It is 1982 and the British prime minister and the Argentine president are both clinging to power.

Owing to budget cuts, senior MI6 spook William Catesby’s only agent in South America is young Cambridge student Fiona Stewart who has fallen in love with an Argentine star polo player who also flies Exocet armed aircraft for the military Junta.

Downing Street, having ignored alarm bells coming from the South Atlantic, finds itself in a full-blown crisis when Argentina invades the remote and forgotten British territory of the Falklands Islands. Catesby is dispatched urgently to prevent Argentina from obtaining more lethal Exocet missiles by fair means or foul. Cunning, ingenuity and the prospect of murder will become his increasingly desperate modus operandi. 

Meanwhile, a battle rages behind the scenes as the Foreign Secretary, haunted by his own memories of the horrors of war, is pushing for peace, while the Prime Minister, urged on by nationalist glory, is willing to sacrifice lives to win an upcoming election. 

From Patagonia to Paris, from Chevening to the White House, Catesby plays a deadly game of diplomatic cat and mouse determined to avert the loss of life. The clock is ticking as diplomats and statesmen race for a last-minute settlement while the weapons of war are primed and aimed.

To mark the paperback release of South Atlantic Requiem, Paul Burke has revised his review of the latest William Catesby thriller, which means that it’s a great time to revisit Paul’s interview with author Edward Wilson:

Paul Burke: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing fiction? As a British writer of American birth, do you have a kind of detached or a more open view of the British Cold War?

Edward Wilson: I don’t know how I started writing fiction, but having studied International Relations at a US university and served as a Special Forces officer, I began to feel that I had an insiders’ view of the Cold War. Which, I realise, could be self-flattery and delusion. In any case, the big secret of the Cold War, well hidden from the US and British public, was that the Soviet Union was weaker than it seemed. The Soviet Army was stretched to its limit policing Eastern Europe and the southern republics of the Soviet Union itself. Many in the West had little appreciation of the losses that the Soviet Union suffered in the war: 26 million dead and massive infrastructure devastation. Although the Soviet nuclear arsenal was capable of wiping out Britain and Western Europe, it probably didn’t have second strike – or even first strike capability – against the USA until the mid-sixties. Which may be one of the reasons that Khrushchev gambled with missiles in Cuba. The US, on the other hand, didn’t need long-range missiles because it had nuclear weapons poised on Russia’s border. This strategic imbalance created a nightmare scenario for the UK and Europe. From the mid-50s onwards, generals in the Pentagon were urging Eisenhower to launch a pre-emptive strike against Russia. The generals believed, with justifiable confidence, that Moscow would not be able to retaliate against the US mainland. But instead, the revenging Soviet intermediate range missiles would have rained down on America’s NATO allies. Britain would have been one of those sacrificial pawns. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the UK ambassador in Havana received a request to evacuate family dependents back to Britain, he replied, ‘Why? They would be safer in Havana then London.’ And he was right.

PB: Is writing a form of catharsis for you or a way of understanding the world (your fiction is built on major events in history) or something else altogether?

EW: My first (and semi-autobiographical) novel, A River in May, was certainly catharsis – and exorcism too! The later books are not cathartic, but there is an element of trying to understand history through research and speculation. But, more importantly, my books are about people. I like to examine people caught up in the mess, not just of history, but of their own lives and choices.

PB: Envoy begins in 1948 and now South Atlantic Requiem brings us up to 1982. Are your novels a chronicle of the Cold War? A soundtrack to an age? How would you describe them?

EW: I would prefer them to be a soundtrack to an age – thank you for that lovely description – than a chronicle of the Cold War. It should be mentioned that I was born in 1947 and that most of the characters in my books were born in the 1920s or before. One could say that I’m sitting in judgement on my parents’ generation – and, although that judgement is sometimes full of admiration, it is often full of condemnation and anger.

PB: In the light of that, what do you think fiction, where the lines are blurred, adds to the examination of historical events? You are writing about things that occurred 30 to 70 years ago. What does the distance of time bring to your fiction? Research, perspective, living memory? Would it have been different writing during the Cold War?

