Fitzrovia and remote, rural Wales are worlds apart, and I wanted to bring them together in my latest and fifth novel, Saturdays are Black or White.
I was brought up on a farm in Mid-Wales, and discovered this area of London when I came to study at the London School of Economics in the Ice Age and lived in student flats in Maple Street.
I travelled a lot after that with my career as a journalist, mainly for BBC World Service, but somehow gravitated back to the area and have lived in Great Titchfield Street for many years.
As well as this duality, I wanted to explore the complex relationship of twins, being one myself. Over the years I’ve come across some remarkable stories, and I did some more research for this book.
It ranges from the twin girls in West Wales who were never apart and spoke in unison, to the twins in the US who were separated at birth and find astounding similarities when they’re reunited in later life: similar jobs, names of their children, pets, right down to the cigarettes they smoke or the beer they drink.
This all feeds into the nature v nurture debate — are we born fully-cooked or does our upbringing define who we are?
Strangest of all, was a documentary called Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were adopted by very different families in the New York area — as a social experiment, it turned out — who found each other by chance when they were older and became something of a media sensation.
And then of course, there were the horrific experiments conducted by Josef Mengele in the death camps. There are many twin myths in different cultures and civilisations around the world, right down to the explanation of creation itself.
I also had in mind Bruce Chatwin’s novel On the Black Hill, about twin farmers in the Welsh borders who can’t live apart. It set me thinking about what would happen if it were the opposite — twins who’d become strangers.
So the novel begins when a former TV presenter, Arwyn, gets a phone message in his London flat, which in the novel is in Marylebone Lane:
‘Hullo. It’s me. I haven’t got long. Cancer. Thought you’d like to know.’
It’s a voice he hasn’t heard for thirty years, since their fiftieth birthday party, but he recognises it immediately. It’s his twin brother, Bren, who’d stayed on the family farm in the Black Mountains. Arwyn tries to figure out what triggered their estrangement. He goes back to Wales to find out.
It’s not an easy return — not only does he have to confront his brother’s dying, but aspects of his early life which he’d long buried or forgotten. He’d come to love the vibrant and cosmopolitan city, and it’s something of a shock to re-adjust to the sometimes insular views of the folks back home.
But he also finds a certain peace there, away from the hurly-burly of city life. He begins to wonder if he’s getting a little too old for central London. So which will he choose?
I know the Abergavenny area fairly well, from my days as a reporter on the South Wales Argus. I lived in Abertillery, which is in the hills the other side of the Usk valley from the Black Mountains.
My wife and I often drive through them if we’re coming from the South to Mid-Wales, and the area has always struck me as majestic and mysterious, if a little formidable. It’s the kind of place the makes you think how old the world is, and even more isolated than where I come from. As my mother would have said, ‘If those hills could talk!’
Part of the novel is the exploration of why Arwyn and Bren became strangers. They’d chosen very different paths in life but were ambitious and fairly successful in their respective fields. And while they got on well for many years, the mystery is why they stopped speaking. Was it a misunderstanding, or several, in that they both put different interpretations on certain things that had happened?
With my own twin, we remember different things and we remember things differently, so it could be relatively easy to fall out over very minor issues. For the record, I get on very well with all my brothers, and while I and my twin are not really all that ‘twinny,’ we see each other often, and I’m very close to his children. In fact, we’re a very close family.
The novel draws on some of my early London life — Sunday afternoon crawl around Soho and pubs such as The French House and The Coach and Horses.
People have asked me about the meaning of the title. I’ll leave you with a clue: synaesthesia.
Brian Jarman’s novels are published by Fitzrovia Books and are available from Amazon or Kindle.