Mark Oldfield has worked in criminological research for over 20 years. He has a PhD in Criminology from the University of Kent and has carried out research in the areas of risk assessment and prediction and as well as evaluative research on policing, prisons and probation. He has also taught in various Universities on research, crime and criminal justice.
Recently, Oldfield has worked as a freelance researcher in order to free up time to write ‘SENTINEL’. The book combines his professional knowledge with his long-time love affair with Spain which began in 1976 when he first went to the Spain for the Fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona.
When not writing dark and disturbing novels, Oldfield relaxes by playing guitar. His musical claims to fame are having played on the Spanish Disco flop by Nick Fury ‘Amor Secreto’ and also on the Sheffield Wednesday 1986 Cup Final record along with Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and Coronation Street’s Ian Reddington. The disk was recorded at the quarter-final stage. Predictably, Wednesday lost the semi-final to Everton 2-1.
Are you a bookgeek?
In the sense of using the BG site? I think the site is great – reading other people’s reviews of books is a fantastic way to find things you might not normally read. I think for a writer it’s important to read outside your comfort zone in order to keep your work fresh and to expose yourself to new ideas – and good way of doing that is to see what other people are reading.
I’m also a geek about books in that I’ve acquired a load of ancient tomes on probation and prison work which I needed when I was studying criminology and which now fill our attic almost completely. Reading theories of psychology for example from the 1890s is a brilliant way of seeing how people thought in very different ways about political, personal and social issues not so very long ago. Reading these things demonstrates (for me at least) very clearly how theory drives political actions – not just in government but also in medicine, mental health, policing and so on –any field where some form of power is present.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
The phrase that gets me every time at parties if someone is talking to me about writing a book is ‘I always thought I’d write a novel.’ My answer is always the same: ‘Don’t let me stop you.’ The difference between producing a book and not doing it is writing.(Tolstoy might have added ‘Doh’ at this point).
If you want to be a writer you have to sit down and write (OK Hemmingway used to write standing up but still..). It requires discipline. Quite a few people say to me ‘oh yes, but it’s easy for you…’ it isn’t. There are always things that might require attention – household stuff, trips to the supermarket ,family tragedies, televised football, conquering Japan in Shogun 2 – and they have to be done (apart from conquering Japan, I guess) as well as writing. You have to want to write. If you want to, you will. If it’s only an hour a day. It all adds up.
Put another way, if you write ten pages a week, by the end of the year you’ll have a large book. OK, it might be no good, but you’ll have written one. If it’s no good you can try and make it better – you’ve moved on a stage.
And be concise: All the above really boils down to: ‘Write.’
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
God, lots. I wanted to be a writer when I was in my late teens and I used to vacuum up books, Zola, Hemmingway, Joyce and also quite a lot of Ninja novels and a book called ‘The Wolfen’ about a super-evolved race of werewolves which I thought was the epitome of fiction for a few days. Everything left its mark in some way or other.
When I started going to Spain a lot – I packed my bags and moved there to become a ‘writer’ aged 20 (returning a year later) – I got more into Spanish writers, Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and so on. Magic realism was fascinating although it’s also very hard to do well, so I didn’t try. There are a load of contemporary Spanish writers I like and read for background for ‘The Sentinel’ – Manuel Vasquez Montalban is (was – he died ten years ago) a fantastic imaginative writer, Javier Cercas is great, Juan Marsé, Alberto Mendez, Javier Marias and above all, Roberto Bolaño who really inspires me because he writes like he just took a load of the best drugs ever. Which actually is probably true for some of his work.
Apart from Spanish writers I like thrillers of all kinds, lots of the Scandinavian authors – I like the sense of bleakness- and stuff by Ian Rankin, James Ellroy and so on.
What I like in a book is to be surprised and for things to happen that make me go ‘WTF?’ I really love it when something is about to happen and you just get an inkling as events start to unroll of something you remember that occurred earlier in the narrative.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
For myself in that I try and write something I’d like to read: an interesting plot and setting and a characters who have things to contribute. Characters who have lots of back story. Lots and lots of back story. I think primarily you have to really like what it is you’re writing about in order to convey it convincingly.
Where do you write, and why?
On the table in our kitchen. My wife works full time so I have the place to myself and it’s also handy for making tea and coffee. And a large table is good for spreading out notes and things. I used to sit on the other side of the table to have a view into the garden. I stopped that after a couple of days because I was gazing out to check the weather far too often, and I found one of the characters started talking about flowers.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
Probably 2666 by Roberto Bolaño although Graham Greene’s The Third Man would come second. Or Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas.
Traditional wisdom says that the villains are the most fun to write. Was that the case with Guzman?
Definitely. Most writing about Spain and the Civil War and its aftermath tends to portray the losing Republican side as the good guys and Franco’s victorious Nationalists as the bad guys.
Nothing wrong there: Franco and the other generals mutinied against an elected government and slaughtered the population into submission using terror tactics which were enhanced by the use of Nazi aircraft, personnel and supplies Hitler sent to Spain to be field-tested in advance of WW2. And Mussolini pitched in his support as well.
But I wanted to write my book from the winning side’s perspective, where it made perfect sense to intimidate or remove anyone who pose a threat – no matter how small – to the dictatorship. It’s hard to sympathise with the ultra-conservative Catholic fanaticism of the Nationalists, so I wanted Guzmán to be very cynical, very aware of what he was doing but doing it anyway, for his own benefit. Playing the system, in effect. And of course, having a considerable back-story. One bit I really like (and it may be in book 2, I’m not sure) is when Guzmán remarks that he didn’t join the Police Force to catch criminals
In The Sentinel, you play a lot with the notion of identity. Is identity solely something we shape for ourselves, or can the identity conferred upon us be equally meaningful?
