Reckless by William Nicholson: dropping bombshells you know are coming

Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer.

William Nicholson
Quercus, 512pp, £18.99

William Nicholson’s writing credits include the screenplays for Gladiator and Shadowlands, award-winning children’s fiction and a series of interlinked novels, of which his latest, Reckless, is a part.

Reckless is a story about faith and love and the madness of nuclear war. It covers the two decades from the end of the Second World War to the culmination of the Cuban nuclear missile crisis in 1962 and draws the reader into the personal and political lives of both real and fictionalised characters who are affected by Kennedy and Khrushchev locking horns.

The real-life characters include JFK and Khrushchev, Stephen Ward (with the Profumo affair starlets Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler), Harold Macmillan, Lady Astor and most memorably Lord Mountbatten. At the heart of the novel is Mountbatten’s (fictional) adviser Rupert Blundell, the man who tells Mountbatten “things I don’t want to hear … and that’s just what I want to hear”.

Blundell is searching for an end to his loneliness. He feels that his chance for love passed him by in 1945 when, in Sri Lanka with Mountbatten, he dares to suggest to his colleague Joyce that he wants more than friendship. Back in London in the early 1960s, Rupert crosses paths with Mary, another lonely figure who, on a whim, he decides to help find what she is looking for.

With the Cuban crisis looming, we also meet Pamela, a bored, beautiful girl who tries to find love in Ward’s set, a group of impossibly self-obsessed friends who weekend at the Astors’ Cliveden estate, where anything goes.

Reckless leaves you wanting to know what happens next, even though, with the real life events, you know the answer. Nicholson also has a talent for capturing the minutiae of life. When Pamela’s marriage-obsessed friend Susie hears that nuclear war is imminent, she asks: “And you think this might happen before my wedding?”

Reckless weaves together complex issues and manages to maintain suspense and intrigue throughout. It leaves you with the feeling that whenever madness is afoot, there are decent people behind the scenes, like Rupert, who are more significant than they think.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State