The London Magazine

Madeleine Bunting on Ceremony of Innocence

What was the inspiration for the novel?

I studied the end of empire at Cambridge in 1985, in particular the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. One of my courses, called ‘decolonisation,’ had attracted only four students – one of them was Prince Edward. Over the course of an eight week term, we rattled through how swathes of the empire acquired independence – India one week, the Caribbean the next – the scale of it, the frantic scrambled mess and the official veneer of orderly retreat astonished me, yet very few of my contemporaries had any interest. It has shaped my understanding of international affairs in my column writing at the Guardian, and here was a chance in a novel to describe a small part of that shambolic period of history which Britain has been so good at forgetting.

Tell us about your research process – do any of the characters or events in the novel have a basis in reality?  

As with every novel, there are all kinds of fragments, ideas, people, places which have fed into this book. I had a wonderfully elegant great aunt called Phoebe, but my character is an amalgam of many powerful older women I have known. Adam Curtis’ documentary brought my attention to the Shah’s party and my visit to Iran in 2007 was unforgettable. The country is stunningly beautiful and fascinating. I attended various Bahraini and Middle Eastern events in London while I was writing and watched, listened and talked to other attendees.

Ceremony of Innocence touches on many different genres of literature – the political thriller, the mystery novel, even the English country house novel. Were you consciously writing in any of these traditions?

Not consciously no, I have to confess to a fascination with the rural upper class – how they have secured a status and prestige – and it goes back to my childhood in North Yorkshire which in the 60s and 70s was pretty feudal. We lived at the gates of a very grand house and from my bedroom window, I would see the gardeners, housekeepers and staff coming and going. As a great concession, we were allowed to use the tennis court so we could walk across the pristine lawns, down the stone steps with its balustrade and under the magnificent copper beech trees – they make an appearance in the novel. I watched the TV adaptation of The Night Manager early on in the writing and found it compelling – more so than the novel in fact which has very thin female characters. But Le Carre is brilliant at exploring vitally important issues in a way which is full of compelling human characters – I loved The Constant Gardener

The novel reveals a complex web of characters, storylines and settings, from contemporary London to 1960s Tehran – how do you map out your stories before you begin writing?

I’m afraid there is no mapping… a scene comes to mind and then I create the plot around it and let that plot evolve.. it’s the best part of the process and its largely in my own head, weaving all the ideas. When I actually sit down to write, I find it takes a life of its own and sometimes its quite different from anything I had been imagining. Then comes the hard slog of re-writing… like a carpenter who has to spend so much time sanding, oiling and polishing the wood… the re-writing accounts for two thirds of the time, and it’s very tough.

At one point in the novel a character expresses a view that we see in the headlines today: ‘That’s the thing about this country — the remnants of empire are everywhere, tucked away in every corner of your country: in houses and museums, in the street names and public monuments’. Does fiction give us a new way of seeing and understanding these arguments?

The issue which has fascinated me for decades is how Britain has managed to tuck empire out of sight – it’s a history hidden in plain sight, if you like. We grow up knowing a version but it is one which is so thin and crudely edited with so little understanding of the relationships of power and wealth extraction which we developed and from which we still benefit as a country. So yes, this book – along with others now emerging – is a bid to flesh out that history and bring it home, open eyes and prompt questions…

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