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Book Nook: Agent Lavender, by Tom Black and Jack Tindale

Authors interviewed by David Flin

The book that started it all.

One of the first books produced by SLP, and an iconic aspect of the company, is Agent Lavender, written jointly by Tom Black and Jack Tindale. It’s about time the blog examined this book, and interviewing the authors seemed the best way to go about doing this.

What is the basic premise of the book?

Tom: Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister 1964-1970 and 1974-1976, is in fact an agent of the KGB. One night in November 1975, he learns he’s about to be exposed, and goes on the run. As the British establishment reels from the revelations and dark forces seek to take advantage of the chaos, what follows is part-manhunt thriller, part political thriller, and part farce.

Jack: This was, of course, based on the large number of conspiracy theories regarding Wilson and the wider labour movement during this period. The story is entirely fictitious and has an absurd premise, but there are a number of nods to that historical underpinning. Peter Wright (of Spycatcher fame) is a significant supporting character, to give but one example.

The star and villain. Harold Wilson.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How would you describe the book?

Tom: A page-turner that also gives the reader lots of chances to feel clever by recognising historical characters and events. Tonally, we were influenced by Fleming and Le Carré, but also Pratchett and Gaiman. There’s a touch of Alan Moore here and there, too.

It’s definitely one for the post war British history nerds, with almost every character being a real historical person and a downright silly number of cameos. Colin Salt (of SLP’s The Smithtown Unit and Box Press) simultaneously described Agent Lavender as: “probably the finest work of alternate history [he’s] read”, but also “inside baseball for nerd afficiandos of British political history”. We can’t really say fairer than that.

Jack: Quite so, Tom. It was feedback like that which made the whole process (and goodness me, we both started it well over a decade ago!) worth it. I have always been a tremendous fan of the post-war spy thriller, and whilst the two of us don’t have identical literary tastes, there’s a great deal we share, as well.

The book is part espionage novel, part political drama, so I’d also describe it as having a touch of the Whitehall farce about it – a smattering of Yes Minister, but perhaps an element of Michael Dobbs and Jeffrey Archer.

It’s set in the 1970s. As far as I am aware, neither of you were alive then, but some readers are. Why did you choose that period? And why didn’t you choose Wilson’s first stint as PM in the late 1960s?

Tom: For me, the appeal of the 1970s was that it is remembered now as a period of decline, managed or otherwise. The exposure of Harold Wilson, thrusting PM of the Swinging Sixties, would have been a different energy. I’m sure it would also have been great fun, but it didn’t click into place for us in the same way as the 1970s alternative: the exposure of Harold Wilson, tired and weary man looking for an exit as Europe, the oil shock and industrial strife continue to pull the country apart.

I think the strongest elements we missed out on by not setting it in the 1960s was the real-life King Mountbatten attempted plot. Of course, if you’ve read the book, you know we end up doing a lot with that anyway, but there’s something that would have been satisfying about having the events of the book somehow reversed – Wilson is overthrown in a coup, but then it comes out he really is a spy.

Lord Mountbatten. He said "No" to the plot.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jack: As Tom says, it was the impression (perhaps unfairly) that the 1970s is the decade that looms largest in the public consciousness of the shine finally coming off the post-war boom years and the height of the social democratic consensus.

That isn’t just the case for the UK of course. In France you had the end of the Trente Glorieuses; for the Americans it was the period of Watergate, Vietnam, and the malaise of the Carter Administration; in the Soviet Union, Brezhnev and stagnation.

It’s the era where the Cold War seemed to become entrenched in the era of détente, of Woodward and Bernstein, of spies on every corner (after all, Willy Brandt had resigned in 1974 over the Guillaume affair).

Of course, the decline image is one of those perceptions that isn’t always borne out by reality. In many areas, the western standard of living was broadly speaking better than we had in the 1960s, the positive impact of equalities legislation was finally starting to become visible – but that’s all impacted by the feeling that the 1970s did seem to be an era where the wheels were coming off. I am a tremendous fan of the dystopian edge to a lot of the speculative fiction of this time; The Changes, the later Quartermass serials, the overpopulation tropes – the 1970s just seemed to fit the feel for what we were going for better than the Swinging London of the first Wilson governments.

Without going into details (spoilers), you have a lot of well-known political and politically-adjacent characters who have roles in the book, both as cameos and as more significance to the plot. How did you decide how they would fit into the plot.

Tom: There were two categories. The first were people we knew we wanted to include in the story, because a story of the time would feel somehow lacking if they didn’t at least cameo somewhere. This included people like Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Lord Mountbatten, the Queen; the list went on. They all do turn up in quite meaty roles.

The second group of real characters appear in the story because of a decision I don’t think Jack and I ever explicitly talked about: if a new character was required by the plot, then if at all possible, they should be a real historical figure. So, journalists became specific BBC or ITV reporters, functionaries were named based on the research we were able to do into the civil service and the Palace, and ;the President’s advisors’ in an Oval office scene became... well, the people who were advising Gerald Ford in 1975.

