The Real Life Inspirations for Scarecrow

Warning – this page contains spoilers

I don’t tend to get bogged down in lengthy descriptions of places in my prose as they bore the reader. However, I do like to have a firm picture in my own mind of exactly where things are happening, so that if I need to shift the focus to include a couple of atmospheric “wide-shots”, I know what to include. I lived in three different places during the writing of Scarecrow – Almería, Fleet and Tewkesbury – and all three feature in the novel. At first, the decision to include real life locations was a practical one, as it meant I could describe the things I was seeing on an everyday basis but, now that I think about it, I can’t really imagine setting a book in a place I had never visited. Anyway, here are some photos of the real life places I was thinking of when I wrote certain sections of the book.

The Demolition

Arroyo_Albanchez1The sudden roar of the excavator’s engine caused everyone to freeze and fall silent. The crowd turned as the engine revved and the excavator’s mantis arm uncoiled and rose above the house. For a moment, time seemed stilled . . . and then the air thundered as the excavator’s claw drove down through the roof. An angry moan emerged from the crowd as the arm rose and hundreds of dislodged tiles showered and smashed on the ground. The excavator arm dipped once, twice, three times more, prising the roof apart before ripping backwards and pulling free a ragged-edged section of brickwork.

As part of my work as a journalist in Almeria, I covered the January 2008 demolition of a house belonging to Helen and Len Prior in Almeria. This was one of the biggest stories I had to cover during my time as a journalist and, although, I didn’t witness the actual demolition, the shockwaves of emotion it sent out throughout the British and Spanish communities obviously registered with me as I kept coming back to the idea of the demolition of a house as a gripping opening for a novel.
However, once I sat down to begin writing it, I quickly realised I needed to get the tone of the prose exactly right, else I would risk cheapening what was a terribly traumatic experience. (In fact, I can honestly say that apart from an interview I did with the parents of a 4-year-old cancer patient, speaking with expats living under the cloud of demolition was the most emotionally draining and upsetting experience I had as a journalist.)
When I began writing the opening chapter, I went through tapes and notes from interviews I had carried out and reviewed photos of the actual demolition in order to ensure I got the emotional tone bang on. However, months down the line, when I received the offer of publication from Salt Publishing, I was suddenly assailed by doubts as to the suitability of the subject matter, so I phoned Helen and Len, explained what I had written and asked them whether they minded me fictionalising one of the worst moments of their lives (and all the time trying to ignore the voice saying ” What the hell am I going to do if they say, yes, we do mind? Turn down the book deal?”). Thankfully, my ethical mettle was not put to the test as Helen and Len very graciously gave me their blessing and the opening chapter of the book was a goer.
This photo is from a subsequent demolition that occurred earlier this year (2013) in Almeria, showing that the Spanish authorities have failed to learn anything from the misery they imposed upon the Priors and a number of other families.

The half-built houses of Almeria

BdlP3‘It was a while since Danny had visited the backwaters of the Almanzora. He could see why so many Britons had chosen to retire here. Everywhere there was open, untrammelled space, the horizon ringed by mile-high mountains, the landscape painted in broad swathes of colour, green and ochre for the foothills, red-brown for the cliffs, and above it all the sky, crisp, clear and cloudless like a polished sapphire. What really grabbed his attention, though, were the dozens of half-built houses that lined the roads: some were brick boxes near to completion, others little more than grey concrete skeletons.’

One of the most striking features of the landscape in certain parts of Almeria is just how many half-built houses there are dotted around. On closer inspection, though, you will notice the eerie lack of activity that surrounds them. In fact, the only things normally moving are the wind-ravaged tatters of tarpaulins that cover long abandoned building materials.
After reading a chapter in a book on Fred and Rose West that detailed the chilling moment when the police realised what the signs of building work in the cellar really meant, I was struck by the idea that any number of dead bodies could be hidden in Almeria. After all most of these houses have been stuck in legal limbo for close to a decade now.
This photo gives an idea of what a typical Spanish “ghost town” looks like. I won’t go into details here of why such a colossal and tragic mess has occurred in southern Spain.Suffice it to say there is a particularly strange mentality prevalent in Spain that dictates the more laws you throw at something (and the more layers of government you have implementing said laws) the better. Small matter that the legal tangle creates vast loopholes into which entire life savings can disappear. Small matter that the governmental strata often work against each other. Add to this the get-rich-now! economic madness of the pre-crisis years and you have the makings of a true disaster.

The Pill Box

Pill Box‘Every detail of that night in 1995 when he’d seen the first body had resurfaced in his mind: Ray Taylor’s nicotine wheeze, the wet bracken brushing their trouser legs, the ghostly shadows the police floodlights cast through the close growing pine trees. Danny had been twenty yards away when the police photographer’s camera clicked inside the pill box and the flash revealed a momentary image of the dead man within . . . ‘

Pill Box2There is something intrinsically sinister about an abandoned building in the middle of a forest (something The Blair Witch Project used to great effect) and when I made the decision to set part of the book in my hometown, Fleet, the choice of where to place the first dead body was obvious.
There are a number of these WWII pill boxes dotted around Fleet and I have vivid memories of messing about in and around them as a child. Another of the places I used to go as a kid was the Water Catchment area (obeying the mysterious lure that large, isolated bodies of water seem to effect over children) located between Fleet and Farnham. At the top of the hill there is a pine forest with an abandoned concrete structure at its centre. I always remembered it as a pill box (and described it as such in the book) but subsequent visits have revealed it to be a concrete workman’s cabin, which, now I think about it, makes far more sense. (“We’d better defend this strategically worthless patch of pine forest, too, commander. The densely-packed trees will provide an excellent field of fire for our machine guns”)
Anyway, this is what I was thinking of and I think you’ll agree it remains equally as sinister.