EW: The important thing about the distance of time is that the historical characters that I fictionalise are dead. Libel laws aside, it would be unfair of me to pass judgement on someone still living, who would still have the opportunity to redeem her or his self – or do the opposite! You could say that I’m playing the role of the Recording Angel. Distance also brings new historical perspectives – sometimes as the result of files being declassified. Nonetheless, I don’t think my books would have been much different if they had been written during the Cold War – but I was unable to as I was working full-time as a teacher.

PB: Would you describe your writing as political, with a small ‘p’ or a large ‘P’? How does interpreting geo-political events square with writing an entertainment?

EW: I think it is regrettable how few novelists today take political sides even with a small ‘p’. Everyone knew that Graham Greene was a Lefty and that Evelyn Waugh was a high Tory – and it didn’t hurt their sales or reputations. And one of our greatest spy writers, Erskine Childers, was shot at dawn for being a Fenian revolutionary. If that isn’t being political, what is! Not to mention my fellow Baltimore Poly student, Dashiell Hammett, who spent six months in jail for refusing to name names during the McCarthy witch hunt – and died in poverty after his books were blacklisted. So, following their examples, I am not ashamed of showing my politics in my novels.

Lord Reith’s injunction to the BBC was ‘to inform, to educate and to entertain’. I regard my first job as ‘to entertain’ – because if you don’t do that the reader won’t turn the pages and won’t be ‘informed’ or ‘educated’ either. In fact, it is possible to do all three at the same time. What makes geo-political events exciting in a work of fiction is portraying what might have happened behind closed doors. What, for example, happened at Chequers on Sunday morning 2 May, 1982 when the order to sink the Belgrano was issued?

PB: The novel is about cause and effect, did “winning” the war in the South Atlantic end any possibility of Britain really understanding what went wrong? Is it part of your intent to make people see the folly that led us into war in the first place, the government failure?

EW: A large number of military, intelligence and Whitehall insiders certainly knew what went wrong, but kept pretty quiet about it for fear of spoiling the celebration. I recommend you have a look at the Falklands chapter in Colonel John Hughes-Wilson’s Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups – it is a devastating indictment.

The British ruling class are a totally different breed from their American counterparts. Unlike Trump’s crumbling White House, where senior staff queue up to cop plea bargains and turn supergrass, the omertà of Whitehall would earn a fond nod from Don Corleone. In some ways, I admire this close-lipped reserve – and successful diplomacy cannot be carried out in public – but keeping secrets from the public also damages democracy. I hope my spy novels give some insight as to what happens behind closed doors – but, Warning to Reader, they are fiction!

PB: After all, there is always a human cost, you are very clear that you have nothing but respect and admiration for the people who fought in the war, does it still make you angry? At the heart of the novel is the love story of Fiona and Ariel, we see the personal loss war inflicts, and the conflict of loyalties that people face, it’s a reminder that everything has a very human, very emotional impact.

EW: What makes me particularly angry – and this is politics with a capital P – is that many of the British soldiers and sailors who were killed and maimed came from the same working class communities that Thatcher later destroyed. I wish that someone, but not me, would write a non-fiction book exposing that bitter betrayal. I wonder how many kinsmen of South Atlantic veterans were coshed at Orgreave? Likewise, we saw working class Argentine soldiers and sailors sacrificed for the Junta. As the Great War era socialists used to say, ‘A bayonet is a weapon with a worker on both ends.’ The reason that Ariel Solar rises above his humble birth is his prowess as a polo player and pilot. Fiona is deeply moved by his simplicity and naive beauty, but can do nothing to change his fierce patriotism and military pride. It is a heartbreaking match.

PB: The story moves around the world as events escalate in the years building up to the war (I think a lot of people think it just happened). We see the coming war and the diplomacy from several sides, the Americans, Russians, Peruvians, and of course Argentina and Britain. Was it your intention not just to build a thrilling story but to provide this wider perspective (collective folly)?

