Thursday, September 24, 2015

Oxford, David Cameron, Gottfried Von Bismarck, Pigs Heads and Gun Street Girl

the kind of people I steered well clear of at Oxford
If you've read the 4th Sean Duffy novel you're probably aware that fictionalised versions of two real people show up in the Oxford chapters: Gottfried Von Bismarck and a chap who is a bit like Prime Minister David Cameron. Both had left Oxford by the time Duffy visits the city, but both attended parties given by the Bullingdon Club and the Piers Gaveston Society. At one of these parties Olivia Channon, the daughter of a cabinet minister, died of a heroin overdose. And a thinly veiled version of these events is what Duffy comes to investigate. These Oxford parties have become big news this week in the UK and yesterday on the front page (above the fold) of that scurrilous rag, The New York Times. How did this all blow up now 30 years later? In revenge for not giving him a job the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft has written a biography of Cameron in which he alleges that the young David attended drunken parties given by the Bullingdon Club and Piers Gaveston which involved heroin, cocaine, cross dressing and, ahem, pigs' heads. The New York Times attempts to spin its coverage of this story as a dissection of the British obsession with class but actually its just old fashioned gossip mongering and its the Daily Mail you should read for the real dirt

When I was at Oxford there were no debauched parties. As a working class kid from Belfast on a full scholarship I could not afford to get rusticated. And I went to Oxford because I was a super geek who was really into philosophy (no, really) and at Oxford you could meet in person and even have tutorials with some of the biggest guns of contemporary political theory (my particular area of interest). In my three years there I met Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Joseph Raz, Michael Sandel, Terry Eagleton, Stanley Fish, John Gray, Michael Ignatief, Bernard Williams et. al. I used to have gentle tutorials with Gerry Cohen in his rooms at All Souls College (the weirdest of the Oxford colleges), semi confrontational tutorials with John Gray at Jesus and the seminars where Dworkin and Williams discussed "abortion, euthanasia and the meaning of life" were probably the intellectual high points of my life. 

It is true however that Oxford was still full at that time (1991 - 1993) of upper class twits and whenever I would encounter those racist, spoiled, privileged snobs (particularly in the Oxford Union) I would file the encounter away for future use. Even back then everyone knew that there was a good chance you could end up writing a novel yourself or appear as a character in someone else's novel. Inspector Morse was at the height of its popularity and was filming everywhere and before going up to Oxford I read Decline and Fall, Brideshead Revisited, Zuleika Dobson etc. so I knew what to expect. Cambridge was the place to go if you wanted to become a scientist or a traitor, Oxford was where you went if you wanted to become a politician or a writer.

It was reading Gottfried Von Bismarck's obituary in The Daily Telegraph a few years ago, however, that really got me thinking about an Oxford book. The Daily Telegraph is famous for writing the best obits in the business and Von Bismarck's obit is one of the finest achievements in the genre. The Oxford milieu bubbled away in my mind and when I finally got round to writing Sean Duffy #4 I knew that Gottfried von Bismarck and a David Cameron/George Osbourne type figure would have to appear in the book. Duffy goes to Oxford to see if there is a link to his present case (a double murder and suicide in Belfast) and of course there is, though not quite in the way he thinks... 
Incidentally Gun Street Girl also contains a few other celebrity cameos, some of whom I talk about in the Afterword and some of whom I don't talk about for legal reasons. This week a very famous American actor is in the news because he resents the implication that he has beat up multiple wives, lovers and girlfriends. I heard one story about his behaviour on a visit to Ireland that may or may not be in the book too.*
*(Please don't attempt to guess at this actor's name in the comments below as he's proven himself a very litigious chap and to save you and me from a defamation suit I'll have to delete the comment.)