The Cabo de Gata Lighthouse

rocks2‘The lighthouse that marks the Cabo de Gata cape, the point where the eastern and southern coastlines pinch together in a crooked black finger of rock, is one of Spain’s most desolate spots. Elsewhere along the coast the Mediterranean is usually a mill pond but around the cape the sea surges and foams against the base of steep, angular cliffs. Off-shore, the shadow of jagged reefs can be seen below the surface of the angry water – hence the lighthouse.’

LighthouseAlmería has many really dramatically beautiful spots, but the lighthouse at the Cabo de Gata cape is one of my favourites – as long as you are willing to take your life in your hands and brave the road that leads to it. This is where Danny goes to meet up with Alan Reade in the book. Here are two shots showing the view from the top of the cliff and the lighthouse itself.

Bredon Hill

DSC03811“A final field filled with turnip stumps and then Danny and Durkin reached the top: 981 feet high and Danny felt every damn inch of it in his legs. It was curious: Bredon Hill barely qualified as a bump in the ground in Spanish terms and yet he couldn’t remember the last time he’d walked so far uphill. His mother was right, he was unfit. He felt the breeze dry the sweat at his hairline. The view was the type you took for granted in Spain but there were few like it in England. From the top of the hill you could see for miles in any direction: The Vale of Evesham, The Cotswolds, The Malvern Hills. Danny was struck by how neat and ordered England’s patchwork lines of hedges and trees looked in comparison with Spain.”

IMG_1445Part of my routine during the writing of Scarecrow included a daily walk up to the top of Bredon Hill (about a 90 minute round trip from where I was). One day, my sister jokingly asked me if I was going to include the hill in my book. I promptly said “OK” and spent the next 90 minutes devising exactly where the body would be placed, who it was and how he ended up there. By the end of the walk I had devised an entirely new sub-plot to the story that, in turn, helped me to resolve some of the nagging doubts I had and the character of Nicholas Todd was born.
Here is a photo of the Victorian folly at the top and another of the view, which is about as perfect a picture of the English countryside as you could wish for. The mounds of earth you can see by the folly (the tower) are where I placed the butchered remains of poor old Adrian Kimber.

My sister was very happy at having managed to influence my book – right up until the point where she read the Bredon Hill section and was then too scared to walk her dogs up there alone for a number of weeks. Be careful what you wish for.

Marsha’s House

Marsha's house‘He looked along the street of terraced Victorian houses filled with cars. The houses had small gardens in front of them. Marsha’s had a neatly kept row of herbs and flowers.’

A large part of my early adulthood was spent in North Camp, in Hampshire, as I used to work there (first as a window cleaner, then as a picture-framer). When I came to write the section where Danny wakes up after his first night out with Marsha, I chose to set it in North Camp for the simple reason that it was a place I could describe from vivid personal memories. This particular set of houses is in Somerset Road where some friends of mine used to have a squat. I don’t know why this came to mind when I described Marsha’s house but it did, perhaps because it is so representative of a normal street in southern England.

People

John Wayne Gacy

John Wayne Gacy‘His cheeks were covered in white now. He began working the red greasepaint around his eyes and mouth, drawing the stick into sharp points either side of his lips . He opened the door and the screaming rose in pitch. Then he clapped his hands together and said what he always did when the show began. “Hello children. Here’s your special friend again: Pogo the Clown!”‘

I won’t go into details about what this particularly repellant serial killer did. Suffice to say, reading about him provided the inspiration for a very specific part of my fictional killer’s psychological make-up (no pun intended there). This was a good example of how research can help shape a writer’s narrative. When I read that Gacy liked to dress up as clown I knew I wanted to use the idea in my book. This then led me to ask myself why my killer would want to smother themselves in face paint which, in turn, opened out a whole new vista of possibilities for my killer’s tortured past.
If you’re wondering why Gacy’s picture is so unsettling, it’s because he has eschewed the normal oval shaped clown mouth and drawn one with distinct sharp points, a factor psychologists claim was indicative of his brutal personality (which is a useful bit of knowledge when hiring children’s entertainers).

Jim (Pickle) Durkin

‘Danny angled his head to take a better look at the man inside the car. He was around Danny’s age, shirt and tie both too grubby and creased to be considered smart. Danny already knew the guy was a journalist from the way he spoke – you didn’t approach a stranger so confidently without practice – but the inside of the car confirmed it. The back seat was loaded with crumpled newspapers and files, the floor littered with empty packets and wrappers, all evidence of a life lived on the move. Post-it notes with times, dates and places were stuck across the dashboard and the door to the glove compartment.’

Those people who know me might have been surprised to see a real life person included in the book, in the shape of the journalist Jim Durkin. Jim and I have been friends since our teens but one day about thirteen years ago, I bumped into Jim in Fleet and told him I was at a bit of a loose end in life, that I wasn’t happy with my job and I really didn’t know where I was headed. Jim had just recently become a journalist and he told me I had the skills needed to be a good reporter. The next day I began to send my CV off to British newspapers in Spain and within 48 hours I had an interview. I decided to include him in the book as a thank you for giving me this piece of advice and helping me to find my path in life, which, after all, is what friends are for.