Thursday, 2 June 2016

Q is for QUORP

One of the questions I’m regularly asked is whether I base my characters on real people. I always find this rather strange. I’m a novelist, not a biographer. So the answer is no: the majority of my characters are the product of my imagination. I do, however, make the occasional exception – and QUORP, Governor of the Western Sector was one such example.

He’s actually based on a writer of some fame. For libel reasons I won’t name him, or even hint who he is. I confess I’ve never actually met this man but as I was writing the Quorp scenes I read an interview with this writer, complete with an odious photograph – and found him so insufferably smug and unreflective I just had to base Quorp around him.

Quorp's Red Setters

You might also like to know that Burton’s aunt was also modelled on a novelist – this one much more agreeable, though once again I will spare everyone’s blushes and not name her.

I can see how I might be accused of being terribly coy in this entry, but I have dropped a few tiny hints in the text as to who the people are. I’m sure the more astute of you might be able to decipher who I’m referring to... though obviously I will deny everything!

Quorp is also the embodiment of a theme that runs through the book (and links all the characters I despise the most). Excess. If I were drawing up a new list of deadly sins, excess would be at the top. Without wanting to sound too preachy, so long as mankind’s excesses remain unchecked the future will always be bleak. Excess is also a theme in the new novel I’m currently working on (not an Afrika book).

[Spoiler alert.] Hochburg’s threat to Quorp – ‘nice family’ is a quote from The Good, Bad Ugly, a line Christopher Frayling once described as the most menacing in the film.

Q is also for Quince

Many people have commented on the use of quinces in The Afrika Reich, in fact I’ve been asked why Q wasn’t for Quince in the previous A to Z.

Quinces return as a motif in The Madagaskar Plan. Burton owns a quince orchard. Partly this was to give him an unusual job but the symbolism of the fruit was not lost on me either. Through the centuries the significance of quinces has varied from culture to culture. In Ancient Greece they were a symbol of love. In early readings of the Bible, the devil tempts Eve to pick a quince from the Tree of Knowledge (it morphed into an apple during the Middle Ages). Quinces are an amazing, perfumed fruit that turn the most extraordinary pinkish-orange when cooked. Delicious! I have a quince tree in my own garden.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Germania - revisited

One of the most popular entries from the A to Z of Afrika Reich was the blog on Germania, so I thought I’d return to it with some more pictures, especially given the city actually appears in The Madagaskar Plan. Germania, as I’m sure you know, was the capital Hitler planned to build if he won the war; it would have been overseen by the Führer’s architect, Albert Speer. Here they are admiring a model of the city:

Here is a plan of the intended layout of Germania:

At the centre of this new metropolis was the Great Hall. The first illustration gives you some sense of the scale of the building. Below it are various artists’ impressions of how it would look: 

 Finally, a miscellany of views of Germania:

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Early in the plotting of The Madagaskar Plan it became clear that I would need to include the GOVERNOR OF MADAGASKAR, not only to rule the island but also to thwart Hochburg. Three possibilities are mentioned in the narrative.

My research soon revealed that the Nazis had a candidate in mind as early as the 1930s: Philipp Bouhler, Head of Chancellery in Hitler’s personal office and an old comrade of the Führer’s. However, Bouhler didn’t make for a particularly dramatic character. He was too dry, a bureaucrat, so I decided to project the story beyond his governorship.

I considered a fictitious character but wanting to keep things grounded in reality I started looking at other, real possibilities. One name kept cropping up: Odilo Globocnik. He had run the Lublin Reservation in Poland (a precursor to the Madagascar Plan) and later built the death camps; he seemed a very likely contender.

Globocnik and Bouhler

Yet I was reluctant to use him because of Fatherland (where he is the main villain). It was only after I read a biography of him that I realised his potential. Although Robert Harris depicts the psychopathic qualities of his character well, he omitted lots of the bizarre details. I included many of these in Madagaskar: Globocnik’s two wedding rings, his alcoholism, womanising, horsemanship, love of Austrian folk music. All this is true and made him spring alive for me. So is the fact he never employed women older than twenty-four and that he used to speak to Himmler while lying on the floor, raising alternate legs as he agreed with the Reichsführer. As mentioned in my novel, Globocnik had a real breakdown in 1943.

