The new book by author Simon Gaul, White Suicide, comes out today – it is an exciting political conspiracy thriller set in Italy from the late 1960s to the 1980s. This period in the country was one of deep social and political turmoil, culminating in the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. White Suicide stokes suspicion about who was really behind it all – the Red Brigade, the CIA and the P2 Masonic Lodge each have their hands drenched in this retelling of a previously neglected piece of Italian history.
This is Simon’s first novel – the first in what will be a trilogy, in fact – although he has written numerous travel books and the well-loved children’s book Pushkin the Polar Bear. He has also worked as a freelance journalist for newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, and undertook an epic 55-day driving expedition from London to Beijing in 1990 (before the fall of the Soviet Union!) on which he reported for The Sunday Correspondent and Capital Radio.
Simon has also previously combined his love of travel with business – he is the former owner of Notting Hill’s famous Travel Bookshop! We asked Simon a few questions about his time at the helm of The Travel Bookshop, and his fascinating life as an avid traveller, writer and businessman.
1. Running the famous Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill must have been quite an experience – not least because of the famous film! What are your memories of running the business?
My first memory of The Travel Bookshop dates back to the mid-1980s. It was like I’d discovered a “secret travel garden”. Sarah Anderson, the owner, curated her stock brilliantly; by country only, not genre, guides next to fiction, food, literature etc. I went to buy one guidebook, Venice for Pleasure by J.G. Links and I left with 4 or 5 books; from Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier to an expensive book on Canaletto.
However, my first major raid on her shelves came at the end of 1989. I was due to drive from London – Peking in April 1990. A 55-day road trip of 9,250+ miles through 12 or more countries, including the USSR. I was reporting for The Sunday Correspondent and Capital Radio and knew that “time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted”. I left considerably poorer that afternoon but vowed that if I returned in one piece (we were headed through the Nagorno-Karabakh during a civil war) I’d use all my best endeavours to buy this wonderful shop.
Not only did I return in one piece but I succeeded in my quest; Sarah stayed on as a minority shareholder. Sasha Gebler, a well-known local architect and son of Edna O’Brien, was an old chum and together we set about completely remodelling the shop: we bought old theatre stage lamps from Poland, ‘borrowed’ outrigger designs of Polynesian canoes to create ceiling lights, scouted map chests to browse (and sell!) old maps, and I later bought No. 15, the wee shop next door, to create an even more diverse bookshop: I never knew just how many children’s travel books there were until we opened the annexe. The Travel Bookshop was a happy and evolving adventure, literally.
And then ‘The Film’ happened….and life was never the same again.
Richard Curtis, who lived a few streets away, came in to ask if he could mosey around at weekends as he “had an idea for a film”. Neither Sarah nor I thought much ado, and it wasn’t a big ‘ask’; he and his wife, Emma Freud, were long-standing customers. They built our shop on Shepperton Studios’ backlot and filmed the exteriors locally. Hugh Grant spent time with our manager, Sean, and that was the sum total of our involvement.
The first casualty of the global success of Notting Hill was losing our three main accounts: the BBC, The Economist, and The FT. We were no longer their ‘secret’ supply of esoteric reference books. And none of us was even remotely ready for the influx of tourists and their demands. One of the best excuses I ever heard having caught a shoplifter red-handed was: “books contain knowledge and knowledge is in the public domain, therefore I can take this book….”. And that sums up what happened. The Travel Bookshop was deemed to be in the public domain, and anything and everything was up for grabs. We ended up having to sell postcards, tote bags, mugs, all manner of merchandise far removed from what we did best; sell books and advise. Oh, but we did learn how best to scoop spilt ice cream cones off rattan carpets…
There were extraordinary projects that came our way too, as all the staff were clued up. Both are telling of how times change: I received a call from a friend who was PA to Sir James Goldsmith, who requested a ‘private conversation’ at the shop. Over bad coffee, before we opened, Charles discussed creating a ‘library’ for his boss’ new aeroplane. He rattled off a list of titles he’d been given; midway through I raised the issue of weight (I was a pilot), guessing the new aircraft was similar to the current one. In a whisper – the shop was closed & empty – he confided that Sir James had bought a Boeing 757, a 200+ seat airliner. The interior had been designed by his Mexican architect around a central lectern – with an immense Atlas – and a full reference library. The aircraft was to seat 32-36. There would be no weight issue. We updated this comprehensive flying library every 3-4 months; it was an extraordinary project driven by a well-read gentleman.
The other side of the Robber Baron coin came from a call I received in 2003. Having heard tales of Sir James’ 757, Roman Abramovich’s agent wanted a library for his new 370 ft yacht Le Grand Bleu. In a swagger of disinterest, and in heavy Russian tones, our brief was simple: “I have 28 linear meters of bookshelf. Fill them.” We did, late into the night in a cold Southampton dockyard.
2. What are your general memories of Notting Hill and your thoughts on how it has changed over the years?
I’ve known the Notting Hill area all my life. My first Saturday job was telephone receptionist at an Alfa Romeo garage in Westbourne Grove. Always cosmopolitan, despite some rough areas, it was an area of villages within a larger village. And rents were affordable too. I haven’t lived in the UK for many years, but Notting Hill seems to have become a cross between Oxford Street & Mayfair; a not-so-heady mix of tourists, politicos and millionaires. The village that was Notting Hill has long gone, sadly.
3. You are a very seasoned traveller – what are your favourite places to visit around the world?
My childhood (when not, reluctantly, at a school) was spent either with my father on his sailing boat or with my mother up a mountain: oceans and mountains have always been symbiotic to me. I first went to French Polynesia in the early 1980s and fell hopelessly in love: The islands’ diversity is incredible, and French Polynesia is the size of the EU. I lived there, on a sailing boat, for over three years at the turn of the century, and today I hang my hat in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland.
4. What was the inspiration behind your newest book, White Suicide, and in using the story of Aldo Moro as its base?
Having been brought up outside the UK, international news was always front & central growing up. I can recall where I was when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and ten years later I was in a Royal Navy shipyard in Malta when I read of Aldo Moro’s kidnap. And after he too was kidnapped & murdered he became Europe’s JFK & RFK rolled into one. The fate that befell this First World leader never left me, until one day – many years later – on a writing assignment in the west of Sicily, I found an ‘in’ to be able to frame the factual story with a fictional story.
5. Are there any brief previews you can share about your upcoming books?
My next book is another conspiracy theory thriller. No Man’s Land is set on the eastern seaboard of the US: from Maine to Long Island. In the early 1990s I’d sailed across the Atlantic and wintered there. And in Boston, I learned about the greatest art theft – still unsolved – of all time. What happened to the 13 artworks stolen during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum that night? I wonder….
Thank you so, so much to Simon for answering these questions, and providing such fascinating answers! I loved reading about his experiences as owner of The Travel Bookshop – Simon really paints a picture of that time!
White Suicide by Simon Gaul is out today, 9th November 2023, priced at £20 for a hardback edition. It can be purchased online at www.amazon.co.uk/White-Suicide-One-Death-Lives/dp/1915635608.