Danuta Kean gets Henry Porter to spill the beans
Henry Porter’s taut thrillers set in the shadowy world of international espionage have the ring of authenticity for a reason. “I know a lot of spies,” he says as if it is the most natural thing in the world. “I have done some work that is not entirely journalism but not espionage,” he adds darkly. “How shall we say, basically it is legal work and you get to know people.”
His unusual social circle was responsible for the premise of his latest novel, Brandenburg. It is November 1989. The Berlin Wall is about to collapse and the Iron Curtain be ripped asunder. Art historian Rudi Rosenharte has been lured into meeting his former lover, whom the Stasi, the ruthless East German secret police, believe has information they need. They coerce Rosenharte back into East Germany and into risking all to get the information they want.
As Porter’s many fans have come to expect, nothing in Brandenburg is straightforward. Not only is the plot a complex web of Cold War scheming by everyone from Western secret service agents and the KGB to Muslim terrorists, but it foreshadows the War on Terror, dissecting the complicity of the Cold War protagonists in the rise of Al-Qaeda. Even future Russian president Vladimir Putin makes an appearance.
“I got the idea of smuggling someone back into what is a very risky situation for a spy,” Porter explains. There is an edge to his voice as he points out: “British Intelligence didn’t stand to lose anything if it went wrong, but the guy they persuaded to go back could lose his life and didn’t stand to gain much either.”
He is full of admiration for those on the frontline in the fight for democracy and though he hints that he has walked a line between the worlds of journalism and espionage, he claims he has not the capacity to tackle the dangers faced by professionals. “I am totally incapable of facing risks because it is not in my metabolism,” he admits. “Some people are naturally rather steely and cool.”
Spies hold a fascination for him. “They are all charming, direct and able to live in the moment,” he says of his acquaintances. “They do not mess around, leaving things that should be done today until tomorrow.” It is this mixture of the urbane and the secretive that attracts him as a writer.
Brandenburg has a strong sense of place. Porter’s evocation of the paranoia and darkness that permeated East German society under Communism is chilling. Growing up, he spent time on German army bases, where he heard about the “grim frontier” between the East and West from family and friends. “I’d like people to be reminded of what East Germany was like then,” he says.
He recalls with a chill visiting the interrogation cells kept as reminders of the Stasi’s cruelty and says: “Once you have been there it stays with you. The idea of being questioned for days without being allowed to pee, I would have had a breakdown in a couple of weeks. That was the purpose of those gaols, to break people’s spirits, to get inside their heads and mess with the wiring.”
His other inspiration was at boarding school, which he hated. One can imagine the young Porter reading thrillers as an escape from the bad food and bullying. “I was a great reader of John Buchan’s books when I was a kid,” he recalls of his literary inspirations. “Maybe I absorbed something from them.”
From school, he flirted with art as a career, but soon realised it would be a miserable way to make a living, though he still paints. “I am glad in a way as I would probably have ended up in some dreary design shop or eking out a living painting people’s houses.”
Instead he found his way into journalism, gaining a reputation as a political commentator and for reportage that took him to the front line in Bosnia, Albania and the Lebanon. The experience was “fantastically useful. Because I wasn’t there as a news journalist you tend to be able to get more background about a place,” he explains. He could sit at the back of cafés and watch the world go by and forge relationships with locals not open to the hit-and-run scoop merchants who blow in on the back of a breaking story.
Looking back to the end of those Communist regimes, he says memories are short. Though only 15 years ago, people have quickly forgotten the unspeakable misery caused by totalitarianism in a large part of Europe. “No one really knows what you are talking about now unless they have seen it,” he observes. The desire to remind people of our recent past is part of what fires his fiction.
But he is also aware that thriller-writers in the more complex political world post-9/11 need to offer readers more than adventure stories, and regards spy novels as a perfect genre for dealing with the conflicts within human beings. The genre’s conflicted heroes say much about the ambivalence in us all. “I think people are immensely complicated and I am fascinated by that, not in a pop psychological way,” he explains.
He adds: “I am interested in the conflicts within people, and the unseen propulsions. Spies have more than most. Everything is beneath the surface. It is all secret.”
Of all his characters it is Rosenharte with whom he identifies. “He is very like me,” he admits. Then adds hastily: “Not in the way that I am happily married, but in his tastes. He has a hatred of authority that is exactly the same as mine. He also has an ability to be by himself for long periods. I can do that without any problems.”
Readers will be pleased to know that his time alone is being spent writing more books – he has just completed a spy story aimed at young teenagers. The new book has an intriguing history. “I started my first novel in 1992 and then lost it,” he explains. “I have just gone back to it, because it was a good story, and rewritten it from memory. It is very different from the original, but all the better for that and it has been great fun to do.”