[Spoiler alert.] In the final chapters of the book a replacement for Globus is mentioned – Herr Bischoff. Again he was a real person and was considered by Heydrich to run the island. Bischoff’s reign would have been different to Bouhler’s and especially Globus’s. He was an accountant and married to a half-Jewish wife. This illustrates well my feelings on alternative history. Often people say to me this or that couldn’t have happened, but how can they be certain? All of the three men above when credible candidates as Governor of Madagaskar. Each would have ruled the island in a very different manner.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


When I’m working on scenes I’m always looking for ways to make them more original or unexpected. Initially Burton and Tünscher’s first meeting was set in an anonymous bar in Roscherhafen. After working on it for a while I was happy enough with the dialogue but thought the background should be more interesting. This is where the research kicked in and I decided to move it to the Tiergarten (the zoo). Bizarre as they may seem, the scenes set in Roscherhafen are all based on real places the Nazis intended to build, including an ‘education and entertainment park’ – this a decade before Disney started building in California.

The memory is an odd thing. While writing these scenes I was trying to imagine what it would be like to drink steins of beer and eat sauerkraut beneath boiling skies... then in a flash it came back to me that I have actually experienced this. There used to be a German African theme park in Florida called Busch Gardens. It is long gone, but I went there in the 80s and remembered the bierkeller with the waitresses dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes and the heavy German food in the sweltering Florida climate. I’m positive there was an oompha band.

As well as originality in a scene, it’s also important for me to delay giving away too much of the plot too quickly. As the drafts of Chapter 14 were laid down I realised that the key moment was upon the reader too soon. I needed a device to withhold it that went beyond Burton and Tünscher pausing to order another round of drinks – hence the FERRIS WHEEL. I’m sure you got this as a reference to Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

The Ferris wheel in The Madagaskar Plan is described as ‘the largest in the world’. My US copyeditor picked up on this fact and said that the time it took for a complete revolution – 4 minutes, 41 seconds – was too fast. In her diligence she had checked the timings with similar sized wheels: ‘In Japan, the 115-meter Daikanransha takes 16 minutes to go around; the London Eye (135 m) takes 30 min’. That’s what I call an attention to detail! The reason I settled on 4 minutes, 41 seconds is because that’s how the long the Ferris wheel sequence is in The Third Man. I admit this is an utterly obscure reference.

The other reason I referred to the Graham Greene scene is because it’s about two characters, Holly Martins and Harry Lime, who don’t trust each other. This mirrors the relationship between Burton and Tünscher. Thus far I haven’t said a great deal about the new characters in the book, something I’ll redress in the coming few blogs.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


Schubert’s HUNGARIAN MELODY appears several times in the book, a motif that links past and present. When I wrote The Afrika Reich I also wrote extensive backstories for the characters, including Burton and Madeleine’s first meeting. I decided that Madeleine should be playing the piano at that moment. But what music?

A contemporary song seemed out of keeping with her character, so it would have to be something classical. Certain clichés came to mind – such as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or Rachmaninoff – but I wanted something more unusual. I toyed with the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, though this presented all sorts of alternative history problems because the piece wasn’t composed until 1957, more than a decade after the USSR had been defeated by the Nazis in my world. Which begs the question, what would have happened to Dmitri in this new world order? I can’t say, though even if he had survived I doubt there would have been much time for music in what was left of Russia. I often get asked arcane questions like this by readers: what would have happened to so-and-so, how would such-and-such event have played out? Mostly I have to wing it or admit I don’t know. Although I’ve constructed the immediate alternative history of my world, I don’t have an exhaustive store of knowledge for every person or event post-1940!

I digress.

Since the scene where Burton and Madeleine meet for the first time wasn’t in Afrika Reich, I didn’t need any more detail than ‘Madeleine is playing the piano’, so I put the question to one side. When I started the first draft of The Madagaskar Plan I happened to be listening to Woman’s Hour [a daily radio programme on the BBC for foreigner readers of the blog] where Imogen Cooper was being interviewed about her latest CD: a collection of Schubert’s piano works. She played ‘The Hungarian Melody’. I heard it only once – but it was an instant earworm and I couldn’t get the tune out of my head for days.

