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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Peter Stafford-Bow shares the inspiration behind his Felix Hart Novels book series, and his creative writing process.
Written by Peter Stafford-Bow
The inspiration for the Felix Hart Novels struck me while living in South Africa, over a decade ago. I was working in the wine industry and I began thinking of the parallels between modern international supermarket buyers and privateers from the Victorian era. I’d read George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, with their caddish, cowardly, imperial anti-hero, and I was struck by how today’s multinationals behave quite similarly to institutions like the East India Company, with their greed, corruption and contempt for local laws and taxes.
It was also a time of deepening chaos in South Africa. The then-president was stealing everything he could get his hands on, political gangsters controlled the power stations, leaving the country at the mercy of frequent power cuts, and rioting plagued the under-policed townships. Climate change was worsening the Cape’s long, dry summers, causing wildfires which swept across the countryside, burning vineyards, farms and even the suburbs of Cape Town itself.
Starting To Write
Against this dystopian backdrop, I began to write. The summer was oppressive and few apartments in Cape Town have air conditioning, so I wrote stripped down to my boxer shorts. Many suffered in the choking heat, but I was fit, a keen runner, and lifting cases of wine had given me a toned, muscular body. Even so, sweat trickled constantly down my chest and back, sometimes splashing on to my keyboard. Vietnam War-era Huey helicopters, huge buckets swinging beneath, clattered overhead, water-bombing the veld fires licking at the outskirts of the city. The smoke turned the sky orange and stung the back of your throat, but I kept an ice bucket of chilled Riesling beside me, to cool my palate and encourage my creativity. I would write from morning until early evening, after which I’d light a braai on my balcony and grill kudu steaks drenched in local olive oil, the smoke from the sizzling game mixing with the haze from the burning grasslands.
And so, my first novel, Corkscrew, was born. It follows the adventures of Felix Hart, a young man expelled from school, like me, and forced to make his way in the cut-throat world of wine retail. Felix is a wine-loving chancer who never fails to take the path of least resistance, whether in his working life, his personal relationships or his approach to general morality. Though amiably amoral, Felix generally ends up doing the right thing and gaining a little wisdom along the way, even if he has to be nudged in the right direction by his allies.
Thanks to a positive mental attitude and a cheerful moral flexibility, Felix’s career thrives and his sensual adventures take him to the winelands of Australia, Italy, South Africa and Kent. But when he negotiates the world’s biggest Asti Spumante deal, he finds himself plunged into a vicious world of Mafiosi, people smuggling and ruthless multinationals.
The plot is based on my own career. It was common back then for people smugglers to hide immigrants in shipping containers, and many a time our depot staff would open a forty-foot container of Pinot Grigio on a West Midlands industrial estate, only for a clutch of Afghan lads to spring out and sprint to the sanctuary of central Birmingham. And good luck to them, I say. Countries are built on the energy and entrepreneurship of their people and in my opinion anyone willing to risk a journey to these shores in the back of a lorry or a small boat is made of the right stuff. I’ve lived and worked in many places, across Europe, Africa and Asia, and I’d rather live in a country that attracts people than one that repels them – and I’ll wrestle anyone who disagrees.
Corkscrew was self-published and an immediate hit in the British and American wine trade. On the back of that interest, I secured an agent and a modest publishing deal, which introduced the book to a far wider audience, especially in the US. I reached the final of the People’s Book Awards and was invited to several literary festivals, where I combined readings with tutored tastings, featuring wines from regions found in the book. These were a roaring success, though occasionally a little rowdy as the attendees reached the sixth or seventh wine. An intoxicated audience can be a noisy, excitable one and I found that reading excerpts through a loud-hailer kept their attention and helped to suppress hecklers.
Brut Force and Firing Blanks
The plot of my second book, Brut Force, picks up where the first novel ends and explores themes of corporate greed and corruption in greater detail, with the vineyards of Champagne, Burgundy and the Loire as settings. The third novel, Firing Blancs, is based principally in South Africa, and is inspired by the troubled racial politics of that country, themselves the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. It was published in early 2020, just as the Black Lives Matter movement rose in the US.
Many reviewers marvelled at my apparent predictive powers, but the American BLM phenomenon was itself inspired by the earlier Rhodes Must Fall movement centred on the University of Cape Town. Several times I was caught up in street battles between the multi-racial student movement and the thuggish security services, the acrid sting of tear gas elbowing aside the bouquet of my evening Pinot Noir, righteously gate-crashing my spectacularly privileged lifestyle and demanding which side I was on. And, for the avoidance of doubt, despite my exquisitely middle-class English tastes and prejudices, I’ll answer that unambiguously: Black Lives Matter, and to hell with anyone who disagrees or diminishes or qualifies that statement.
And so, to my latest and possibly finest novel, Eastern Promise. Like the earlier novels, Eastern Promise is a satirical comic thriller, again featuring protagonist Felix Hart, though this time set in the post-pandemic present day. The plot revolves around an international wine fraud conspiracy and explores themes of technological disruption, as well as our old friends: corruption and corporate greed. It blends the futurist dystopian visions of Orwell and Huxley with the humour of PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe.
The story begins in London, where Felix Hart is offered a life-changing sum of money by the world’s most powerful luxury goods multinational. In exchange, Felix is required to attend a wine tasting hosted by a mysterious Chinese billionaire who is suspected of manufacturing counterfeit fine wine. There are worse ways to earn a fortune, so Felix puts aside any misgivings and heads to Hong Kong.
But this apparently simple mission soon takes a more sinister turn and Felix finds himself the centre of some very unpleasant attention. Before long, Felix is friendless, caught between his malevolent employer, his mercenary paymasters and a tech billionaire so powerful he can bend reality itself. If Felix is to escape with his life, not to mention save the world of wine, he must crack the conspiracy with little more than his wits, his fine palate and a touch of muscle.
The Far Eastern setting is inspired by my time living and working in Hong Kong, and I have drawn on my experiences of travel and business in the megacities of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. It is also a love letter to Hong Kong, once the finest and most vibrant city in Asia, now sadly suppressed under the vicious authoritarianism of communist China. As the brave activists and exiles say: Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times!
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