EW: I definitely wanted to provide a wider perspective. Foreign policy, particularly when conflict is looming, is a dangerous and unpredictable business. One never knows how a minor event can trigger a chain reaction that leads to Armageddon. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver taking a wrong turn is an epic example – and why oh why were they still bundling around Sarajevo in an open car after an assassination attempt that had seen a bomb explode after bouncing off the back of his car! Never underestimate the human capacity for stupidity – and we saw a lot of that in the run-up to the Falklands. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher was presented with two options: a sovereignty deal with Argentina or a budget commitment to defend the Islands. She chose to do neither. Not many people know this, but the previous Labour government under James Callaghan did send task force south as a precaution. In 1977, after the Argentinians set up a military base on South Thule, Callaghan quietly dispatched a nuclear submarine, two frigates and support vessels to the area which resulted in an equally quiet Argentine withdrawal following talks. Such expenditure was not, however, to be part of Thatcher’s penny-pinching agenda – which sometimes bordered on the absurd, such as turning off the heating for the indoor swimming pool at Chequers. The ultimate in ‘penny-wise; pound-foolish’ was the plan to scrap the ice patrol ship, HMS Endurance, the UK’s only naval presence in the South Atlantic. According to Thatcher, the ship could only go pop, pop, pop – not a very astute assessment of a vessel armed with lethal Wasp helicopters and a detachment of Royal Marines. But firepower aside, Endurance was an important symbol and the announcement to scrap her was a clear signal to the Junta that the UK would not defend the Islands. Meanwhile, loud alarm bells were ringing from the region – including the arrival of scrap merchants on South Georgia who hoisted the Argentine flag – and yet the Prime Minister did nothing.

Another problem was that many in the US defence and intelligence establishment were big fans of the Junta for their success in eliminating left-wing opposition in Argentina – and also for helping other Latin American countries do the same. The Junta’s human rights record was appalling – as many as 30,000 Argentinians were tortured and disappeared. The pro-Junta Americans, however, were happy to turn a blind eye – and, if taking the Falklands was what the Junta had to do to stay in power, that was fine too.

The Soviet position was totally hypocritical. Moscow was more than willing to betray socialist revolutionaries in order to achieve trade deals with Argentina. Soviet foreign policy was always more about Russian national interests than about world revolution – and we see Putin pursuing those same national interests today.

PB: Did the war, despite the consequences for the Junta (loss of power), mask the issue of the disappeared? Did the conflict provide a respectability for a military dictatorship? If they had won, the regime might have continued and Argentinian politics is still coming to terms with what happened.

EW:  The cry, Las Malvinas son Argentinas, was a magic spell that temporarily vanished all of Argentina’s problems and united the entire country from left to right. It was the one thing on which right-wingers, revolutionary socialists, trade unionists and Catholic nationalists could all agree. It didn’t completely mask the issue of the disappeared or provide respectability for the Junta, but it did cancel a general strike that was scheduled for three days after the invasion. It was a headline grabber – just like the nerve gas attacks on Sergei Skripal and his daughter have given the May government a temporary respite from Brexit.

PB: Now that your series has reached the Falklands era in South Atlantic Requiem do you intend to keep going? At some point Catesby will have to retire but the story goes on. Any hints about what might be next?

EW: Catesby’s story will go on. He still hasn’t written his memoirs, but before that I would like to do a prequel or two. I’ve written very little about Catesby’s experience as an SOE agent in occupied France, but the next big Catesby book could be one set in Marseille during the dockworkers strike in 1953. It was a struggle in which the CIA was deeply involved – as well as the Corsican mafia. It would also give me a chance to reprise Henry Bone and Kit Fournier.

I have started tinkering with a book set in the present day, but fear that Trump and Putin fatigue could have set in before it’s finished – and, of course, there’s the problem of characters still alive. I would also love to write a novel about the Peasant’s Revolt of 1382 – no fear of libel there!