There’s no deeper significance to it appearing in the book than that. As much as I like to build layers of references sometimes details arrive through whimsy or happenstance – and nothing more.

If you’re not familiar with ‘The Hungarian Melody’ you must listen to it. It’s a wonderful piece, mischievous and melancholy. You can find a recording of it here:

Friday, 18 March 2016


Whereas set pieces such as the Ark, hospital, dam and Diego were in my mind from early on in the writing of The Madagaskar Plan, the NACHTSTADT sequence came late in the process.

The inspiration for Nachtstadt...

[Spoiler alert.] It went through multiple incarnations – the only consistent thread being it was the store where Salois gets replacement explosives. At one point it was on an island in the middle of a lake (a real place I passed on the road to Mandritsara); in another it was an oil-rig like structure protected by Walküre gunships. The actual action changed as well, including at one point Globus being present and taking Madeleine hostage. None of these worked – they struck me as overly dramatic, more akin to the train/helicopter chase in the first book and I was consciously trying to move away from such ‘excessive’ set pieces. For months I was unable to find an alternative.

As always when I’m stuck I turn back to Homer and began thinking of the scene set on Circe’s island – where Odysseus’s crew are turned to pigs by magic. Then when flicking through the hundreds of photographs I took in Madagascar I came across this one:

Through that odd, alchemic process that is creation – and tying into the modus operandi of the second rebellion – the location for the scene became a gigantic pig farm. So far all the places I’ve described in Madagascar were based on real locations. Nachtstadt was entirely made-up, though with a nod to reality: Himmler did have several farms where he experimented with livestock techniques.

In keeping with the Homeric reference, I initially wanted to name the place after Circe’s island but that is called Aeaea which I thought was too difficult to pronounce; the Roman equivalent, Ponza, sounded too comic (and Japanese) to me. So I turned to James Joyce. The Circe equivalent in Ulysses is set in Nighttown, the red light district of Dublin... which translated into German is, of course, Nachtstadt.

N is also for Nightingale

I often take a long time to come up with the right name for a character. In the meantime, while plotting or writing, I need some signifier (I hate using just A, B, C etc). In Fatherland there is an American diplomat called Henry NIGHTINGALE. So when I came to write the scenes with America’s envoy to Madagaskar, and before I had a name for him, I temporarily used Nightingale.

I never found an alternative and as time went on the name just stuck. So I confess indolence on my behalf rather than some clever reference! In the early drafts Nightingale had a much larger role in the book – but it got trimmed back. [Spoiler alert.] If you want to know how he originally fitted into the plot I suggest you compare the description of him in Chapter 34 with that of the unnamed fourth man at the table with Rolland, Salois et al in Chapter 13. I based my description on the assistant director and occasional actor Jerry Ziesmer.

Jerry Ziesmer

Sunday, 6 March 2016


[Major spoiler alert for all of this entry.] One of the first plot elements of The Madagaskar Plan I came up with was the ending, inspired by the climax of Metropolis (one of my favourite films). Plotting is often like doing a puzzle. I start with a solitary piece and then have to find others around it to create a picture. The RESERVATIONS are a good example of this.

Filming the flood in Metropolis

In my very earliest notes for the book I have the following: ‘Ending = apocalyptic flood’. What could cause such a thing? The only thing I could think of was a dam burst. There is a brief mention in Afrika Reich about Hochburg using dams to harness the power of the continent, so it seemed plausible something similar was happening in Madagascar. I looked to see if there were any real dams on the island but there aren’t, at least not of any significance. Then in my research I came across a lucky find. In 1949 France’s main electricity company sent a team to Madagascar to survey the island’s hydroelectric potential. Their report – a document running to hundreds of pages – was invaluable as it not only listed potential rivers that could be used for electricity but also the drawbacks of them. I knew the dam would have to be in the north of the island and by a process of elimination settled on the one proposed across the Sofia River. Then another great detail – the French team feared the river might carry too much silt, leading to turbine clogging. Rather than discouraging me this inspired me – because it said something about Globus’s character: he was prepared to build a folly.

