Interview: James Naughtie – 'I hope readers will smell Paris as they read'
The former Today programme host discusses his new Cold War thriller, Paris Spring
To many, the association between James Naughtie’s educated Scottish tones and their own early-morning journalistic wake-up call is hard to break. For 21 years until December 2015, he was one of the main voices of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, having earlier hosted The World at One and The Week in Westminster. As a young print journalist, he learned his trade on Aberdeen’s Press & Journal, The Scotsman, Washington Post and as The Guardian’s political correspondent.
The current BBC News special correspondent and books editor has previous in prose. His numerous works of political non-fiction include 2001’s The Rivals which centred on the story of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s fraught relationship: Naughtie’s work was used as source material by Peter Morgan in writing the excellent 2003 television film The Deal. A similarly informed, densely political backdrop inspires Naughtie’s own Cold War thrillers, 2014’s debut The Madness of July and this year’s Paris Spring.
‘I started The Madness of July about four years ago, and it felt quite natural,’ says Naughtie. ‘It had been bubbling away inside for a long time; I’ve been writing something nearly every day since I became a newspaper reporter in the 1970s. Towards the end of the first book, I understood properly what authors mean when they talk about “finding a voice”. In the second book it’s there more strongly, and I think it’s better as a result. Broadcasting and newspaper journalism are all about telling a story, about describing what it’s like to be there. That’s a good start in writing fiction, but there’s a whole new world that I’m going to have to learn. That’s one of the reasons why I’m enjoying it so much.’
That second novel will be the focus of discussion at his Book Festival appearance. ‘It’s set in Paris in 1968, the year the city was in flames and a student revolution filled the streets,’ he says. ‘It’s a time I remember very well, though I was still at school in Banffshire and there weren’t many cobblestones being thrown at the police. The Cold War was in a brittle state with America bogged down in Vietnam and the Soviets alarmed by a reforming government in Prague. When the students took to the streets in Paris it was as if the old order was being threatened everywhere.’
Against this backdrop, Naughtie has dived into the Cold War intrigue with a story set around Paris’ British Embassy and the young spy Will Flemyng, in a prequel to the 1970s-set Madness of July.
‘If good stories are about characters who face dilemmas, spy stories offer you the perfect backdrop, because the consequences of getting things wrong are so serious. They dramatise the struggles we all have about how much to say and how much to hold back. Anybody who likes a tense story has to be a devotee of writers like Graham Greene and John le Carré; they helped to create a world in which characters don’t seem to be plot mechanisms but come alive. They proved how the Cold War setting works and, 25 years after the whole thing ended, I think it still does. I hope readers will smell Paris as they read and I hope this book makes them want to turn the page.’
James Naughtie, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 22 Aug, 11.45am, £12 (£10).