I used to work in a department store where there was a manager who ruled with something of a manicured iron fist. She actually used to get kicks out of reprimanding staff and subverting their relationships, which she would achieve in very subtle ways. She was a maestro of negativity, conducting us like an orchestra and luring us into making mistakes, just so that she could make a show of whichever poor wretch was on her hitlist that day.
She wasn’t without charm, though, which is why I thought that she would make a great villain. The longer I worked there, the more rumours I heard and the more I saw with my own eyes, the more intriguing she became. She used the workplace hierarchy and corporate targets for her own ends, none of which were actually concerned with profit margins.
This, and certain other experiences led me to study psychology in a bid to demystify the motives in any kind of cruelty, whereupon I learnt about psychopathy and its causes/effects. When writing A Smaller Hell, I took an example of a philanthropist in Joseph Williamson, who built the famous tunnels in Liverpool, and summoned him in the founder of the department store: Commander Clarence Tanner. The idea was to have Dianne Doyle be a personification of slick and shiny corporate psychopathy in contrast to Tanner’s long-standing philosophy of providing work for the families of the town, giving to charity and generally keeping a fire burning for the community to rally round.
I don’t like the fact that business has become all-consuming and all-important. It’s made me uncomfortable for a long time and the more I learn about the skulduggery that underpins the corporate world, the more I become convinced that my fears are well-founded. I find it vulgar – even creepy – when people say “it’s good for the economy” about some morally-dubious initiative that our politicians are undertaking, as if the economy is some kind of god or idol that we should all kneel and worship, even at the expense of our own humanity.
Dianne Doyle is the face that I’ve given to those fears. She is everything that’s dangerous about money and sex. She’s also the mischievous authoritarian and cruel hedonist, whose greatest act of manipulation and deception is charted in A Smaller Hell and unfolds to reveal that “the Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing”, as Robert Louis Stevenson said.
Heswall shore: a muddy beach/marsh in the north west of England that will always be in my heart. As well as being my playground since I was a little boy, I’ve worked, fought, bled, cried, fallen in love and broken up there.
When I was a personal trainer, I used to have a client who was a wealthy venture capitalist and hedge-fund manager. He employed me for a few years and we became good friends, always interspersing our workouts with conversation about allsorts of things. Being in the type of job he was in and having that kind of money, he was well-travelled and would regale me with stories of derring-do from far-flung corners of the globe on a regular basis. One day, we were taking a break from interval sprints, overlooking the Dee estuary, and he said something to me that has stayed with me ever since:
‘That’s still the best view in the world.’
‘Because it’s home?’
‘Not just that: there’s nowhere else like it. Lots of places look like other places. This doesn’t look like anywhere else.’
I’d never taken the views for granted, nor the wildlife. Foxes, bats, herons, peregrine falcons, hen harriers and short-eared owls are just some of the wonderful creatures that can be spotted and heard. There’s always something to look at, including the wrecks that make up the infamous Heswall graveyard. Weathered dreams set in fibreglass and good intentions caked in mud and marsh grass left to disintegrate. Some people complain, but if it’s such an ugly sight, how come we see so many intrepid photographers holding their tripods aloft like soldiers with rifles as they cross the perilous mud, leaping the gutters and sinking thigh-deep on a mis-step? Personally, I love it all before I even look up at the Welsh moels and moors tapering into the Irish Sea near the lighthouse at Talacre: a view which reaches its zenith as the sun is going down.
Occasionally, a group of us undertake clean-up operations on the local beach and one day we came across something unusual. The dilapidated shed that had been there for years hidden in the bushes looked different somehow:
We went a little closer to investigate and found something rather wild:
No-one knew what to make of it. As you can imagine, we were all intrigued enough to walk right on up to it:
Someone had meticulously stitched pages of the Bible – mostly from the book of Revelations – with fishing line and suspended them from what remained of the ceiling. Some had been sewn into surrounding bushes, vines and roots, also.
We all stood in silence as the pages fluttered in the summer evening breeze, the sunlight catching the pages and creating strange dancing shadows on the collapsing walls of the shed. Someone finally spoke up:
‘What does it mean?’
No-one had an answer.
That night, I hardly slept and when I did, I dreamt about the shed of Revelations. The next day I knocked on the door of the house that was nearest the shed. A lady answered and I asked if she knew anything about what we’d seen the day before, because we had all found it so intriguing. She went pale and seemed quite upset as she denied any knowledge of it at all before slamming the door in my face.
The next day, it was gone, sadly. Not just the fishing line and the pages from the Bible, but the whole shed razed to the ground.
In a way, it was sad and frustrating, because I would have liked to find out what would drive someone to go to all that trouble. On the other hand, the fact that it was only there for a day or two adds to the mystery and romance of it. Was it meant to be art? A message? A creative cry for help? A warning, even?
I suppose we’ll never know …