There won’t be any synopsis posted anywhere on this site: no cats let out of any bags. But it might help to provide a two sentence summary of how the novel kicks off, otherwise nobody’s going to have a clue what this website in general – and this ‘making-of’ section in particular – is about.
SNUG is set in a tiny village on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight which finds itself beseiged by Africans who have gone there for that very purpose. The story is narrated by a twelve year old boy, the racist doctor who is looking after him, that same racist doctor’s fourteen year old daughter, and the Africans’ infiltrator inside the village (a man who has ‘passed’, meaning he can be taken for white).
This novel is the result of about thirty years of different ideas and various false starts, which gelled, finally, in 2005 during a holiday in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Ryde: here is one of its streets at holiday time…
To cut a long story short, SNUG has most of its origins in a long-standing frustration about the cold-shoulder given to black Africa by most English people (and their media); this attitude, of treating the African continent as something which didn’t need to be known about, was par for the course when I was a teenager in the 1970s: no one talked about African culture, African languages. But as soon as an African catastrophe sprung up – war and famine, mostly – pictures of these disasters were instantly shown on TV and in (all) the papers…
One example out of many would be the photograph above, taken in the 1970s, precisely. The papers and news programmes showed such suffering up close, they rubbed our noses in it: with the apparent intention of eliciting our complaints about the smell, because they certainly didn’t even think of suggesting that anything serious might be done to put an end to this misery, even though Africa was (and is) on Europe’s doorstep; and even though Europe had partitioned and fleeced the entire continent for decades on end, committing a wide variety of atrocities as it did so.
I would lie awake at night, aged twenty, furious at this unnecessary suffering being presented as something inevitable and incurable; and furious, too, at my own inability to do anything about it myself.
Until one day I somehow got into a conversation with an upmarket girl (who I didn’t know from Eve) about Mrs Thatcher, whose devastation of those sectors of British society that hadn’t voted for her – about 65% of the population – was slowly but surely underway. As this enthusiastically posh girl praised Margaret Thatcher to the skies, I had a welcome vision of the Africans finally taking matters into their own hands and giving the post-colonialist nation of Britain – Thatcher’s Britain – something to think about. I imagined them converging on us, from all over black Africa, in every type of vessel imaginable: with kalashnikovs strapped to all their backs.
I then turned this waking dream into a short story, which I promptly forgot about for the next thirty years, until I woke up early one morning in a Bed and Breadfast in Ryde, thinking about this photograph which I’d seen recently; it was taken in southern Spain in the early-2000s, and shows two tourists sitting idly by a washed up African corpse.
This became the direct source of the opening scene of SNUG. The rest of the story, I knew had to be the reverse of this image and others like it (Africans arriving half-starved in unsafe vessels, Africans drowning on their way to Europe…). In SNUG, Africans were going to come to Europe – specifically, to England – in strength and safely, and on their own terms.
This idea, the one of Africans taking matters into their own hands, collided with another long-standing idea I’d since had for a siege story. I’d written several novel-length versions of this siege story, but I couldn’t get the story right: who were the besiegers supposed to be, and who, exactly, were the people being beseiged? For example, in one version, students on a campus were being besieged by strange savages in a snowy landscape; in another, London itself was under siege by violent forces that were both invisible and mysterious, not least to the author himself. And so on with the other (failed) versions.
In the pale six am light of Wight, however, I suddenly remembered my long-lost short story about the African invasion of Britain and it struck me then and there, that the besiegers had, of course, to be Africans, and that the besieged had to be white English people in a cosy, friendly, complacent white English place. Somewhere a bit like Ryde, in fact. But smaller.
So I invented a tiny village called Coldwater Bay, based at a specific geographical point on Wight.
It’s that little red dot on the south-west coastline.
SNUG took six years to write. After I was about a year in, I realised that in order to make the African characters minimally credible, I would have to go to Africa and see what things looked like from there. (I’d been reading as much African fiction, biography and history as I could – the titles are listed in SNUG – but that just wasn’t enough). Through an Afro-Catalan couple, I managed to contact several people in Tanzania, who put themselves out of their way to help me when I eventually went to Dar-es-Salaam. They are of course acknowledged at the back of the book, and I will not forget their kindness in a hurry. One of the most revealing meetings was with Erick Shigongo, a Swahili language writer who sells an average of 30,000 copies of each title he publishes (no mean feat anywhere, but almost miraculous in a country as poor as Tanzania). He talked about the problems of writing in an African language, not least of which problems was that most of the Americans and Europeans he had come across seemed to think that Africans simply couldn’t write novels. Here he is (with me):
As for the rest of the story, which involves the twelve-year-old narrator’s teenage crush on a teenage girl, all that comes from a half-forgotten holiday spent in a completely forgotten part of East Anglia. What I remember most is the overwhelming arousal of love and sex at that age. I thought: add that new feeling of an intense sense of future – because love and sex both conjure up the future and terminate the timeless drift of childhood (or at least, that’s what they did to me) – to the story of the cosy village and the visiting Africans, and you’ve got everything you ever wanted to say, in a single book.
Finally, something should perhaps be said about one of the key characters: the racist Doctor Whitebone. Unlike all the other people in the book, who I have met, in one form or another, in real life – or ‘real life’ – Dr Whitebone is someone made up of overheard comments, of insults hissed in the street, of ‘academic’ defences of the indefensible and – admit it, why don’t I? – of voices that used to pop up in my own head and which I hope have now gone silent for ever and a day. Which have, indeed, been made unthinkable precisely because to think them would be a betrayal of myself, just as racism in itself is a betrayal of people in general, no matter what conveniently extenuating circumstances racists always come up with – on the spot and at the drop of a hat – in order to defend their hatred.