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Escape and Evasion: A ‘borrowed’ story of secrets and survival

That old edict that a writer should stick to what they know is only part true, says Christopher Wakling. For his new novel, ‘Escape and Evasion’, his love of camping, survival thrillers and a soldier’s story of a wartime atrocity all played a part

Christopher Wakling
Sunday 22 April 2018 19:20
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‘I was tempted to write a story about evil, greedy bankers at first... instead I found myself dwelling on what might cause one to have a change of heart’
‘I was tempted to write a story about evil, greedy bankers at first... instead I found myself dwelling on what might cause one to have a change of heart’

When the financial crisis broke a decade ago the heads of the big banks briefly showed themselves above the parapet, to explain how it wasn’t really their fault. One or two were shot off. Most somehow survived.

In Japan, when big companies mess up, those in charge exhibit genuine remorse. Corporate responsibility, to the shareholders, the workers, the country even, seems to mean something. I don’t recall any of our bankers apologising, much less looking properly sorry.

In fact, none of the individuals involved stick in my mind 10 years on. The overwhelming sense I had then as now is that the culprits were somehow anonymous and immune. They would unjustly and facelessly prosper, forever, at society’s expense, without giving a hang.

But all of them? Surely, among the rank and file financiers, those who did the work behind the scenes, some must have felt guilt? They’re only human, after all.

I know this because long ago I worked among them, or for them at least, as a junior lawyer in a city law firm. Our clients included countries, listed companies, and many of the big banks.

I remember one case in particular. It was about some deal or other that had gone “catastrophically south”, meaning a huge sum of money had passed from one set of very rich people to another, unexpectedly.

My job, as the lowliest of lawyers, was to trawl through an aircraft hanger-sized archive of documents in search of anything that might unwittingly undermine our client’s indignant certainty that none its dealmakers had done anything wrong.

These two incidents, my blushing banker and my army friend’s baked children, stuck with me over time. I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point they collided

Though I looked pretty hard for a smoking gun, for weeks and weeks, I didn’t find one. It was a joyous anticlimax.

I did find something though. Among the countless boxes of memos, draft contracts and technical specifications, were a load of office diaries. These showed what you’d expect: records of who’d gone where and when to meet with who else and discuss what was what, etc.

They were useful in piecing together a timeline of the extensive negotiations leading up to the deal, but as I say, nothing untoward came of that laboriously stitched together chronology.

However one of the diaries, kept by a middle ranking banker, stood out from the rest, because he’d incomprehensibly decided to combine his work schedule with a record of his other, more personal affairs.

As well as details of his dental appointments, holiday plans, when he’d booked his Range Rover into the garage and so forth, the margins were peppered with little corporate-speak aphorisms he’d got from God knows where. “Dig deep, go hard, win!” “It’s the not giving up that counts!” “To succeed, envision success!” They were sweet, these mini calls-to-arms; they smelled of vulnerability.

Also in his work diary, this banker had jotted down what, at first glance at least, were a string of troublingly gnomic numbers. One set, recorded at or near the end of each month, ran something like: “6.2. 5.8, 5.7, 6.0, 5.4…” The other, noted each Sunday, showed a smaller number, often a zero in fact: “1, 0, 2!, 0, 0, 1…”

Wakling used to work as a junior lawyer in the City

I spotted these notes one Saturday evening and, in the absence of real night-out excitement, my imagination ran away with me. The numbers surely signified millions siphoned into offshore accounts, or thousands paid in bribes.

My boss agreed with me: we had to ask the guy what the figures meant. If we didn’t, the opposition surely would. It was our duty to find out.

I conducted the interview in a meeting room on the top floor. Outside, it was raining. A pigeon pecked listlessly at a puddle on the flat rooftop of the next building as I poured us both a cup of coffee.

When I eventually asked him what the numbers referred to the banker told me about the first set readily enough. He suffered from high cholesterol, had it tested once a month, liked to keep a note of where he was at.

But when I asked him about the weekly numbers he looked at the pigeon and his neck went red.

