The Value of Nothing – A Modern Opera

I’ve long been fascinated by how books begin. When I wrote my first published book No Identifiable Remains, a sort of psychological thriller, ten years ago, I didn’t know how I did it. That’s not a boast, simply a puzzlement. I’ve now written eight and I’m beginning to see a pattern.

The Value of NothingThe Value of Nothing had a long journey, which began in a hairdresser’s chair in north London some three years ago.  I was in the hands of Sabrina Lefebvre, who was telling me that she had just returned from the Jungle in Calais where, as a volunteer, she helped cut the hair of migrants. I was about to go there myself and so the next time she went, I accompanied her.  I had wanted to write about extremes of wealth and poverty and on that freezing day in late January, nowhere could have been poorer, more forlorn or inhospitable than the camp.  People had walked across Europe to be there, cold, wet and uncomfortable. Nevertheless,  they were full of good manners, offering me sweet tea wherever I went.  The visit was the start of what would become this book. But I didn’t yet know how.

Before I started writing, I might have thought that plot was important in the construction of a book. I learned gradually that this wasn’t the case. Recently, my views on plots were neatly encapsulated by Stephen King.

‘You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer anyway – is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If we can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.

Please remember that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honourable and trustworthy: plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.’

I heard something similar from Ann Cleeves, the crime writer of Vera and Shetland, on Desert Island Discs. When she first started writing she plotted meticulously but now doesn’t – again, because life is not like that and it takes some of the fun out of the writing.

So how DO books begin? I think it’s a peculiar and fascinating process.

I’m a great fan of a writer called Elmore Leonard, who died recently after a hugely successful career writing terse crime thrillers. When he was in his eighties, I went to hear him talk in London. There was a question and answer session at the end and someone asked him if he knew the outline of a book before he began. ‘I guess not,’ he said, in his laconic way. ‘I always begin with a situation and the in the first hundred pages I introduce my characters. Then comes the difficult bit: what it this book about? And that takes another say hundred pages. And then, finally, the last hundred pages and I’m faced with another problem: which ending shall I choose?’

And this was a revelation for me. That, I realised, was exactly the process I followed. My first book, No Identifiable Remains, had just been published and the process I had unwittingly followed mirrored that of Elmore’s. Now, with The Value of Nothing, I understand the system – and trust it.

Over the years I have now become a sort of magpie, or jackdaw, picking up shiny objects of information with the knowledge that they might provide the beginning of a book, or some part of the story.

For example, my old economics master at school first introduced me to the Latin phrase: Radix Malorum Est Cupiditas – money is the root of all evil. This phrase has stayed with me, perhaps the reason I had wanted to write about the ever growing gap between the rich and poor. When I went to the Jungle with Sabrina I felt vague stirrings of an story, but my ideas were still in gestation.

At this point I thought I was going to write about how it was possible to smuggle migrants from an air strip in northern France to a similar strip in East Anglia. I have a friend with a three-seater plane and he explained how it might be achieved. Believe me, it is.

Not long after, I had lunch with a friend who is the boss of one of our newest banks and I noticed his rather fine watch. It was, he told me, a Bremont EP120 Spitfire, worth about £19,000. The image of the watch with me. But I wasn’t yet ready to start a book.

Shortly after I went, with my wife Sally, to do a flat swap in Paris. We were there a month. She was researching, so was I. It was here that I first glimpsed how might the book might take off.

I walked all over Paris, but my focus was not on the golden heart of the world’s most beautiful city, but on the areas away from the centre, behind the great railway termini. In fact, it was a few kilometres from the Gare du Nord, just by the Périphèrique, that the first glimmer of how I might begin came to me. It was here that I discovered a small migrant camp tucked under the motorway. It was built on a deserted railway line, by some deserted warehouses, and a pall of smoke, from burning wooden pallets. covered the scene. Into my head came the idea of a migrant boy who – by fate or chance – meets a financier who’s in the process of developing some warehouses in Paris.

That the book went on to feature an opera singer and a woman called Round Mary, two characters who didn’t exist when I wrote this in the opening chapter. It’s about Youssef, the 12 year old migrant:

He lived in a shanty town behind the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, his home, a shack of wood and tarpaulin, built on a deserted goods’ track a stone’s throw from the Périphérique. He was a child of the Paris that no one knew. Although barely half an hour’s walk behind Sacré-Coeur, it might just as well have been another galaxy. He was not of that world and he had been taught to despise it, to regard the honey-coloured centre of the city as a dangerous illusion, a deliberate deceit to lure the eye away from the truth. He lived on the raw edge of the city, kept at bay by poverty and hatred and, in some ways, he was happy to have it this way. That is, until he saw the woman on the train and somehow she had become a conduit to somewhere else, to a fabled world to which he couldn’t ascribe any shape, or indeed give any real hope of ever being able to do so.

A line of grey soot marked his forehead, a stigmata of his condition.

I won’t tell you the ending, except to say, as you won’t perhaps be surprised to hear, that it’s not what I expected it to be. So saying, you’ll smile when you discover that the boy wears a fancy watch not dissimilar to the Bremont I mentioned earlier.

I’ve sub-titled the book A Modern Opera because in it, like many great operas, we see extremes at play, distillations of love and hate, of hopeless poverty and unbelievable wealth, of blind trust and scheming betrayal. Paris is an appropriate setting for such a drama of opposites. The migrant camp in which Youssef lives is just a few kilometres behind the Sacré-Coeur. In fact, you can see it outlined on the hill just to the south. Millions of tourist visit the church and surrounding Monmartre, but few, if any, wander down the hill towards the Périphérique and a very different city. Paris, for all its beauty, has an uncompromising attitude to migrants and, as I saw up in Calais, the police have scant regard for not only the new migrants, but those from their old colonies, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

I introduced a failed opera singer to the cast of the book, a woman who is to cast a magical spell on the boy and the financier. Youssef was Every Arab, Michael Finistere Every Financier. Sophie Arditti, the opera singer, provides the sound track and backcloth to the whole story.

Strange, then, that when I began the book she didn’t exist. But neither did anyone else.