This rule applied whether they were prominent at the time or whether their time in the spotlight was still to come. A good example of the latter is Brian Paddick, later known to politics geeks as two-time London Mayoral candidate for the Lib Dems, turns up as a Police Constable who’s barely started shaving. And more than a few people have noticed the young man with the toothy grin who’s started working for Mrs Thatcher at the end of the book…

Jack: On the latter point, it was indeed a lot of fun to find some plausible sounding participants in the wider body politic. I think, at times, we may have gone overboard with it, perhaps a few too many “knowing winks” to camera, but I think it is useful to have a term of reference for the reader.

Whilst I don’t know either of us can claim to have an intimate knowledge of any of the dramatis personae, I likewise feel that we did a good job of making them sound like ‘them’, rather than just being a mouthpiece for the authors.

I think that was some of the positive elements we got from working as a team as well – we did a good job at interrogating the other to make sure that we were speaking with them as a historical figure and keeping in with their mannerisms as much as possible. Tom did this much better than I did (you can tell he is a playwright; I personally struggle quite a bit to write realistic dialogue), but I did recall a scene Tom had the lead on where President Ford is speaking with his predecessor in the White House, and I had to point out that – out of office or not – there is no way that Tricky Dick would have been sitting in the Oval Office wearing a sweater; he was an intensely formal man in all circumstances.

It is also important to stress, however, that we are not writing historical figures. We are writing characters in a counterfactual history novel that correspond, on paper, to real life individuals. I think this is one of the most challenging things about writing speculative fiction that concerns people, some of whom may still be alive. In the end, they are fictional people in a novel, and I worry, at times, that people read into things like that a little too much.

Clearly a lot of research went into the book. How did you do the research?

Tom: I go on Wikipedia and ask Jack stuff I can’t find there. I’d like to apologise to the History faculty at the University of Leeds from 2009 to 2012.

Jack: Tom is doing himself a disservice here. He is a very well-read and intelligent individual – there’s a pastiche of Hunter S Thompson he’d written that I had to check wasn’t copied wholesale from the great gonzo journalist himself.

The two of us have what I would claim to be a good undergraduate grasp of British political history. It has unquestionably improved since we completed Agent Lavender – but even at the time we were writing it, we could both fall back on access to our own books and – at least in my case – access to the library and archives of the London School of Economics. I think one of the advantages of the time we chose to write about is that you have access to both a host of primary and near-primary sources, as well as serious academic works that can draw upon things that have been declassified under the thirty year rule.

One thing that I felt was very useful for much of the documentation is the large number of good diaries and memoirs we could draw upon. I am not one to fall into the tired trope of complaining about the current stock of politicians being enfeebled to those we had in the past; people have been saying that since at least the time of Gladstone and Disraeli, but the era of the public intellectual going into politics does, sadly, seem to be a bit behind us now. I personally found digging into the host of autobiographies was a very useful thing to draw upon – yes, of course they are biased – but that was very helpful for making sure that we could get the logical process for the characters right. I was very keen to see how Mrs Thatcher, or Roy Jenkins, would justify some of their decision making within their internal monologues.

The book is a collaborative effort. How did you divide the workload? Was it like Gilbert & Sullivan, one of you responsible for the writing, the other for research? Or was it more like Pratchett and Gaiman on Good Omens, where each wrote different scenes?

Tom: On the ‘first pass’, so when we were writing it for serialisation on the forum, we initially took a chapter each. That quickly turned into taking a section each within chapters, and we started meeting up in pubs or coffee shops to spend a few hours on our laptops editing the same Google Doc.

For the final version – which contained substantial changes from what was initially serialised – we actually went to stay near Cromer, where much of the book takes place, and spent a long weekend in the hotel bar tapping away as we went through each chapter with a fine-toothed comb together. That seemed the only right way to both sign off on the final published text.

Jack: There was clearly absolutely no way that the chapter-by-chapter approach could have worked without the whole thing collapsing in on itself. I am very glad that we realised that very early on. I am rather surprised that it’s brought up how quickly we have developed our means of online interaction in recent years, the Coronavirus pandemic unquestionably would have made the way in which we developed the initial stages of Agent Lavender very different.

It was delightful to share a weekend in Cromer together. It was a proper writers’ retreat and we enjoyed an exemplary stay at The White Horse in Overstrand – which we can both recommend to anyone wishing to explore the North Norfolk coast. By accident, the room was a double, rather than a twin, so I think it was less Pratchett and Gaiman and more Morecambe and Wise.

The beer garden of The White Horse, Overstrand.

Picture courtesy White Horse.

How well do you feel you captured the ‘zeitgeist’ of Britain in the 1970s?

Tom: What I do know is I got bitten by the bug. The 1970s captivated me as an aesthetic, especially the crumbling corridors of power. In 2018, I started working with Parabolic Theatre, and as other articles in the blog have outlined, I was given the opportunity to write an immersive interactive piece with that company. The result was Crisis? What Crisis?, which invited audience members to try their hand at saving Jim Callaghan’s government from collapse while keeping inflation under control and Maggie T at bay. We took over old office buildings to perform in, and had so much fun creating the brown, orange, and beige look that so many people expect from 1970s work. The show was a big success in the end; we had half the Whitehall bubble queueing up for tickets, and plenty of history buffs. None of it would have happened without Lavender.

