Returning to England helped Clare Carson set the scene for The Salt Marsh.
I started writing fiction when I was living in the United States, working freelance with two small children in a country where I was a stranger. Fiction was a way of preserving, or possibly finding, my identity. My first novel Orkney Twilight, about Sam the daughter of a police spy, was written largely from memories of childhood summer holidays in Orkney, on the far side of the Atlantic. The Salt Marsh describes a bleaker, shifting shoreline. It reflects the landscape I rediscovered when I returned home to the southern fringe of England: the salt-flats of Kent; the desolate marshland near Dungeness.
I had a major crush on the States when I first moved there. I fell for the jazz-playing buskers, the warm greetings of every passer by, the perfect margaritas, the stoop of our clapboard house. Like all crushes, it faded after the initial hit and I found myself wondering what I was doing in this relationship. During the sweaty mosquito-ridden summers of Washington D.C. I started missing the subtler charms of my homeland; the greys and greens, the mist, the quiet rectitude of its people. Watching Obama’s inauguration ceremony in 2009, I heard Pete Seeger singing This Land is Your Land, the people’s anthem of America, and I wondered whether there was a British equivalent, a song that claimed the places from the Caledonian forests to the sandy bays of Kent for all its inhabitants. I couldn’t find one. I started writing my own. It was never going to have the American folksy easiness of Pete Seeger. Orkney Twilight began as an edgy 1984 road trip across Britain, in the company of a police spy, his leftie teenage daughter and her wannabe journo friend.
I returned to England in 2010, and finished Orkney Twilight here. I ended up living on the south coast of England. At weekends, we roamed along the coastline that I had first visited as a teenager, heading south from London with my mates. These were the places where we went to freak ourselves out: the barbed wire fences of the army shooting range on Romney Marsh, the glow of Dungeness nuclear power station. Returning years later, the area still had its edgy appeal. The rundown coastal towns – Newhaven and Hastings – still clinging on for their survival. I returned inland to the margins of London where I grew up, and remembered walking there with my late father – an undercover policeman. He used to point to the large suburban villas and name their owners – the criminals and their lackeys who made their fortune from the Brink’s Mat gold bullion robbery. And I used to wonder how that worked – the cops knew the identities of all the robbers, but seemingly couldn’t touch them.
This wasn’t the England I had imagined when I was living in the United States, but it was a place that I knew and loved. Warts and all. So these were the places and people that inspired my second novel The Salt Marsh. Sam, the police spy’s daughter, is the protagonist of this book too. But she is more melancholic and uncertain than she was in Orkney Twilight. Although The Salt Marsh set in 1986, I feel that this mood – based less on memory and more on what I found when I returned home from the States – has some resonance with our current times.
Sam Coyle’s father lived in the shadows – an undercover agent among the spies and radicals of Cold War London.
That world claimed his life, and Sam is haunted by his absence. He left nothing behind but his enemies; nothing to his daughter but his tradecraft and paranoia. Now, her boyfriend Luke is missing too – the one person she could trust, vanished into the fog on the Kentish coast. To find him, Sam must follow uncertain leads into a labyrinth of blind channels and shifting ground. She must navigate the treacherous expanse of the salt marsh…
Clare Carson is an anthropologist and works in international development, specialising in human rights. Her father was an undercover policeman in the 1970s.