The next question was why would so many Jews live in the valley of the dam – a potentially dangerous site. If the creative process is alchemic (as I’ve written elsewhere) or a kind of puzzle, it is also like weaving a tapestry; individual threads come together to form an image. Much of this ‘mind weaving’ is an unconscious process. The Nazis were obsessed with putting Jews in reservations. The most famous of these was the Lublin Reservation, often considered a precursor to the Madagascar Plan. It was overseen by Globocnik. So somewhere in my head I made a link between dams and reservations and they tied together perfectly.

The only thing left to do was to visit an actual dam. I wanted a remote one, so when I was in the US a couple of years ago I made a lengthy detour to Idaho and the Hell’s Canyon hydroelectric plant – upon which the dam in the book is based. As with my trip to Madagascar, walking the ground was invaluable, providing details I couldn’t have picked up from books alone: the constant hum of generators; the faint smell of brine from the reservoir. It also made for an eventful drive, like something out of Duel... but that is a story for another time.

Hell's Canyon Dam, Idaho

R is also for Rolland

Vice-admiral Rolland is the man who gives Salois his mission. Some of you may recognise the name. Admiral Rolland is also the character that sets Smith and Schaeffer on their mission in Where Eagles Dare. He was played by Michael Hornden.

Hornden as Rolland in Where Eagles Dare

Originally, I wanted to give Salois the call sign Smith uses, ‘Broadsword’. But in recent years it has become too ubiquitous, so I settled instead for another, less well known call sign, one that subtly ties into the plot: ‘Dragonfly’. I’ll leave you to discover where it’s from...

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

P is for PRORA

Madagascar wasn’t the only country I went to for research. I also visited Germany. Part of this trip included the trip to Dachau which I’ve already described. A few days later I caught the overnight train from Munich to the Baltic Sea and what was once East Germany. My destination was PRORA.

There, in the 1930s, the Nazis built the largest hotel complex in the world, capable of accommodating twenty thousand guests at a time (a record unbroken to this day). It is a truly megalithic structure, the frontage running along the seafront for almost five kilometres. Because it never had a military purpose, nor was it connected to the murderous elements of the regime, the building was not torn down after the war. In fact the authorities didn’t quite know what to do with it, so it has simply been allowed to decay. Much of the site is now in ruins, fenced off with trees growing around it.

One section, however, has been preserved, and it is possible to get a sense of what it was like during its heyday. Each room was 5 by 2.5 metres with twin beds, a wardrobe, sink and beige soft furnishings. ‘A holiday cell’, is how Burton describes it in the book – and he’s not wrong.

But my lasting impression of the place wasn’t the grim rooms but the sheer scale of the exterior. A cycle path runs along the length of the building so it’s possible to ride from one end to the other. At a decent pace it took me twenty minutes, twenty minutes of the same monotonous stone-and-window frontage flashing by. And by. And by...

Prora was meant as a prototype for numerous holiday resorts that the Nazis intended to build around the world if they had won the war – from Sweden to Russia to Argentina and of course Africa which is why it finds its way into my book.

This artist's impression shows what it would have looked like in Africa 


Having spent so long writing Madagaskar there were often moments of doubt, in particular I kept asking the question: is it any good? It would seem a futile activity spending so long on something if it was rubbish. I always reassured myself it worked... but in the back of my head one possibility was impossible to silence.

The Phantom Menace must surely be the most disappointing film experience for my generation. For years we waited for a continuation of the Star Wars saga, but when it finally arrived I, along with millions of others, left the cinema with a heavy heart. Yet I assume Lucas didn’t actively set out to make a bad film. To his own mind it must have worked... it’s just that what he wanted was not what his audience hoped for.

That’s what I kept having as I wrote MadagaskarPHANTOM MENACE MOMENTS. I thought I was doing a good job... but what would others think? You end up too close to your work to know. At least there’s no Jar Jar Binks...

