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Diary

The story of Alex Salmond is (far) stranger than fiction

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

For legal reasons I shouldn’t say much about the Alex Salmond case, but it does bolster the argument that the world right now operates beyond most fiction writers’ (and readers’?) imaginations. Fiction needs to be credible; I should persuade the reader that the events in my stories could happen, if they haven’t already. Reality, however, seems otherwise inclined. Salmond’s journey — from taking Scotland closer to independence than many thought possible to RT chatshow host — would test the mettle of most contemporary novelists, before even adding the cocktail of charges against him. Salmond, a shrewd operator and orator with a side-order of braggadocio, might seem a gift of a character to a fiction writer. Some may find his recent decline to have the shape of classical drama. But those of us who consume fiction (novels, plays, films and so on) often demand psychological clarity and narrative closure, whereas in these days of conspiracy theory, distrust and paranoia, objective reality has become a chimera.

Then we have Trump and Brexit to deal with (or not). I’m not a speculative writer: I can’t predict how things will turn out, only try to explain afterwards what happened. I have just embarked on a US book tour. First stop: San Diego. Fearful of what Trump’s shutdown might mean, I was stunned to fly through immigration in only a couple of minutes. However, as sometimes happens, my hotel turned out to be near a freeway but not much else. No shops, restaurants or cafés in the vicinity; no taxi rank or obvious bus stop. So I joined the 21st century and downloaded the Uber app. My driver to the Gaslamp Quarter (some eight miles distant) hails from Korea. We discuss Trump (at his behest), then turn to Brexit. My driver watches a lot of political TV, including Westminster. ‘Your representatives do like to shout and argue with each other,’ he opines. Happens a lot outside parliament too, I assure him. In my latest book, the only pro-Brexit voices are those of my gangsters, the very definition of disaster capitalists.


I do wonder if Brexit will be the theme of this year’s tour. Last time, fans at my events asked about Trump, and before that gun control. One elderly gent, informed that I’d never so much as held a handgun, produced his, popped the clip and handed it to me. ‘Pull the trigger if you like, son.’ Thank you, but no.

After the Gaslamp Quarter I walk to the Embarcadero, dodging the unused electric scooters littering the sidewalk. (The Padres’ baseball stadium boasts signs prohibiting them from the vicinity.) There’s a seafood market and the USS Midway has become a floating museum bristling with fighter jets and helicopters. I wasn’t expecting to see a giant recreation in statue form of ‘unconditional surrender’, the famous photo of a sailor kissing a compliant nurse in Times Square on VJ Day. It was kitsch but fun. Nearby was a more intriguing memorial, ‘A National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military’. A lifesize bronze of Hope stands at a mic, facing an audience of service personnel similarly cast. They represent various conflicts and some are maimed by action. From loudspeakers issue a stream of Hope’s gags, each delivered with the accuracy of the most sophisticated missile. I found it all curiously moving, ordinary souls caught up in bewildering conflict, seeking solace amid the grind and slaughter.

My first visit to the US was in 1992, as recipient of the Chandler-Fulbright Award. The money for my six-month stay came from the estate of crime writer Raymond Chandler. News of the prize coincided with my wife’s pregnancy, so we arrived with three-month-old Jack and swapped dreams of a 1950s car for a sensible VW Caravanette, in which we crossed the country. Towards the end of the trip we were in Bangor, Maine, and watched the baseball World Series in our hotel room. Bangor is Stephen King territory and the local bookshop seemed to stock only his works. This was the commencement of my chastening. Each subsequent tour, I wonder if I’ll see my latest offering in the airport bookstores (reader, it’s never happened). But I do get to meet my fans, and this year I’m allowed a day off on Superbowl Sunday — so I’ll be watching in my hotel room in Raleigh, NC. And thus the wheel turns.

I flew from Edinburgh, having spent the previous week moving offices, part of a general process of downsizing. Having spent all my adult life upsizing, this has proved traumatic. But then the surveyor turned up to value the house and he told me that the first flat he ever owned was across the street from the Oxford Bar (where my character Inspector Rebus drinks). ‘And do you know, when we started renovating, a skeleton fell through the ceiling.’ So now I’m thousands of miles away, thinking: ‘I can make that credible in my next book.’


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