Against the backdrop of political change in South Eastern Europe, the story of Herodotus: The Gnome of Sofia, embraces disgruntled communists, cold war warriors, intrigue, deception and finally murder.
Sir Arthur Cumberpot has an unspectacular career which is swiftly drawn to a close when he is appointed British Ambassador to Bulgaria. Due to some unforeseen mishap, his wife Annabel is accused of being a spy and sent home to their house in Oxfordshire, while her background is checked by MI5.
Annabel is guilty of nothing, other than being the biological daughter of Jim Kilbey, Britain’s most infamous spy. It seems that a jealous God has sought to visit the sins of the father upon her, but so has everyone else. She is the victim of serendipity, of cover-ups, the duplication of thin evidence and exaggeration. But she is also heartless, treacherous, self-indulgent and without shame.
This was my first attempt to bring to life, some of the characters I had met during my time in Sofia, Bulgaria. I say characters, but very often the opposite was true, and many of the anodyne expats – who worked either for big companies or within the various foreign embassies – seemed to have no character at all. In fact, one got the impression that they had been sent to Sofia, either for this reason or as some sort of punishment. The last chance perhaps? Or, tidied away perhaps, out of sight of the main chance, and some dynamic office in the capital.
In the 1990s, most of Eastern Europe had only recently declared its transition from communism to democracy, although logically this was a load of rot, and the phoney realignment of noted communists into different political parties was rather like a game of musical chairs. People who had been busy toadying up to ex-President Todor Zhivkov a few months earlier, now wanted to be seen as enlightened philosophers, and free thinkers. No longer shackled to the communist party line, there was no end of drivel being spouted by these twerps, both to the ignorant masses – now called the electorate – and to most members of the foreign diplomatic community.
Either there for cheap beer – sex and rock’ roll – or hidden siege like in their grey embassies, for the most part, reality was not an issue. At times one even wondered if they had ever truly understood the realities of communism, much of which still remained in the streets, the homes, the hearts and minds of practically every Bulgarian citizen. Because, despite the recent election of President Zhelyu Zhelev; as the new democratic head honcho, the same ugly people were to be seen everywhere, standing close behind him.
Nearly all the western countries had the usual contingent of spooks, although they also seemed to fit neatly into some kind of cold war last chance category. So, what did all these spy’s do? They spied on each other, of course! In a country which was virtually bankrupt, this simply represented a matter of resources. The Americans had more cash, so they were the frontrunners, the Russians had been the Bulgarian true masters in the past, and had vast resources in place, and Great Britain, well, that was another matter.
There were NGOs everywhere, foundations, obscure US universities, bank managers – who didn’t seem to know much about banking – advisors of all sorts, writers of feasibility studies, SME experts, and their local counterparts – usually provided by the Bulgarian Ministry of The Interior – who also didn’t seem to have much of a clue either. It was a circus, the clowns coming from all parts, and together with a number of strutting circus horses, the show began.
I don’t suppose my detractors will like to hear this, but I found most of this very funny, and I even stage-managed some events – for and on behalf of the Sofia Western News – one entitled Meet the Presidential Candidates! This was during the second election in the mid-90s when meeting foreigners was an important issue, and in one case, I even wrote their speech.
One candidate turned up in a limousine and a white suit, somehow confusing The Hollywood Oscars with little city emerging market politics and then proceeded to insult some of the foreigners who were present. Another misread his speech altogether and told the audience that he would introduce at least $1 million US dollars into the Bulgarian budget, instead of $1 billion. Last time I heard about this particular presidential candidate, he was accused of embezzling a fortune from some steelworks, and under arrest.
I was once asked to join the ranks of a particular security service, as many have been in the past, but swiftly demurred, claiming that I didn’t have a dirty mackintosh. A little provocative you might think, but I have never seen spying as a glamorous occupation, and those spies I did meet in the past, were usually catatonic liars. But it was due to this encounter, that I coined the character of the fictional MI6 officer at the Sofia embassy, his name is Mackintosh. In my story Herodotus: The Gnome of Sofia, it doesn’t take long before the British Embassy staff give him a nickname, after all, they are British. They call him Dirty, henceforth known, throughout my novel, as Dirty Macintosh!