Looking Back: The Makeweight by Philip Davison

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The Makeweight

By Philip Davison

The workings of the memory are intricate and often mysterious, but the business of forgetting has its function, we might suppose. It is in the retrieving of experiences, perhaps, that those operations are most capricious, but in itself this can provide unexpected connections. It can lead to a better understanding of an experience, or it might produce a more engaging confusion.

The Makeweight was written some thirty-five years ago. There are aspects of its creation that now entirely escape me. For instance, I cannot recall undertaking much of the technical research for the novel, but I vividly remember locking on to the principal character’s point of view. I knew from the outset that the technical information should not be at the centre of the story; that it could easily cause obstruction. I was drawn to the character, their situation and their disposition. I knew that I wanted to write about flawed characters, awkward characters, inhibited characters who, nonetheless, were extraordinarily capable and could hold their nerve where others failed to do so. What price might be paid for the exercise of such skill? This, of course, is the stuff of the spy novel. The challenge was to write a story under a story; to write something that was complex without being confusing.

I make these observations with hindsight. Indeed, at the time of writing the novel those elements were illusive. At best, there were islands of clarity that suggested the direction in which a writer might sail. There were the great works of the masters in the genre – John LeCarré, Graham Greene, Len Deighton and others to inspire. There was also the fear that reading these authors again might well ensure that one never wrote a word. Any attempt at a spy novel would demand that it be written in invisible ink.

Philip Davison author pic

Naturally, I look at text now and wonder how I might have done better. I have resisted the urge to make radical changes, but instead have made small, but what I hope are significant amendments, so that the text might remain true to the original intent. It comes from the time in which it was set. This was my first attempt at a full length spy novel. I have published others since that in many respects are quite different, but this one laid the groundwork.

However a story turns as it emerges, what one chooses to describe, and the way in which one describes it, reveals much about the character’s priorities. It follows that we better understand their actions – or, indeed, their decision not to act. The task, as ever, was to create whole, credible characters in jeopardy, and to do so with empathy. That much I knew from the beginning. Though The Makeweight squarely falls into the category of conventional spy novel and is plotted accordingly, in my mind it is a study in disaffection. However spent their relationships, our characters must find their way. They, too, remember and forget. They, too, see more clearly with hindsight. And still, they wonder.

(c) Philip Davison

About The Makeweight:

Jack Hinkley, the underachieving MI6 Station Head in Barcelona, is tired of watching the cable-car ply between the harbour and Montjuïc from his office window. But today a hijacked plane is forced to refuel at Barcelona, where it is successfully stormed. Among the surviving passengers seen disembarking live on shaky long-focus television lenses are two KGB agents of interest. The natural order of things in the shadow world is suddenly out of kilter.

So begins a run of close surveillance, kidnapping and coercion that ultimately leads to a hunt for a mole in London. Once again, our man, Jack, finds himself marginalised. Instead of sinking in the toxic inertia he uses the time to help his brother get back on track, and to rebuild his relationship with his estranged wife. Then, in a street of cramped houses in Chelsea, somebody fires a shot at him. In the shadow world lessons are learnt late – sometimes, too late.

The Makeweight

The Makeweight is a remarkable spy thriller from the 1980s, which will resonate with a new generation of readers, by a writer described by the Independent as “part le Carré, part Graham Greene”.

The Makeweight by Philip Davison is published by Ely’s Arch, an imprint of Liberties Press. 

Order your copy online here.

See also: Philip Davison on Researching, Revisiting and Revising The Makeweight

Returning to a manuscript that was written so long ago begs some obvious questions for a writer. Is the work still relevant? What about the perspective, the tone, the writing style? Were you to attempt to write that story now how would it differ? In subsequent novels I have been drawn to the challenge of writing simpler narratives with more complex characters. This is not to say that Jack Hinkley and his fellow pilgrims are not to the fore – they must be so if the narrative is to work. The Makeweight, as I recall, was well researched. The then structure of the KGB, British Parliamentary procedure, the committees of the EEC, I would like to think, are all accurately represented. The few details of Moscow life are based on observations made on a trip to that city.

See here for the rest of this fascinating article.

About the author

Philip Davison’s published novels include The Crooked Man, McKenzie’s Friend, The Long Suit and Eureka Dunes. The Crooked Man was adapted for television. His play, The Invisible Mending Company, was performed on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage. He has co-written two television dramas, Exposure and Criminal Conversation, and Learning Gravity, a documentary film on poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. He has written twelve plays for radio. An adaptation of his novel Eureka Dunes was broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 in 2019, and an original dramatisation of Quiet City was broadcast on the same station in 2020.

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