Jennifer Potter is the author of three acclaimed novels, The Taking of Agnès, The Long Lost Journey and After Breathless, as well as four works of non-fiction: Secret Gardens; Lost Gardens; Strange Blooms, The Curious Lives and Adventures of John Tradescants; and The Rose, A True History. She reviews regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, and has been variously a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, a Hawthornden Fellow, and an Honorary Teaching Fellow on the Warwick Writing Programme.
Jennifer Potter describes the genesis of her new novel The Angel Cantata
This story happened back to front. It began with a composer recalling a summer spent with his grandparents in a small coastal town, his memories prompted by sounds of jazz and of a woman he hears singing (badly) from the pub on the shingle, as he walks the beach at low tide.
The original idea came to me in 2002, when the story’s ‘present’ was fixed in Pevensey Bay on the south coast, a strange dilapidated landscape of shingle, marshland and decaying military fortifications: Martello towers, pillboxes, the remnants of cold-war radar stations, if you know where to look. The coastal town of the story’s ‘past’ was loosely based on the landscapes of my own childhood, which provided the right emotional charge, but proved problematic for my characters.
Like my composer Michael, I was looking for the music that would form the core of the book. This came in a flash on my birthday that same year (31 May 2002), when I read in the Guardian about the first British performance as part of the Aldeburgh festival of a conSPIracy cantata about espionage and secret government activities by the young Anglo-Cypriot composer, Yannis Kyriakides. The piece was to be performed in eight days’ time at the abandoned Bentwaters Airbase near Woodbridge, Suffolk, in a windowless bunker known locally as the Star Wars Building. ‘A pair of baffling cone-shaped towers flank the entrance,’ wrote Andy Beckett in the Guardian. ‘These days, nobody who lives near Bentwaters seems to know precisely what the building used to be for.’
I called the box office and secured one of the last remaining tickets for a matinee performance on Saturday 8 June. From the photographs I took that day, it was a glorious June day. I set off early from London, ate a quick sandwich lunch outside Snape Maltings and drove on to the airbase, which was suitably grim: a landscape of asphalt and cracked concrete under wide open skies, guarded by watchtowers like cold-war Berlin and miles of fencing topped with coils of barbed wire. The hangars and accommodation huts looked like tubular pig farm shelters that had been sliced through the middle and scattered around the perimeter. Although the airbase itself never made it into the story, it defined the mood of military abandonment, and clandestine surveillance.
The performance was everything I hoped it might be. Kyriakides’ opening radar chatter (apparently taken from CIA transmissions) found its way into Michael’s music, as did the two women singers (Nancy and Sophie in the story) who perform the finished cantata dressed much as the originals, one in lilac taffeta, the other in a plain, full-length T-shirt dress. In the original work, Kyriakides linked the spy chatter to the ancient oracle of Delphi, both forms of cryptic message communication, which would not work for me. I was looking for a narrative thread in Michael’s music that would link his childhood memories of stumbling across an angel in the marshes with the coastal landscape in which he now found himself.
Reluctant to leave after the performance, I lingered at the airbase, photographing the runways, then walked a stretch of the coast at Orford in stormy sunlight, looking across mud and a rotting yacht to the bunker-like structures on Orford Ness.
Only after I had completed several drafts did I realise that I had indirectly tackled one of the novel’s central dilemmas already – how to translate landscape into sound – in a postgraduate thesis I had written for the Architectural Association on ‘Capturing the Spirit of Place’. My thesis used the medium of words rather than notes, but I had even produced a formula that expressed the component parts of what gives a place its spirit: form + function + iconography, as mediated by continuing care. You can read a place by looking at the shape of the land and how it has been used over time, the icons or images that express its essence, and the care devoted to its upkeep. Like my composer, however, I still had to figure out what my angel icon was actually trying to tell me.
Help came from a journey to St Petersburg in September 2003 and an encounter with a theoretical physicist concerned with causality, hyperfast travel, and many of the questions that propel my Russian character, Stas. But the angel itself still eluded me, so I put the story aside and worked on other things, non-fiction mainly, until one of the characters (Nancy’s Aunt Edie) appeared uninvited in another story I was writing, and drew me back to this one.
With time and distance, it was clear that the story wasn’t working because the place of childhood memory was wrong. The original had marshland and a beach that was more pebble than sand, but there the crossover with Pevensey ended. It wasn’t enough to inspire Michael’s memories, or his music. To get back to the original spirit, I returned to Bentwaters on one of its open days, moved on to a second abandoned airbase at Woodbridge, and carried on south to the coast, which I reached across the Oxley Marshes at the strung-out hamlet of Shingle Street. And there it was – the landscape I had remembered through my characters, which I was visiting for the first time. Ridiculous, I know, but that’s how it felt, honestly. Ask Stas, he knows about such things. I remembered your voice despite never having heard it before in my life.
So says Michael at the start of The Angel Cantata, and so it felt that day as I stumbled across the separate elements that were already written into the story: the shack belonging to Dickie’s Mad Uncle Jack; the place in the marshes where the boy Michael came across Fairground Jim and the angel pecking at his liver; his grandfather’s cottage at Bawdsey; the abandoned fortifications smelling of slime and piss; the Martello towers strung like washing across the landscape; the roller-skating barn that contained the shape and inspiration of Michael’s music. One final, weird coincidence remained. My Russian physicist (whose arrival in Britain is teasingly mysterious) is discovered by the girl singer, Nancy, wandering the fields in a daze, close to the sites of two World War Two radar stations, RAF Pevensey and RAF Wartling, which continued their surveillance functions into the cold war. Both stations were linked to RAF Bawdsey on the Bawdsey Manor Estate, birthplace (along with Orford Ness) of radar technology and the first fully operational radar station in the world.
My story had found its beginning: the radar chatter first heard at Bentwaters Airbase, in a concrete bunker that resembled Bawdsey’s still surviving Transmitter Block, its giant aerial masts (like those of RAF Pevensey) now only a memory.