“Really?” he said.

“I have to ask, I’m afraid,” I said, thinking, ‘hello, am I onto something here?’

“That’s, er, how many times my wife and I, you know, that week.”

I looked at the pigeon too as I made my notes.

Which signifies what? Nothing that isn’t obvious. Just that bankers, like the rest of us, are human, which means that at heart they are comically flawed, compromised, and vulnerable.

And yet while the financial crisis exposed their fallibility – they got everything wrong! – the remote, faceless, masters-of-the-universe nonsense somehow persisted. If anything it got worse: the cartoon villain of the impervious banker was reinforced as a stereotype.

Ideas for novels incubate over time. I was tempted to write a story about evil, greedy bankers at first, but it seemed an easy target, and instead I found myself dwelling on what might cause a real life, flawed financier to have a change of heart.

Around the time I was sitting among the document boxes a very good friend of mine went off to war. I took him, in fact. He needed a lift to his base and I offered to drive him there.

It was a beautiful summer’s evening. Next to the perimeter gate stood a freshly cut field. I watched swallows dip and veer and jink above the mown grass while the two soldiers on sentry duty ran a mirror under my car.

Once through security, I parked up outside my friend’s barracks, handed him his kit from the boot, and watched him walk inside. He was eating a Mars bar and waved me off with the stump it. I tooted the horn and waved back, much like a parent dropping off a kid at camp.

Stories of war are benumbingly common – but sometimes one sticks and gets under your skin

We’d started out in the same place, this friend and I, but now he had desert fatigues and a blue helmet, while I had a suit and tie, and while I was heading back to help shuffle money and power between rich people, he would spend the next six months trying to help keep angry people from massacring one another.

Something inside me felt like it was dying, but really, I should get over myself: he might actually be killed.

Happily, he came back unscathed at the end of this tour, to find me mentally intact. After I finished filling him in on my systematic pagination of the court bundle, I asked him what his time away had been like.

He was pretty reticent to begin with but eventually relented. “You want a story? How about this?” he said, and proceeded to recount how one afternoon he and his patrol had stumbled upon the aftermath of a revenge killing, involving children.

“Jesus,” I said.

“Yeah, two small children. Some f***er baked them in an oven.”

“What?”

“To get back at the family. No idea why. Anyway, we found the dead kids baked in this big oven in the garden.”

“No.”

“Yes. And you know what, one of them had an apple in its mouth.”

Stories of wartime atrocities are benumbingly common, but something about the matter of fact way my friend told me this one has never left me. It wasn’t just that his was a first hand account, more that it underlined the schism between his world and mine at that point in time. How did our respective experiences colour the way we saw the world?

I figured that an ex-soldier would know a thing or two about making do in the wild, but that if he’d been a fat cat banker for a while he might be a bit rusty, hapless even

The old edict that a writer should write what they know is only partly helpful. My spin on it would be to write about whatever gets under your skin and stays there for a while.

These two incidents, my blushing banker and my army friend’s baked children, stuck with me over time. I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point they collided.

There’s quite a tradition of ex-soldiers going into the City. Don’t ask me why. I knew one or two army types in the law firm, and more in banking. What if my reluctant, compromised banker, had a soldiering past, and a secret buried within it, something which might fuel to his Copernican U-turn?

Writers take their own experience, steal the experience of those around them, and lie about both in the hope of telling a story that will reveal some deeper truth. Other elements for stories come from the unlikeliest of places. With this book the fact that I like camping, love my family, and enjoyed reading the famous survival-thriller Rogue Male a few years ago, all played their part.

I figured that an ex-soldier would know a thing or two about making do in the wild, but that if he’d been a fat cat banker for a while he might be a bit rusty, hapless even. Escape and Evasion drives its hero into a hole in the woods and strips him bare. It runs him to ground in all his comic fallibility to expose why he turned traitor to his tribe.

Christopher Wakling’s ‘Escape and Evasion’ is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99). Available from 3 May on Amazon

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