The novel follows the fortunes of Hugh, an English teacher in Hong Kong in the year leading up to the resumption of sovereignty by China. His story is interwoven with those of characters he encounters, all having personal trials to confront but together representing different responses to the events unfolding around them. Structurally these narratives are considered as waves, Hugh’s having a longer frequency as it plays out over the course of the book, the others being of shorter length to match the dips in that rhythm.
I started writing Flagfall after returning from my own spell in Hong Kong but found myself too close to the action, using the opportunity to recycle personal experience rather than conceiving of the people and places I was writing about as fictional. After an interval lasting some years I made a short-lived return to the incomplete draft and found the subject no less compelling; but the demands of my job prevented a serious resumption of the project and to my surprise, given the amount of time that had elapsed, I still felt a need for greater distance.
Of course one worries that memories will be lost; but in one sense that might be desirable. The American author Darryl Pinckney, who once complimented my writing on an Arvon Foundation course, addressed this issue in relation to his autobiographical novel High Cotton, describing how a first attempt was completed too soon after the events related, confusing art with the act of remembering. It was only much later that he felt able to render his subject in genuinely imaginative form, a different kind of truthfulness to realism or memoir.
In the same way, although the figure of Hugh overlaps with some of my own character and experience, he must be allowed to evolve as a creation in his own right. In fact I see potential for him to become a fictional alter ego in the manner (if you will excuse the illustrious comparisons) of John Updike’s Bech and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman. Both in Flagfall and in other adventures I have lined up for him, he might also serve as an English Everyman, a lightning conductor for the crisis of purpose and identity which has confronted the country during my lifetime.
The novel begins:
He didn’t believe in destiny, Hugh. No one did any more. Feeling lucky or hard done by, that survived; but not fate in the classical sense, your future sealed. It was part of a general decline in belief which he’d read about and vaguely regretted, despite having none of his own. Still he couldn’t help thinking he had missed the point about his life, that something else had been available to him if not actually intended. And it was this which made him turn his back on everything – his home, his job, and even, possibly, his wife. Turn his back and travel half way round the world, with no idea what to do when he arrived…