1973: the year of the oil crisis, the secondary banking collapse, the three day working week and the collapse of the stock market. In a riotous ride through the City of London we meet the characters and events that filled the social and City pages of the press in that roller-coaster year.
Guy Magnus, an ambitious young share dealer, makes a daring takeover bid in the face of opposition from the City Establishment. Will he follow their rules, or his own: never to fall in love with a deal? Will he come to repent his challenge to the powers-that-be? Is Guy’s story fiction or fact? Was a Norfolk Broads canal boat really moored in the marina of Monte Carlo? Did a Henry Moore sculpture really become the most expensive work of art in the world? And did a bet for a lunch at Maxim’s for the first to make a million, Guy or his friend and rival Harry Griffin, bring a merchant bank to the verge of collapse?
THE SHELL COLLECTOR tells a cautionary tale of the City when its buccaneering spirit was at a peak. Whether true or false, it is never less than entertaining.
Interview with Robert Lyons
What is your favourite thing about writing books?
The private satisfaction of getting something spot-on; whether a description, an observation or a joke makes no difference.
Who is your favourite character in your book and why?
It has to be “Yankee” Tate, Guy’s driver. First, the name itself: almost all of my characters are named after Romans/Britons surrounding Caligula, and I was lucky enough to hit on Incitatus, the horse the emperor is said to have made a consul. Then I loved creating his down-to-earth perspective on dealing on the stock exchange. Where others in the story may have had questionable motives, he was straightforward, honest and loyal. Only a cameo role, but great fun to write.
What is your favourite drink to consume while writing?
I’m teetotal – don’t touch a drop before teatime. I know I should keep taking fluid while writing, but I am my late father’s child: “Water’s for washing”.
Do you have any bad habits while you’re writing?
Yes; I tell my wife I’m busy when she needs me. But she is very understanding, and quite forgiving.
How do you research your books?
In the case of The Shell Collector, the most important source of all was the official report of the affair, some 500 pages long, setting out more or less verbatim the evidence given to the Inspectors by various participants. This provided me with most of the detail for the financial side of the story.
I spent many days in the basement of the London Library trawling through back copies of The Times and The Daily Telegraph, both for information specific to my story, including share prices, and to put together a background diary so it could be set properly in its time (miners’ strikes, Watergate, Royal wedding). I also ploughed through back numbers of Private Eye, particularly the City “Slicker” pages.
Finally, I was able to persuade one of the participants to give me a couple of hours of his time to answer questions. Without his input I wouldn’t have been able to retell two of the more amusing incidents in the book.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Is it possible to be only one or the other? To the extent that I set out a calendar of events and dealings before I began to write, I suppose I’m a more of a plotter; but once I’m into a new chapter I tend to fly along until the time comes to put the mess into order. Certainly one of the best things I did was to take my editor’s advice to change the order of some of the early chapters. Did this make me a hindsight plotter or a bungling pantser?
If you could live in any fictional world, which would you choose and why?
What a question! It never occurred to me that such an option existed. I’m not sure I could have survived in the 19th century world described by my favourite novelists. I think I’d hate the inadequate lighting and the lack of the creature comforts of contemporary living, though listening to delightful young ladies playing the piano and singing prettily would have been some compensation. May I not just live in the here and now, please (despite the terrifying political mess that surrounds us)?
If you could befriend any fictional character, who would you choose and why?
If I chose Becky Sharp, I’d risk having my face slapped. Safer to go for Milo Minderbinder, who would make me a lot better off (financially) than my publisher ever can, and give me a fun ride on the way.