That’s more or less the question I jotted down in the original notes for the book. We imagine or like to imagine, that we know who we are. But how much more difficult is that when freedom of expression is limited, where what can be said is officially controlled and enforced? In other words where you have to express things in acceptable ways, where some things can’t be said and so on. In Spain, the Civil War never faded from public consciousness because Franco didn’t let it. There was a constant tactic of referring to the War, the ‘Red Threat’ and how it required constant vigilance to avoid a return of that threat. Forgive and forget? No chance of that for Franco. An interesting approach for such an avowedly Christian regime.
To address the question more directly, I suppose identity has a dual aspect, on the one hand, the kind of genetic disposition we have to certain things and on the other, the way our accumulated experiences shape how we see the world and how we deal with it. Maybe the best example in respect to this was the way Soviet Russia tried to create conformity. Spain did as well, though a bit more haphazardly.
All of the main characters in ‘The Sentinel’ are in some way or another confronted by issues of identity. Guzmán of course, Peralta – who actually tries to be a policeman and Galindez, who has to deal with issues of gender and sexuality, of being her hero father’s daughter and of course, her amnesia.
The Sentinel is rare in that it has an explicitly academic debate at its core. Do you think academics should be more open to examining their chosen subjects through fiction?
It might not hurt! For the Galindez – Luisa debate, I took some of the themes that I’d studied and also taught in several universities. Basically questions of method: is science the appropriate means of providing knowledge of human experience? Can we know things without reference to emotions, recollections and memory? This wasn’t to try and give the book an intellectual gloss by any means, I just wanted to have Galindez find a convincing reason for getting involved in the Guzman investigation. And Profesora Ordonez is a bit of a synthesis of a number of people I’ve worked with – pretentious, overblown and utterly concerned with furthering her own career.
I think using fiction enables the writer to incorporate things that really happened within a fictional framework to create a story where the reader thinks ‘nah! That didn’t happen’ when they read something that actually did occur, or they think something is very real and factual but it is in fact, completely fictional. It’s fun to write and, unless the reader is a complete pedant, fun to read, hopefully.
One example of that is the scene where Lieutenant Peralta finds a mark against one of the arrested Republicans’ names and tells Guzmán who is pleased because he’d overlooked it. The mark is an indication of what is to happen to the man and a couple of people asked me if this was invented. It wasn’t. Franco used to go through sheaves of death warrants over meals, ticking those he wanted shot, those who were to be garrotted and those who were to be garrotted with extra press coverage. Hard to make some of that up!
As a British writer, what is it that appeals to you about Spain?
People are generous, utterly mind-bendingly noisy and loads of fun. The food is great and there’s lots to see, so many variations both in cities and the countryside. When I went for the first time in 1976, it felt such an utterly different country to the UK. The French used to say that ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ and that summed it up. It felt foreign.
Of course it was an eventful time, Franco had just died and there were worries as to what would happen, and I went to the Basque country where ETA had been active for some years and were getting more violent. Of course being 20 and a dickhead, I loved all that going on in the background. Even being tear gassed during demonstrations seemed a bit of fun at first.
However, as time went on and I spoke the language better, I started to find out more about the Civil War and politics and took things more seriously. That gave a new dimension to things. It was true that people were fun loving, generous and liked a good time. But there were shadows behind all that, to put it dramatically, shadows which at first I didn’t understand. That’s a metaphor that inhabits The Sentinel throughout: there is always something in the shadows.
We like to imagine that the triumph of democracy over fascism was inevitable, but was it really?
Well it’s interesting. During the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco to a huge extent. He’d already got the bulk of the professional army behind him so he was at a massive advantage to begin with once he got his main army across from North Africa and invaded Southern Spain.
Naturally, having the backing of the Nazis and Italians, Franco was inclined toward fascism and continually hinted that he would join the Axis. He met with Hitler on the French-Spanish border and set out various demands for his allegiance to the cause. Hitler thought he wanted too much. Then the tide of war changed and Franco backed off as the Allies started to win. Many people in Spain assumed that when Germany was defeated, Britain, the USA, Russia and France would remove Franco from power by force in order to get rid of this last bastion of fascism.
They did not. They left him to get on with it, shooting former Republicans, torturing thousands, cramming verminous prisons full of women and generally doing all those dictatory things that Military despots do. The alternative would have been a left-wing government – the Republicans also had a sizeable anarchist component – all of which was enough to put off the Allies. Bad for business. Even so, Franco’s government was so cack-handed and corrupt that the economy was in ruins by the early 1950s.
And then the US decided Spain would make an ideal aircraft carrier to enhance their capability for attacking Russia as the Cold War Intensified. Franco could hardly believe his luck. He instructed his negotiators to hold out for a good deal but to take whatever was offered. He was so keen, he sold the US sites for their bases that were extremely close to cities and highly populated areas, rather than situating them somewhere a little more remote where a Russian retaliatory strike might do less damage.
So, whilst fascism was defeated in the rest of Europe, Franco did well out of WW2. He stayed in power until 1976 although by then he was on a life support machine. Forty years on, many in the Military were itching to take over again rather than allow democratic government but times had changed and Spain gradually got democracy. Whether it was inevitable, I suspect it was – Franco and his contemporaries were dying off and new generations emerged who had not experienced the war. But Franco managed to keep inevitability at bay for a long time.
Questions by Mike Stafford