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Inventing history

Inventing history

In the early eighties I worked as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in London. One of my clients was Shell UK, and I often had to boast about how many million pounds Shell had invested in the North Sea, or paid in tax to the exchequer.

Inserting the figures supplied by the client would have meant finding and re-reading the brief, something I could rarely be bothered to do. However, rather than write £XXX, which to me looked untidy, I would insert ad hoc amounts, leaving it to the account director to correct them. Thus I’d claim that Shell had spent £1,952 million on Brent Charlie, or invested £24.46 million planting trees over its gas pipelines, these sums being derived from mathematical constants such as the year of my birth and the agency phone number.


One day a new brief arrived containing a figure that I recognised as the date of the Great Plague of London. I asked the account director where he had got it. He said he had found it in a newspaper article.

‘It’s wrong,’ I said. 

‘No it isn’t.  I double checked. Their source was one of our ads.’

After many years in advertising I switched to writing fiction of another sort, never dreaming that I could ever again be accused of falsifying history.

The other day I came across An Honourable Murder, a thoroughly-researched article about legal aspects of the infamous Nanavati murder trial, which took place in Bombay in 1959. The defendant, a handsome naval officer called Kawas Nanavati, had shot dead his wife’s playboy lover, and more than half the nation thought he had done the right and decent thing.

As the Nanavati case is at the heart of my novel The Death of Mr Love, I read the article with interest.

‘Blitz, the popular weekly tabloid owned by newspaper baron Rusi Karanjia,’ the article’s author Aarti Sethi wrote, ‘ran a parallel trial by media that not just acquitted Nanavati, but indeed celebrated the elegant Commander. . . Blitz sold the case as a classic story of love, betrayal and the restoration of honour. It recounted how the dashing naval officer had met his wife in England [and how she] had been tricked and seduced by the villain Ahuja, whom Blitz described bitingly as “a symbol of those wealthy, corrupt, immoral and basically un-socialist forces which are holding the nation and its integrity to ransom”. [6]

Strong words, and ones I knew well, for I had used them in The Death of Mr Love. With some indignation Sethi continued: ‘Blitz exhibited none of the discretion that is normally reserved for the dead. “Some”, it wrote, “may attribute this sickening event to the heat of the season, but this is a mistake. Persons such as he do not share the lot of the common man. They live in a world of privilege. For their sins, their outrages, their crimes, they and they alone are to blame”. [7]

Now this sneering passage I knew even better, for every word of it was my own. I had composed it as a small fiction set inside a larger one. It had taken me a long time to capture the snotty righteousness of Blitz’s prose and I had been quite proud of it at the time, one of those small achievements that no one but the author of a novel will ever notice or appreciate.


Turning to the article’s footnotes, I discovered that quotations [6] and [7] had as their source The Death of Mr Love, by Indra Sinha.  

So this is how history is written. Unless someone takes the trouble to check the Blitz archives (which reside in a dusty Bombay building near the Excelsior cinema under the custody of a sweet man called Mr Vohra) or unless they read this piece, those two quotes will henceforth be as much part of Blitz’s history as if Karanjia had sweated over them himself – and I still can’t remember which of us wrote the first one.

The Honourable Murder: The Trial of Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati, by Aarti Sethi
The Death of Mr Love, by Indra Sinha

Years ago I wrote to Graham Greene to ask if he would pass on the secret of a delicious sounding dish mentioned in Our Man in Havana. Back came a charming reply. ‘I am sorry that I don’t remember where I got the recipe for Granny Brown’s Ipswich Roast. I think I must have invented it.’