Interview: Peter Hanington, author of A Cursed Place

HaningtonThe middle of the Kabul airport evacuation turned out to be a good moment to talk to spy* novelist Peter Hanington. The crisis in Afghanistan provided a perfect backdrop to talk about two of the key themes in his excellent books: the state of the modern media and the plight of refugees.

The leading protagonist in Hanington's three books is Radio 4 Today programme journalist William Carver. His first outing A Dying Breed is a political drama set in Afghanistan and Whitehall. Carver is everything you'd want in a reporter if the news and its integrity is important to you: dogged in the pursuit of a story and the truth and with a contact on every corner; impervious to political and management pressure; and a fine journalist to boot.

And so to Hanington, a former Today producer, Carver represents a journalistic ideal at a time when the values he espouses are under threat.

“The journalists that I respect, I think, are quite heroic figures. Their job is to discover truth and speak truth to power, and so the idea is to see what happens when that truth become difficult to tell in time of war or in a time of cyber surveillance when things are stacked against you. How do a group of journalist behave if they're trying to do the right thing?” Hanington says.

What this idea produces therefore are spy* novels largely without spies - and therefore novels that have inevitably drawn comparison with John Le Carré and Graham Greene. Those comparisons are fair.  

“They are basically spy or detective stories with journalists as opposed to spooks at the centre,” he says. “There was a spy-y element in the first one but it is rooted in radio journalism, the stuff I know most about is journalists, the good and the bad trying to get to the bottom if something.”

Dying breedAnd Carver is a marvelous creation, a cantankerous throwback, difficult to work with but the perfect character to throw light into the dark corners Hanington explores in the novels. It´s impossible to read about him without wondering which of Hanington´s former colleagues he is based on.

“There are a few body parts of people I've worked with. Splashes of DNA from John Humphreys and James Naughtie and Ed Stourton and other people you observe,” he says. “But his origin was when I was working on the South London Press and a beat reporter called Terry Messenger who cycled around his bit of Streatham, and he called is ´his bit of Streatham´ looking for stories and would find them as he knew his patch and had great contacts and would find great crimes stories and he was the first shoe leather and good luck journalist I met.”

Hanington says, “I knew I couldn´t do that”, so the next best thing was to become a producer. And so is Patrick, Carver´s long-suffering producer, based on Hanington himself?

 

“The Patrick character contains a fair bit of me at the beginning when I was first being sent on little trips, but I was never that hungry for war situations. I didn´t particularly want to be that producer. There were lots of people who did want to jump out of the back of airplanes,” he says. “I did a bit of work in Russia and Africa but it was usually safe and sound stuff. The Patrick character was meant to convey what all this looks like from the outside and that sense of wonder. And the older I get the more I had the attitude and grumpiness that resembled Carver more than Patrick. The interesting thing after being at the BBC for 28 years, is the number of people absolutely convinced Patrick is based on them and fewer people are willing to embrace the idea of being a body part of Carver.”

Cursed placeOthers are perhaps more easy to spot. In the first two books we meet journalist turned PR guy, Rob Maruscal, who calls to mind former Today editor Rod Liddle. Hanington calls Maruscal an “alluring monster” and recalls that Liddle could be “completely dreadful but never boring”.

As the reporters descended on Kabul in late August, Hanington offered some insights into what was happening there and how news was being produced.

“With A Dying Breed one of the things I wanted to show which I had experienced myself was that the relentless demand to feed the machine, to feed the 24 hour news machine, meant it was getting harder and harder for journalists to go and find out what the actually story was and do the real job which talking to people who really know,  as opposed to journalists who are flown or helicoptered in, and you can only do that by spending time in a place and getting to know it.

“And so, the point of Carver was the places he goes to are places he has been many times before and  he has good contacts on the ground and has some credibility. I used to see a lot of journalists that would arrive and the whole machine was based on producing to camera from the right rooftop with the right backdrop. And the story that the TV people were often telling was not a story they knew very well at all. There were obviously lots of honourable exceptions to that but a lot of the time they were reading copy produced by other journalists or even copy that was cobbled together in London.”

