I have a very unusual relationship with the events of 9/11.
You see our house is one of the very few where we actually celebrate when that date falls, because that was the day our daughter was born. Our first girl and second child. September 11 2001.
Yes, that day.
It so happened that we were in Fiji at the time and so approximately 16 hours ahead of New York, but it nonetheless colours everything that happens in our household in the lead-in to that momentous day.
If you’ve ever had a young daughter, granddaughter or niece you’ll know that it is flatout impossible to try to get them to see a particular day, their birthday, as anything other than an opportunity to scream, hyperventilate, screech, bounce off the walls, and generally dominate proceedings.
One of the first things that happened after 9/11 was a requirement to make cockpit doors as impregnable as possible. The logic of that was obvious – it was through the relatively flimsy doors that the four sets of hijackers had taken control of the planes with deadly consequence.
Now, the specifications are onerous: the door has to be engineered to resist a clip of 9mm ammunition fired at close range, the detonation of a hand-grenade and the repeated impact of in excess of 200 joules worth of energy, the equivalent of a 300lb man running at the door at ten feet a second.
The what -if? at the heart of BOLT ACTION is, what if the plane you are travelling on is hijacked, and you and your fellow passengers have to get into the cockpit. Overlaid on top of this – what if that plane is a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Manchester to New York, where the defensive posture of the US government is to shoot down any hijacked aircraft. What if the first US fighter jets appear on your plane’s wingtips and it’s clear the countdown has begun to your flight being shot of the skies. And what if that door, with its 35lbs of armour and steel bolt action armatures that was installed to protect you, is now the refuge behind which the suicidal hijackers are hiding – wanting, wishing for the plane to be shot down.
BOLT ACTION tries to explore the law of unintended consequences – how something that was put in place to protect you is in fact the thing that guarantees you getting killed.
I always focus on the fact that there were four planes that took off on 9/11 but only three found their target. That the fourth didn’t was because a) of the bravery and sacrifice of the passengers on United 93 and b) because the cockpit door was not an impregnable wall of steel but was capable of being breached a second and decisive time.
Someone who was fascinated by the law of unintended consequences and the whole issue of moral ambiguity that lies at the heart of the best spy-thriller fiction was Somerset Maugham.
Maugham was one of the best-selling writers of the 20th Century but rarely gets a mention these days, despite the fact his writing was much admired by and influenced talents as diverse as Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler and George Orwell.
[Maugham was the first to wax lyrical about dry martinis, and having them stirred rather than shaken (‘so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other’) a subject Fleming took up as James Bond’s leitmotif (although the film producers reversed the stirred, not shaken).]
Somerset Maugham entered my life because my mother – living in Fiji, where I grew up – developed a fascination with an unexplained period of Maugham’s life in the 1st World War when he spent nine months cruising through the Pacific with gay American lover. Maugham was many things, many revolting things, but he took serving his country seriously and had immediately signed up on the outbreak of hostilities.
Eventually he worked for the forerunner of M16 in Switzerland in the winter of 1915/6 and in Russia towards the end of 1917. So why this strange and uncharacteristic cruise around the Pacific, either side of work for British intelligence, when the mother country was in so much peril? My mother’s working theory was that this was another covert trip on behalf of the British government. I don’t think she quite nailed the case, in terms of definitive proof but there was a great deal of accumulated circumstantial evidence.
For me, the best thing was that it took me with my mother to some of the wonderful places Maugham visited (Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Tahiti) and, in time, was introduced to his wonderfully observed, character-driven stories, and his strongly sceptical take on the value of spies and their intelligence-product, as in the introduction to Ashenden, considered by many to be the Father of the Spy Novel:
“The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless. The material it offers for stories is scrappy and pointless; the author has himself to make it coherent, dramatic and probable.”
Somehow that feels like we’re back at square one – 9/11 again – and a question that Maugham would no doubt ask: in an era of unparalleled surveillance and intrusion, with billion-dollar conglomerations of spy and law enforcement networks, Do You Actually Feel Any Safer?
Charlie Charters was born in London but raised in Fiji. He’s been telling sometimes truthful, mostly improbable stories all his life – from a horse-racing tipster, to sex-shop salesman, war reporter and radio disc jockey, all the way up to a senior vice presidency with a Swiss sports marketing behemoth whose collapse almost bankrupted the governing body of football, FIFA. Now it was time to put his stories down in print.