PB: The Whitehall Mandarin highlighted the role of China in the realm of spying during the Cold War, whereas a lot of spy fiction writers have stuck strictly to the West vs Russia conflict, is the duality actually a plurality? Do you think the Chinese role has been neglected?

EW: Thank you for mentioning The Whitehall Mandarin. I don’t think anyone else has written a spy novel about the Sino-Soviet rift – and Washington’s covert and overt support for China. And the mystery of how China got advanced nuclear weapons has never been solved. It would not, however, be fair to say that China’s role as an espionage player has been neglected by other writers. I highly recommend Mai Jia’s Decoded which I reviewed for The Independent. I also suspect that China has widely deployed honey-trap agents – but I’d better not say more

PB: The book is fiction, of course, but is it important for Catesby, or Kit Fournier for that matter, to be bound by real history?

EW: I think fiction writers would have to go a long way to outdo the porkies told by governments and their leaders: LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin, Blair’s WMDs, Thatcher’s Belgrano. But, unlike them, I do try to be bound by real history. When such history has been distorted or suppressed, I try to provide a fictional version which is as likely as possible – and that version is sometimes fairly low key. My account of the decision to sink the Belgrano is very undramatic. No hissy fits, no shouting – just, ‘Tell ‘em to sink her and let’s get on with lunch’.

PB: Similarly, is it fun creating a conspiracy or do you see it more like exposé? In South Atlantic Requiem we have political machinations, arms dealing, corrupt banking and a connection to several of the key events of the time, you wrap it all up in a very convincing package.

EW: It certainly is fun, but it is more exposé than conspiracy. The ‘suicide’ of Vatican banker Roberto Calvi under Black Friars Bridge is a gift to the novelist. Black Friars, as any Catholic knows, is another name for the Jesuits – what a lovely calling card.

The concentration of enormous power in very few hands isn’t wild conspiracy theory, but verifiable reality. The CEOs of the top three UK banks have sufficient assets at their fingertips to buy the entire UK housing stock – and could, in theory, do so and evict the entire UK population. This is why military coups are obsolete. Why use tanks when you’ve got banks? A much more sanitary way of seizing power.

PB: Catesby would be horrified by the Iraq war. He is independent, irreverent, and anti-establishment (conflicted – but it makes him a great character). How much of him is you? Is it almost like having a relationship with Catesby?

EW: Catesby is based more on the many awkward squad colleagues I met whilst a lecturer and trade union officer at Lowestoft College than myself. There are, however, superficial similarities. Like Catesby, my father, whom I never knew, was a merchant seaman who met my mother when she was tending bar in her father’s dockside tavern – but this was Baltimore and not Antwerp.

Catesby is my role model – and certainly not me. He is now an old man of 95 – and a flawed and scarred example of that heroic generation. Born into an impoverished Anglo-Belgian family in Lowestoft, he spends a lot of time wondering who he is. Catesby’s widowed Belgian mother brought up her children speaking Flemish and French in the home (possibly because she secretly wanted to take him and his sister back to Antwerp), but Catesby spoke Suffolk English in the playground. Nonetheless, Catesby’s linguistic skills lead to a double first at Cambridge, a posting to SOE and being parachuted into occupied France – and then on to the Secret Intelligence Service. The telling thing is that when Catesby, who can pass as a native speaker in three languages, visits Lowestoft to meet his old school pals in the pub, it is obvious that his attempt to speak his native Suffolk is pathetic and fake. Education and success can alienate you from your roots.

PB: Is there a writer you would recommend to readers, an inspiration or just a rattling good read?

EW: My favourite writer is the New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield, who died at the age of 34 in 1922. Mansfield wielded her pen like a flick-knife. In terms of living writers, the most rattling good read that I’ve recently encountered is Susan Barker’s The Incarnations. Barker, who has a Chinese-Malaysian mother and an English father, grew up in East London. Her novel does for China what Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children did for India. (For more, see my review in The Independent.)

Our thanks to both Edward Wilson and Paul Burke for this excellent Q&A.

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson
Arcadia Books 9781911350590 pbk May 2019