IT SEEMS an unlikely coupling but Mandrake, the destructive evil genius of DUNCTON WOOD, is the fictional amalgam of a top Oxford Old Testament scholar and a world class jazz musician. Both were flawed, charismatic bullies who left a dark personal legacy with the surviving women in their lives. It seems incredible now that I had no idea when I wrote Duncton Wood that these two extraordinary men were Mandrake’s antecedents. But then first novels are often autobiographical without the author knowing it. Years pass, patterns emerge, formal or informal psychotherapy happens, new family history comes to light… and the penny finally drops: ‘OMG! Is that where that came from?!?”
Dr Henry Wheeler Robinson was principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, a non-conformist theological institution from 1932 to 1945. He was a Baptist minister and the foremost Hebrew and Old Testament scholar of his day. His Wiki entry shows why. Wheeler Robinson was my grandfather. Since he died on May 12th 1945, which happened to be my first birthday, I cannot say I knew him. My knowledge of him – or rather my view of him – was entirely filtered by the stories the women in his life told me: my grandmother Laura, my aunt Monica and my mother Ursula loathed him. He didn’t like women. They didn’t like him. Monica, who was very deaf, once brought the passengers in the open carriage of a train to sudden silence by informing me very loudly, ‘he ruined my life!’
Leslie Kenton, daughter of Stan Kenton, the 1950’s/70’s American jazz pianist, composer and bank leader, might easily have said the same of her father, as the final paragraph of his Wiki entry shows. At one level Duncton Wood is an extended love letter to Leslie, with whom I was having a relationship at the time it was being written. She asked me to write a love story ‘about moles’. I did. Her long suppressed but by then re-emerging memories of Stan informed my creation of Mandrake, as did what I already knew about my grandfather. Three decades later Leslie wrote a searing but compassionate account of her incestuous relationship with Stan Kenton titled ‘Love Affair’ and published in 2010. You can find it here. It is well worth reading. No wonder truth, memory, family stories and the traumas of childhood become the stuff of some of the most affecting fiction and legend.