Running throughout the books is a strong sense that the type of rigorous journalism practiced by Carver, and that holds power to account, is being eroded threat, at the BBC and elsewhere. It's expensive, time-consuming and also demands some commitment from its audience. Hanington sees a number of factors colliding to damage it.  

“There's become a sort of running joke at the BBC that every few years you get sent on course to find the new audience, these are sometimes referred to as “replenishers”. Always these courses involve and they always involve horrible language and mangling the words. Every time you get sent on one of these courses, this mythical new audience seems to have less and less tolerance for complexity and a shorter and shorter attention span,” he says.

It is from here that he learned that the average “loiter time” you have to grab the attention of the audience is just seven seconds.

“Carver is of the opinion that if someone won´t give you more than seven seconds then you might just as well give up and go home,” he says.

So as more of the BBC's budget is spent on shorter form news such as social media, pieces like Radio current affairs, which is doing what Hanington calls “the difficult stuff” are being starved of resource. And this is to the detriment of society as a whole. (This is a theme further explored in the most recent novel, A Cursed Place, in which the media's relationship with social media giants and the newly flexible definitions of truth and fact.) 

“You feel like a cliché saying this but as Harry Evans told us the Sunday Times spent a hell of a lot of money on his Insight team, and they were well paid journalists and they´d disappear for months and sometimes they'd come back and you had Thalidomide,” he says. “And of course the trouble is there are no guaranteed returns on this stuff. So there are still bulwarks of long reads and investigative stuff. It does still happen but it's not getting any easier”.

AssourceThe treatment of the grand themes that frame Hanington's books is always insightful but never explicit. The stories are skillfully told and the messages there for those who choose to read them. I have been gripped by all three, but one particular story stood out and lived with me long after I'd finished the book: the tale of the two Eritrean brothers who embark on the dangerous, demeaning and distressing path of refugees to Europe. This story, hauntingly brought to life, seemed nothing less than a direct and emotional rebuke to the mainstream narrative that plays out every summer on the front pages of the red top media as populist politicians stand on the white cliffs of Dover howling abuse at refugees.

I was not, then, surprised to hear that for Hanington, this was a very personal story.

“I was incredibly keen to get those stories as close to truth as possible and felt very strongly about that element of A Single Source. Myself, my wife and kids over last five years have supported the charity  Refugees at Home and have had 5 refugees living with us for various periods, some Syrian and Egyptian, Ugandan,” he says.

“It´s just been one of the most enlightening and humbling experiences we have had to give them a spare room and open the door for these young men. All of them stayed for between 6 months and 2 years. So you hear the stories of the journeys which are much more horrific than anything you can possibly imagine.”

Hanington talks of these young men as “inspirational survivors”, working hard to provide a better life both for themselves and for those they left at home.

“Every single one of them was desperate to work, to better themselves. They were incredibly grateful to have been given the chance to start afresh. Their will was to work and to give back, to this country and to send something back to those they had left behind,” he says. “It always struck us that these are exactly the sort of people that we want in this country. As far as making a useful and kind-hearted contribution to British society I'd pick any one of these young men over Priti Patel.”

And so as the refugee issue in the English Channel ignited once again just as the collapse of Afghanistan promised a new wave of immigrants to Europe, Hanington has only disdain for our politicians, their divisive rhetoric and doubletalk.  

“The blinding hypocrisy of Boris Johnson getting up on his hind legs today and talking about the need to help the Afghans at the same time as driving people back into the water when they´re trying to cross to from France to here. At some point we have mislaid out humanity, and that was a large part of what I was trying to talk about in A Single Source,” he says.

With Hanington's BBC career drawing to a close, Carver is now taking him to the US – after a sojourn near Cadíz in Andalusia – where he plans to research his next novel, although he admits he doesn´t quite know exactly the story, taking  he will follow but is reassured to find himself in reassuring company. “Stephen King on writing is very entertaining, but he's a great one for insisting you shouldn't plot out to firmly or even commit to a theme so he puts himself in the right place with the right bunch of characters."

Whichever direction that story eventually takes, Carver is the right character and is in the safe hands of a writer who knows what a good story is and how to tell it. We can only hope for much much more from them both. 


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