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.

Reckless
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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What's the score? BBC Radio 4 explores composers' manuscripts

Tales from the Stave is endlessly fascinating, although my classical musician siblings tell me composers aren't so bad in real life.

A new series of the ever-fascinating programme that examines composers’ handwritten manuscripts for markings and meaningful doodles started at the Birmingham Oratory, looking at Elgar’s 1900 conducting score for The Dream of Gerontius (repeated 18 June, 3.30pm). A work for voices and orchestra (and one of the most popular pieces in the choral canon), it sets to music a poem by John Henry Newman about a pious man’s journey into death, facing demons and eventually purification. This is a work full of “vulnerability and elements of failure”, as the presenter Frances Fyfield put it. Elgar’s version, if you like, of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Looking at the score, Fyfield murmured absorbedly about the composer’s many visionary and monomaniacal scribbles. “Lento has been changed to Lento mistico, which is fantastic.” Much was made of the erratic style of his pen strokes. “Frantic abandon, hugely animated tempo markings, emotional expression. Presto scribbled out with two black lines . . . Oh!” Yet after it was mentioned that Elgar (“rather amusingly”) inscribed not just Despair but Despairissimo throughout another section, I texted my brother, a classical singer, and my sister, a violinist, to ask if made-up words and general geek/dweeb control-freakery was usual on a composer’s score.

“Never come across it, really,” my brother replied, “and really I wouldn’t think too much of markings. It’s an interpretive thing.” Then what are you thinking of when you’re singing? I ask, disappointed. “Sex. And wondering where we’re going for dinner after rehearsal.” Sounded a bit lax to me. Had my sister ever encountered an overwrought composer/conductor, yelling “DESPAIRISSIMO!” at the strings? “Not really,” she shrugged. “One bloke. Big moustache. I asked him once about bow strokes and he said he didn’t give a s**t.”

There must have been somebody! Something to illustrate that hyper-receptive transaction trauma – that stunned sense of epiphany – between composer and musician? “Well, there was one guy who made me feel so bad when I did a solo, I started my period on the spot.” And that, dear reader, is my annual formal account from the British concert platform. Il prossimo!

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain