How Secret Orbit came to be written
The novel that came to be called Secret Orbit had a long gestation which would be too tedious to detail. For years I’d had a perhaps not very original perhaps pretentious notion of writing my own Divine (secular) Comedy: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. All three parts were to be set in different versions of London. Secret Orbit was once the title of another associated project, but eventually came to be allocated (initially as a working title) to the part of the trilogy that represented Hell. Of course, Hell is always the most fun to write. The title stuck, and the novel got written.
Like the other half-written novels in the sequence, it is structured in 33 chapters, mirroring the cantos of Dante’s original (there are actually coded references to the mirrored canto in each chapter, though I’ve forgotten what some of them are).
The framing device is a description of the stages of decomposition of the unnamed protagonist’s body as he lies in his London flat for 33 days before being discovered (the main events of the narrative being told in flashback from this time frame). I researched the science behind this fairly thoroughly so it’s not sensationalist, I believe. Most of the reader feedback I’ve had has been favourable, with some saying the forensic descriptions of decay were among their favourite bits of the book – one or two less enthusiastic. It was predictable that this was going to attract attention, but I want to clear up a misconception: I did not intend this natural process to signify Inferno. The true horror is what was going on behind the scenes that led to this posthumous lying in state. The notion of an elderly man who escapes from an institution to which he has been committed to return to his home, where he dies and remains for a while until discovered comes from a story told me by a neighbour – the original model for Jackanapes in the novel – about another neighbour in the block of flats where I lived in South East London between 1988-2004. That inspired a short story that I never finished and later incorporated into this book.
So the central character is dead. One review seemed to misunderstand this – portraying the book as a mystical flight of fancy where it was unclear whether he was alive or dead or in some beyond world. No, he’s dead. And so his story is told by an apparently hired-in semi-omniscient narrator (until the final two chapters, where he is allowed, as a fictional trope, to discover his own voice). There seems at the outset little to tell. “You were a young man first, and then you became middle-aged and then you became an old man,” says the narrator. “That’s about it. That’s the story, in a nutshell.” The body lies tranquilly in the dead man’s own bedroom – or not so tranquilly, because he left the TV on before expiring, so a continuing intrusive presence is a ghostly and never ending sequence of game shows.
I was interested in starting with somebody who appears to be nobody: throughout the novel he is [forename][surname]. Then via a series of flashbacks to begin to discover who he actually is. But only to begin. Because there is no end to this process, once you’re started. And slowly, in a series of encounters, conversations, memories, his true story emerges. For me as a writer it was a genuine process of discovery – I wasn’t clear at the outset how it was going to evolve. It becomes plain that in recent months he has been experiencing delusions, very likely symptoms of creeping dementia. He is vulnerable to those around him: some, like the Christian window cleaner, are genuinely trying to help him, others, like Father Fuck, have designs on him, and both his neighbour Jackanapes and his temporary lodger BJ (Jackanapes’ lawyer), while apparently having his interests at heart, may not be what they seem. BJ claims to have visited (and lost his wife in) the original Hell, a “real” place in the mountains in Eastern Anatolia (possibly).
The crisis arrives when [forename][surname], who has daily visits from carers employed by Care-plc, an apparently privatised health service, suffers a diabetic emergency, passes out and is rushed to a medical unit where he recovers consciousness but is now trapped in a nightmare. It is unclear how long he is imprisoned in this unit, but it emerges that he cannot be discharged – because he was not born in this country. And furthermore he cannot prove that he has the means to pay for his care, doubt having been raised about the ownership of his flat. This impasse has been determined by AI-controlled systems against which there is no recourse. He is transferred to an Interim Detention Facility (popularly known as the Holding Pen), where he joins other “customers” who are mostly foreign, mostly black or brown, awaiting their fate, which in most cases appears to be deportation.
It’s around now that it has emerged that our [forename][surname] is indeed a man of colour. He has lived in this phantasmagorical version of the UK for most of his 80+ years, having arrived as a child from an unnamed island, possibly in the Caribbean. At one time he earned his living as a jazz pianist. He is alone. Most of his “people” are dead. He cannot prove who he is.
Here let us digress – but it isn’t a digression, it’s the heart of it – into a brief summary of two appalling episodes in the recent history of the UK. First, the one commonly known as the Windrush scandal. A generation of Black Caribbean immigrants came over in the 1950s answering a post-World War II call for workers, settled, earned their living and paid their taxes for many decades. But when it was discovered in the 21st century that some of them could not produce the documentation to prove they had the “right to remain” they were sacked from their jobs, barred from claiming welfare benefit, threatened with deportation and in some cases actually deported to countries where they had not lived for decades and had no current family.
The second is the case of the “small boat people” – the thousands of migrants crossing the English Channel in the past few years in inflatable boats, most escaping nightmares in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries and claiming asylum. The response of the current UK government has been to seek to intern them in prison camps (the hotels in which they were first housed temporarily while awaiting the results of their asylum appeals being deemed too good for them), prior to taking measures to deny their claims automatically and deport them, most controversially to Rwanda.
The BBC sports commentator and presenter Gary Lineker hit the headlines in March 2023 when he tweeted that the wording of the new government policy on immigration was language “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. This caused an uproar – ostensibly because he was meddling in party politics, something incompatible with his BBC work, but actually because he was daring to compare British government policy with that of the Nazis.
It seems to be axiomatic among some in our country that far-right politics is totally alien to it. While other countries may have their far-right parties and politicians – Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and so on, and the parties they lead – Britain can never be admitted to harbour the equivalents. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, later the Brexit Party, and Jacob Rees-Mogg on the right of the Tory party, are never referred to as far-right politicians, despite sharing many of their views with the aforementioned Europeans. This is related to the myth that Britain alone battled and vanquished the Nazis, and that its uniquely democratic, reasonable, tolerant, restrained character will always prevail against foreign extremists. From this point of view, racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism are foreign to Britishness. Would that it were true.
Another objection to Gary Lineker’s intervention was the old chestnut: “Once you invoke the Nazis in online discussion you’ve lost the argument.” This view suggests that Hitler and the Nazi party were outliers, bizarre once-only extremists who should never be compared to any other politicians or parties or political tendencies; and that such comparisons are always tendentious or malicious. It avoids the awkward fact that Hitler was initially supported by millions of Germans, and that even today millions of people around the world are similarly ripe for exploitation by the Trumps, Putins, Erdogans, and indeed Farages who are always there to take advantage of germinal hatreds.
For fascism, if we can still call it that (some say you can’t, that it is a historical term, but I dispute this), doesn’t begin with jackbooted storm troopers or death camps, and that’s not what it is at its core. I grew up on the other side of a border with a genuinely Fascist state – Spain until the death of Franco in 1975. There were indeed Civil Guards in evidence in shiny black leather bearing arms, but mostly it was a question of drab uniformity, hostility to the Other, fear of reprisals for not conforming, petty injustices, huge disparities between rich and poor. My uncle had to be smuggled out of a theatre in Spain by his friends after refusing to stand for the national anthem at the end of a concert, for fear of being beaten up by Francoists. It starts in small ways, and no country is immune. And I feel that many British people do not properly understand this, hence the outrage that a cruel policy enacted by their government might be suggested to have something in common with the far right. But what are the planned holding facilities for “illegal” migrants, whether in this country or Rwanda, other than incipient concentration camps?
So I would argue that my novel, which could be described as “dystopian”, is not as far removed from reality, despite its strange and nightmarish sequences, as one might think.
Back to our protagonist, [forename][surname]. One of the attendants in the Holding Pen is briefly sympathetic to him: “You British, in’t you? ... Ah, you shouldn’t be in here then, among all them foreigners. I guess you’re just one of the unlucky ones. The problem with you is, you got the wrong kind of skin. You know what I mean? Nothing that can be done about that.”
Our protagonist appeals for help, and bizarrely is summoned in the middle of the night for a brief interview with a Dr Thomas Hardy, a bureaucratised version of Satan, in the guise of a worn-down English upper-class senior civil servant sitting alone in his office at the base of the Holding Pen’s concentric circles. Dr Thomas Hardy proposes an elaborate exemption that would allow him to be escorted to his home to collect any documentation that might help prove his rights. But before that can be put into place, Dr Hardy himself is ousted in a reorganisation at the facility.
The last third of the book documents our protagonist’s ultimately successful attempt to escape from the Holding Pen and return home, only to die, presumably from his ongoing medical condition. It is as much of a triumph as can be allowed. In his final dream before death he revisits the island of his birth and childhood. In an overheard conversation between the Christian window cleaner and an anonymous state bureaucrat while they are waiting for workmen to break into the flat and recover the body, the window cleaner, who admonishes himself for not looking out for the unfortunate victim, says: “I mean, he never deserved that.” To which the bureaucrat replies: “Deserving doesn’t come into it. It’s not a question of deserving, is it? ... Our systems do not support notions such as deserving or not deserving. It’s not a question of deserving, it’s a question of whether the correct protocols have been followed.”
When I visited Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland, a few years ago, what impressed and horrified me above everything was the meticulous systems that enabled millions of people to be efficiently killed. It was always a question of following the correct protocols. What the Nazis would have given for today’s AI systems.
You may be wondering what happened to the rest of the Comedy: Purgatory and Heaven. Well, Heaven is still a viable project, just about, but has been changed radically from its original drafts of 20+ years ago. In its current, disassembled, unfinished state it is a SF novel set in a future, half-flooded London, where genetically altered humans are allowed to live peaceably, under the benign but inflexible watch of AI entities who stay out of the way but keep themselves busy researching the disastrous turns of events that led to this present state. And Purgatory was originally going to be set in a phantasmagorical underground city called Cockayne bearing a strange resemblance to London in the 1980s, with strong Thatcherite resonances. An almost complete draft of that exists, but I was eventually discontented with it; one day, it will either be revamped radically or ceremoniously ditched.
Photos by Elaine Edwards