Stanley Johnson explains the background to his new political novel and stresses how enjoyable the book becomes, once purchased!
At the beginning of the year, when I decided to write a novel about “what really happened” in the run-up to the Referendum of June 2016, I imagined that the book might be called “The Brexit Conspiracy” or “The Brexit Memorandum” or something along those lines. I thought I would mainly concentrate on the (imagined) dark and dirty goings-on which led to the victory of the Leave campaign. But as I settled down to work against a tight schedule I quickly realized that focussing on Brexit was too one-dimensional. The skulduggery I wanted to write about extended to both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the links between the Referendum campaign over here, and the US election, seemed both strong and continuing.
I realized I needed a different, less geographically specific title and hit on KOMPROMAT, the Russian term for compromising materials about a politician or other public figure. I take my hat off to the publishers; Oneworld Publications. Having started in February this year, I turned in the completed draft – some 90,000 words – half-way through April. The book was published on July 13, which meant that printed copies had already to be available in June. Amazingly, I was even at that late stage able to include a final chapter about another seismic shock: the General Election of June 8 and the resultant hung parliament.
I don’t use real characters in the book. I point out in an author’s note at the beginning that the book is a work of fiction and satire, and not a work of history. I state very firmly that “readers of this novel should not conclude in any way that any living person misbehaved in the manner that some of the characters in the book regrettably seem to have done.”
I don’t want to give away the plot of the book here. I want Boisdale Life readers to get hold of a copy (buy, beg, borrow or steal) and read it for themselves! But I’ll give one major hint. There is a lot more to British Prime Minister, Jeremy Hartley, who calls for – and manages to lose – the referendum than at first meets the eye.
I was interviewed the day after publication by Adam Boulton on Sky News. I told him that I was convinced that the Russians could have been behind Brexit, in the same way they could have been behind Trump. They were kicking at an open goal. In the short term at least, the referendum vote has resulted in a major destabilization of Western Europe. We may not (yet) have set up a committee of enquiry into the conduct of the referendum in the way they have in the States, but these are early days.
KOMPROMAT is my twenty-fifth book and my tenth novel. I’ve been writing thrillers, as well as non-fiction, for over fifty years and I much enjoy it. Oddly enough, another of my thrillers, The Commissioner, also had a European theme. It was made into a film of that name with the late John Hurt in the title role. I remember being invited on set one day. We were in the Mozart Café in the heart of Brussels where my Commissioner was meeting a whistle-blower (played by the brilliant German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl). The cameras were rolling when Hurt held up his hand. “Stop filming” he called.” Stanley Johnson is in my eye-line!”
Oddly enough, the character I most empathized with, as I wrote, is my Russian President, Igor Popov. Popov spends a lot of time doing macho stuff, like shooting hypodermic darts into tigers and flying the Russian Presidential plane at speeds in excess of Mach 1.
Of course, Popov isn’t Putin, but I know I was at least subconsciously influenced by the three days I once spent in St Petersburg at a meeting on international wildlife conservation brilliantly organized and chaired by President Putin himself.
The launch of KOMPROMAT on July 13 went well. Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone High St is a lovely place to have a party and, in spite of the fact that the Spectator Summer party was being held the same day, family and friends were out in force, including Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Bernard and Lady Hogan-Howe, Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary, and Harry Owen, Boisdale Life’s Managing Director! I was delighted that Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, also came to the launch. He read the book prior to publication and kindly provided a splendid quote for the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, it may be true!”
And there has been quite a buzz since the launch. Apart from Adam Boulton on Sky News, I’ve been interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC, Nick Robinson on the Today programme, Julia Hartley-Brewer on Talk Radio, Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio London, the BBC World Service, CNN, and so on.
The tremendously exciting news from my point of view is that Channel 4 has commissioned six half-hour TV programmes based on the book. They have lined up a brilliant production company called Noho, run by two former Channel 4 executives: Camilla Campbell and Robert Wulf-Cochrane. At the moment they are in the earlier stages of preparation, but they time will come when they will be looking for actors and I have my eye on a cameo role.
KOMPROMAT is dedicated to my twelve grandchildren. One of them, Rosie, has taken the trouble to count up the number of characters in the five-page cast list printed at the front of the book. The total comes to 127. Don’t tell me they can’t find some small part for me to play!
There’s a lift operator, for example, in the Kempinski Hotel in St Petersburg who keeps his eyes and ears open for useful KOMPROMAT material while he guides fragrant guests to the Penthouse Suite. I know it takes months, if not years, for this kind of film project to come to fruition, but I’m prepared to wait.