Thursday, 11 February 2016


Before I continue blogging about the research trips for The Madagaskar Plan, time for a brief interlude.

An unexpected consequence of my research was that I amassed more material than I could possibly use. Whilst writing I had to decide how much to include. Put in too little and the world is insufficiently brought to life; too much and the whole thing gets bogged down. However, some of the details I discovered simply had to be used.

One of the most horrific came from my visit to Dachau (see earlier blog here). Most people are familiar with the striped uniforms of prisoners in concentration camps. Inmates were also forced to wear armbands that identified their ‘crimes’. The yellow Stars of David for Jews are well known but there were also red triangles for political prisoners, pink for homosexuals, green for ‘common criminals’ and so on. See image below.

At the exhibition in Dachau there was a further, macabre detail. Those prisoners who were deemed trouble-makers or likely to attempt escape, had uniforms with large Xs painted or sewn on their backs: the idea being that should they try to break out, they would make easy targets for the guards.

I hope Madagaskar is rich with such details. Ninety per cent of them are real (including the most unlikely ones). On occasion I would make something up – either because the record was lacking or I wanted to create something to fit with the ‘aesthetic’ of the novel. If I’ve done my job properly you won’t be able to tell the fake from the real.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

D is for Diego

DIEGO Suarez – a huge natural harbour on the northern tip of Madagascar – is the setting for some of the climactic scenes of the book. It was also the final stage of my journey around Madagascar.

Welcome to Diego!

I reached the city in the late afternoon and have two particularly vivid memories of my arrival. The first was the dense perfume of ylang-ylang plants; the second was having a hot shower! By that point I’d been on the road for days and although I’d sometimes had the luxury of running water, that water had never been heated. In Diego I not only stayed in what was recognisably a hotel, it had decent plumbing. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that shower. Afterwards I sat on the veranda of my room which overlooked the Indian Ocean. Writing is often a miserable business but on occasions I can think of no better profession.

Diego Suarez was named after two Portuguese admirals: Diego Diaz and Fernando Suarez, which is rather forgiving given that on arrival in 1506 they murdered and enslaved the locals. Despite attempts to revert back to its native name of Antsiranana most people still call it Diego. It is a pleasant port city: a fusion of Indian, African and Arab influences. Bustling and lushly tropical. During my visit hot winds seemed to blow continually. Just outside the city are empty beaches of white sand and azure waves. But I wasn’t here as a tourist. On my first morning I had an appointment at the city’s naval base.

There’s been a military base on the site since the French established one in 1885. From my research for Afrika Reich I knew the Nazis wanted to build a naval fortress here (it’s specifically mentioned in the Bielfeld Memorandum, their blueprint for the continent if they had conquered it). Over the years this fortress had grown in my mind until it became a towering polygon of steel and concrete housing aircraft carriers, submarines and battleships. The reality rather different. Although the port impressed with its sheer size, it was utterly dilapidated, and with Madagascar being so poor its navy is hardly formidable.

Nevertheless, the Base Commander, the improbably named Randrianarisoa Marosoa Nonenana, was keen to give me a guided tour – and once again this walking the ground proved invaluable when I came to write the final scenes at Diego: from how the landscape tiers down to the water, to the palm trees sprouting among the barracks; the positions of the gun emplacements and the layout of the workshops.

Across the water there was also a huge runway – which gave me an unexpected motive for Salois’s mission. As an aside, in the months before my visit, the US military had been wanting to use the runway as a staging post for bombers to Afghanistan. The appearance of a strange foreigner fuelled all sorts of rumours amongst the Malagasy sailors. In the few hours I was at the base word got back to me that I must be a CIA agent casing the place out. The other alternative – that I was a British writer researching a book – was dismissed as too improbable.

D is also for DIE HARD

Did you get the reference? This is a clue
Many readers of the first book detected multiple references to DIE HARD. As I wrote at the time, none of these were intended, indeed to the best of my knowledge there’s no allusion to the film anywhere in Afrika Reich. Nevertheless people were adamant, so when I came to Madagaskar I thought I’d put an extended reference to the film in the book. Doubtless, this time round no one will identify it as such! Did you spot it?