Writing My Policeman

Brighton Pier

1950s Brighton: The setting for My Policeman. © Copyright Oast House Archive (Creative Commons)

My Policeman began with E.M. Forster.  I’d just written a book which had used a fictionalised version of Peggy Guggenheim as one of the main characters, and had enjoyed and found fruitful the spark created by the friction between real lives and fiction. I think I found the research comforting, too: it gave me a long period in which to come up with my story and get to know my characters. And there is something about doing research – particularly historical research involving real people – that frees you from the feeling of plucking your story out of the air. It gives your blank canvas a first wash of paint, it’s something to build upon, so that the novel feels more substantial from the start.

P.N. Furbank’s wonderful  ‘Life’ of Forster makes it clear that the policeman Bob Buckingham was the love of Forster’s life. What really interested me was how the two men negotiated the fact that Bob was married, and stayed married, to May, a nurse with whom Forster had at first a very tense and later a very warm relationship. May actually nursed Forster at the end of his life, and was there holding his hand as he died. She seemed to me to be the keeper and survivor of the triangle.

So May was the starting point. I suppose my intention was to investigate how such a thing could come about – how could a wife end up holding the hand of her husband’s lover as he died?

Of course, as I wrote this story it changed. Perhaps because it made for better drama, or perhaps because my own disposition is not as generous or forgiving as May Buckingham’s, I couldn’t help but focus on the wife’s inability to cope with the triangle. Marion’s struggle with her emotions became my story, and it became a much darker one than the real-life situation from which it sprang.

During the research I read a wonderful collection of first-hand accounts of gay life in 1950s Brighton called Daring Hearts. It was this book that made me want to set the story in the 50s. It led me to other research about the witch hunts against gay men which were conducted in this country during the 50s. Peter Wildeblood’s brilliant book, Against the Law, is a bracing, moving and utterly unsentimental account of his experiences of being involved in the Montagu trials of 1954 and his subsequent sentence at Wormwood Scrubs, and was a great inspiration for me.

I was very aware, during the writing of the novel, of the responsibilities involved in portraying this situation. This is a political, as well as a personal, story, and in it I inhabit the voice of an oppressed minority – a gay man in 1950s Britain, Patrick Hazlewood. At first the pressure of the responsibilities involved made me reluctant to write in Patrick’s voice, to make any claim to knowing what life was like for this man. Whilst I believe in the writer’s right – indeed obligation – to imagine other lives, however far they may be from their own, it’s tricky, because it also steers close to the dangers of colonisation, of exploiting stories or voices that have been historically repressed by the likes of you. All of this weighed quite heavily on me at first, but in the end I just couldn’t resist the challenge of writing Patrick’s voice and inhabiting his persona, and my attitude was: why not? After all, one of the great pleasures of reading and writing fiction is inhabiting worlds far from your own experience.