October 2005 to April 2006
Here’s the basis of Lone Britannia as summed up in a letter I wrote to an agent back when I was submitting it...
The novel is basically a piece of speculative fiction-cum-dystopian future, the central idea of which is that sometime in the very near future, Britain wakes up one morning to find that it is completely alone in the world. No other islands or landmasses, no Ireland or other parts of the British Isles, just the one main island of Britain sitting alone in a globe of empty ocean, all other life and land completely vanished. I know that this sounds like a bit of a science-fiction idea, but the important thing is not why or how this happened – this is never explored in the book, above the speculations of those left behind in Britain as to what may possibly have caused it. It’s a way of isolating the country and finding out what might happen to it after that.
Lone Britannia does a similar thing to HG Wells in The War of the Worlds – uses an extraordinary event to turn life in Britain completely upside-down and examine what might happen to us as a country and a culture if everything that we knew was taken away and the country had an entirely new reality to cope with. It is, if you like, a sort of ‘Britain in a test tube’ story, the nation taken out of its place in the world and left to be self-contained and self-supporting – would it sink or swim? In my more pretentious moments I like to think of it as a kind of Lord of the Flies writ large, where instead of a planeload of boys trapped on a desert island, you expand it to sixty million people trapped on a slightly larger lump of rock, but still with the same sense of desperation and struggle for survival.
The dying embers of the November afternoon sun shone low through the tall bedroom window, a rectangle of deep orange light falling across the bed through the side of the glass not covered by the half-closed curtains. He watched her long, shapely legs shift slightly as she moved, the glow of the light playing on the skin where it fell across them, the top of the rectangle stopping just before it reached his own legs. They both lay there, naked, comfortable and happy on top of the blue bed sheets, the warmth of the central heating making it easy to do so even with the cold weather outside. The curtain covering the other half of the window was light red and not thick enough to prevent all light coming through, so it had the effect of creating a red filter, suffusing the room with a warmth and cosiness that matched that provided by the radiator.
He could have happily stayed there forever. He enjoyed the feeling of having Imogen there beside him, dozing happily, her head on his shoulder, long dark hair pressing softly against the skin of his neck and face. The feel of his arm around her shoulders, of the two of them snuggled up together, simply enjoying the feeling of being in one another’s presence and the pleasure of existing on a day such as this.
It was she who stirred first, stretching like a cat and then smiling up at him, planting a soft kiss on his cheek as she rose from the bed and walked casually over to the window, looking out into the road. He smiled at her, shaking his head as he did so.
“You’ll give somebody as coronary standing at the window like that.”
I first had the idea for Lone Britannia back in 2004, and wrote some bits of it – including what was probably a better opening section than the one above, featuring a ship ploughing through the Channel at night and not finding France where it was supposed to be, only an endless expanse of water.
For whatever reason, I don’t recall exactly why, I never got on with a proper draft of it then, but the following year – after I had finished writing 1963, and was submitting it to agents – I decided to have at go at my “Britain alone” idea.
I thought, and still think, it’s a decent idea for a story. Britain wakes up one morning to find it’s the only landmass left in a globe of water. A couple of the people I showed it to or explained the storyline to had problems with this, wanting to know the hows and whys of this coming about, but I never felt that was important – I hate to use the phrase “magical realism”, but I suppose it does verge on being in that realm of literature.
I referenced The War of the Worlds in the above summary of the story for agents. It’s long been one of my all-time favourite novels, and I would love to write something a tenth as good. I love that feel of... this sounds like a criticism, it’s not mean to be – almost a “cosy apocalypse”. Perhaps “claustrophobic apocalypse” would be better.
Lone Britannia is a lot longer than The War of the Worlds, and lacks any of Wells’s sense of focus. I think the beginning and some of the middle is all right, but the final third of the novel just falls apart really.
I wasn’t terribly happy with life while I was writing Lone Britannia. I’d finished university, and stayed in Norwich for want of anything else to do with life. In November 2005 I started a very boring job with Norfolk County Council, for whom I would work for the following two-and-a-bit years, and hadn’t yet started volunteering at the BBC, so I felt quite bleak about my future and what my life had in store. It was very much “Is this it? Refilling photocopiers on the sixth floor at County Hall forever more...?”
Fortunately it wasn’t, but I think some of that sense of bleakness infuses Lone Britannia. It also suffers from the same problem as all of my novels up to about 2009 – a lack of patience, and a lack of appreciation of the wonders that can be worked in redrafting and rewriting. I tended to always finish first drafts and decide that was the best I could do, rather than go back and carefully try and proof-read and improve things.
The final third also suffers from a messy train crash of different ideas – including the beginnings of a still-unwritten novel I intend to sit down and do properly one day called Son of Albion, about a post-apocalyptic King of the United Kingdom. Who knows if that will end up being any good? If it is, perhaps something decent may have come out of Lone Britannia.
I don’t recall how many agents or publishers I tried Lone Britannia on. I definitely submitted it to Laura Morris, the agent who had engaged me in correspondence about 1963, although she turned it down. I am sure I must have submitted it to others, but my diaries of the time are curiously silent on the matter, and I can’t find any submission letters at all in my old document back-ups, although the synopsis and sample chapters are there.