Jack: Tom has said all that I would like to. I will, however, add that writing Agent Lavender very much got me to reappraise my opinion of the 1970s. I am, by background, an economic historian, and I am rather surprised at the extent to which – for all our folk memories of it – it is a decade that was surprisingly progressive socially, and influential in terms of culture. A few weeks ago, my partner and I had a very belated flat-warming, and it was remarkably easy to pull together an appropriate 1970s playlist. Mr Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army opened an evening of devilled eggs, Babycham, and election coverage.

What were the main influences of the development of the story?

Tom: Honestly, the readers on Without their feedback, we wouldn’t have kept writing, and we definitely factored in things that people seemed to expect would happen. We managed to keep a few twists under wraps, but it’s fair to say the story would look very different if it hadn’t been serialised while it was being written.

Jack: More specifically, I’d say that the ‘narrative’ approach to Alternate History impacted the two of us as well. There’s a massive amount of support in the community, but the two of us couldn’t have written it without the likes of What if Gordon Banks had Played, and the various efforts of Ed Thomas (of A Greater Britain and Fight and be Right fame).

If you were writing the book now, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you do differently?

Tom: It’s interesting, something that came up a lot in the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication is how much we were ‘obviously’ satirising the state of the contemporary Labour Party. We weren’t – and more to the point, the book was published in 2016, but we started it in 2013, when Jack and our fellow nerds and I were among the only people under 40 in the nation who knew the name ‘Jeremy Corbyn’. You can insert your own joke about how jokes about the Labour Party’s divides are timeless, because the same stuff keeps happening over and over again. But I do think we’d have tried something a bit different with the Labour storyline. Then again, what else can you realistically expect a party to do when their leader is outed as a spy and outright Leninist?

If we started again tomorrow, I am also not sure we’d depict Enoch Powell exactly as we do in the story. Without spoilers, there’s no ambiguity as to whether he’s a racist – he was and is – but he does have a few moments where he’s a little bit uncomfortably heroic for my tastes nowadays. Our central defence of his depiction, outlined in the afterword, is that he was a white supremacist but also a democrat, and in his quixotic and bigoted way, did not believe in carrying out transformative policies without a mandate from the general public. These days I am not so sure we can reliably say that, or whether it’s a distinction which matters all that much – if I want to deport everyone who doesn’t look like me, then should people really care that I insist on having a referendum on it first?

Looking out for those Rivers of Blood. Enoch Powell.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jack: I think that we would also, perhaps, take a step back from some of the more “nod to camera” elements to the novel. Some of the perils of serialising a work on a forum is that you perhaps write for a smaller audience than you would otherwise do. I cannot speak for Tom, but I rather feel that I wrote various scenes to show off my own knowledge, rather than for the benefit of the narrative.

Does the average reader need to know the exact route from the House of Commons chamber to the Stranger’s Bar? As it happens, I didn’t either. I was judging it on my own knowledge of Parliament. It was only several years later that I stumbled across some period appropriate floor plans of the estate and found out that in 1976; it was in a different part of the building entirely! Clearly, my research wasn’t as insightful as I had assumed, and it wasn’t as if it added much to the narrative in the first place. A pointless digression, and a wrong one as well!

Finally, do you have any plans for a sequel?

Tom: When we finished the book, we did. Without giving anything away, we got a bit excited about where things were left and thought we could pick the story up in a few years. However, we realised not long after the book was done and dusted that our core idea for a sequel was pretty much a retread of the events of the first, but set in the 1980s now – not likely to be dull or a complete waste of time, but equally unlikely to be revelatory or something we would be proud of in the long run.

However, in the years since, we’ve settled on a new idea – The World of Agent Lavender. Akin to Ed Thomas’ excellent follow up to Fight and Be Right , this would take the form of many different short stories, book extracts, and so on, spanning the many years since the book’s conclusion in 1977 and answering some theories as to how history might have gone since. It wouldn’t all be directly linked to characters and events in Agent Lavender, focusing sometimes on wider butterflies from the setting, but one exclusive reveal we can give is that the first story would be a narrative set at the state funeral of Lord Mountbatten.

Jack: We aren’t exactly racing along with it, sadly. I think, of course, that this is partly because of real life. Tom has been justifiably busy with Parabolic Theatre and other projects; we had – of course – C19 to contend with, and real life more generally.

That said, I think that the two of us have become more ‘settled’ in that way that us mid-stage millennials are, and after that usual sort of personal upheaval one has at that age, the two of us are still living in fairly close proximity to one another in South London. I would hope that it won’t be too long before we have a few afternoons of collaboration in Balham and Crystal Palace to look forward to. Perhaps we might even post the first chapter of the follow-up in the Caffè Nero near Borough Market, for old time’s sake.

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Agent Lavender is published by SLP.

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