Chancellor of the German Reich must, they felt, behave like themselves, to an extent at least. They had no idea of his ruthlessness, his insane ambition. In the event, the Second World War was more or less a continuation of the first, which means that 20 million people died in 1914-1918 for virtually nothing.
Nearly all the characters in the novel seem to be “loners” in some way, living in their own world or living out what John Cowper Powys would call their “life-illusion”. Is that a deliberate reflection of any personal beliefs, or just the way the characters turned out as you wrote?
There wasn't any deliberate intention. But I feel that in anything I was to write, the characters would most likely turn out that way. I like them for being a bit odd. I even like the Squire of Minterne at moments, as when he's inspecting his uniform in the mirror.
Did you draw on any real people you have known in your own life in your depiction of any of the characters?
Yes. Certainly. I am unable to create a face that I have not seen, to describe a movement that I have not witnessed, to imagine a response that I do not know to be possible. So all the characters are based on real people, apart from one, who is based on several, and I worry about him on that account. Of course, a character in the book, once created will somehow outgrow or a least modify the real-life model - I mean you're not stuck with what you started with.
One moving part of the story is where Cockler relates his brief relationship with the young woman Anouk in Belgium. Did anything in your own experience inspire that passage?
No. I wrote it without thinking and very quickly and hardly changed a word of it afterwards, even though almost all of the rest of the novel changed around it. If it is moving, I put it down to Cockler's character and his way of looking at things, which I much appreciate.
The red and white dice are obviously instrumental in the development of the story. But why dice, and how did you arrive at the symbolism of the six signs? Why those particular six?
The six signs are not taken from any particular tradition. They popped up when the dice was first thrown in Albion's Dream and I didn't change them perhaps because I knew instinctively that they could never be right and I might lose a lot of sleep trying to get them right. The stone circle is druidic, but it's also any circle, signifying completion, refuge, hearth and so on. The cross is Christian (and pre-Christian); the sword is a weapon of war but also a symbol of justice, of discrimination; the tower is authority; the pillar is the way, but also fertility, and also speech, communication. It's the Herm, of Hermes, the sign of the messenger of the Gods. Then there's the skull, which is a symbol of death, obviously, but also of mortality, which is something a little different. The 'mythology' behind the tales is borrowed from everywhere - Arthurian, Odinian, Shakespearian, Greek, with some additions of my very own.
The family name ‘Yeoman’ appeared in Albion’s Dream and in Red Die and will, I believe, in your next novel. Is it a device to link generations within the same family or is there another reason?
The name is a kind of gesture to an extinct breed, the yeoman farmer. Decent chap, probably, with a few acres and a few pigs. I've suggested in Red Die that the origin of the word is Greek γη, meaning earth. The name George surely comes from the same root. Thus Farmer George. I wanted the family to be connected with the earth, and that's in their name, and also in their farming background. Louis was a farmer, so was his father, and his son Charles, and, later, Charles' son Jack. Through the three novels, which are set at various times between 1877 and 1962, the family has become quite numerous, and may even become more so.
Louis Yeoman has an influential presence in the novel, from beyond the grave, through his journals, and not least through the gift of the dice to his son Jack. To what extent do you share his interest in mythologies and folklore and his own (or indeed Mrs Dooley’s) beliefs in occult powers?
Louis doesn't always get it right. Mrs Dooley is a healer, and we assume a good one, but how well would she manage a broomstick? It's a moot point.
The power of supernatural agency is central to the novel’s development, but was this always part of your original conception? At what point did you decide to make this a “mystery story”?
It was always there, like a cake too hot to handle. Let it cool and it loses some of its appetitising freshness and crustiness. Serve it hot and it burns the mouth and upsets the digestion.
'Supernatural agency' is a wordy term for something we have all experienced some time, in some measure. Children's books call it magic, and children live with it and by it all the time, despite what adults may tell them. We all live with it all the time, but it's more comfortable to pretend that we don't. Most peoples in most countries in most eras don't attempt to wriggle out of it, or kill it off by giving it deprecating names ('superstition', 'the irrational'), or make it ludicrous by abusing the word (the magical footwork of Ronaldinho, or Black Magic chocolate). 'Magic be in magic', according to Captain Beefheart, which was nicely put, and nicely sung, too.
Back to the Great War for a moment: as Paul Fussell points out, the experience of the trenches was full of superstitions, charms, extraordinary coincidences, strange visions- the Angel of Mons and all that. I felt that a story with some supernatural resonances matched that era - especially the very darkest moments of 1916 - particularly well. I should imagine that most people believe in 'the power of supernatural agency' when they're close to death, and in the case of the trenches, I should think they damn well had to.
The Yeoman family and the dice are common to Albion's Dream and Red Die. Are there other links between the two stories?
The two stories are quite separate and the second is appearing nearly twenty years after the first. It's not even really correct to talk of Red Die as 'the second'. In its setting, it predates Albion's Dream by forty odd years. I'm hoping that people who liked Albion's Dream will like Red Die, but it may not work the other way round. Albion's Dream is a simpler fable, with a cast mainly of schoolboys. Those who read both will find a number of parallels and connections, I expect, none of them integral to the plot but some of them quite intriguing perhaps. If and when the third book is published, maybe under the title Green King, the three books will form a trilogy, of a kind, but there's no reason why one should be read before another, and they will all be quite different, in style, purpose and design. If there are more of them, they'll be different too.
An outtake (57 seconds) from the RED DIE video session.
A Life in Couplets
I set out to write about my life, and this is what emerged. I don't think it says less than the usual one or two paragraph summary. 'Looking for the writer's crown', and 'with mortar board and walking boots' says about as much as I want to say about what I've been doing for forty years. I have worked in all the places mentioned, although not necessarily in that order. Please forgive my reluctance to give biographical details. At least you will see from the following that it is not idleness. Actually, I argued with Fabers about this many years ago. They insisted on a two or three sentence jacket blurb that became totally inaccurate within a couple of years. 'Never call a man lucky until he's dead,' one of the old Greeks said.
A LIFE IN COUPLETS
Moon in Libra, sun in Virgo:
balance, caution, method, ego;
Baby-boomer (London suburbs),
Not much for the cover blurbs.
From student's cap to teacher's gown,
Looking for the writer's crown;
Thursday's child, with far to go:
France, Uganda, Mexico.
With mortar board and walker's boots
Searching for elusive roots.
Found a teacher, wise old man,
But learners learn just what they can.
Thursday's child has far to go:
Greece and Turkey, Lesotho.
Thursday's child, with pen in hand:
China, Chennai, Vietnam.
Thursday's child with far to fall:
Tonga, Pakistan, Nepal.
Martial said that he who darts
Across the sea to make fresh starts
(With other clothes and bedding roll)
Will change his skin but not his soul.
Today before my very eyes
The blue Aegean windless lies;
Mirror for the exile's face
Driven forth in deep disgrace.
In my mind, the battle's fought
'Twixt what I can and what I ought.
This Dorset fellow's far to go
To Hambledon and Bulbarrow;
But if a pen and paper's near
He'll summon them and they'll appear.
RED DIE A Dorset Mystery
|The Sundial Press
Sundial House, Sherborne, Dorset