Martin Walker is one of the most listened to shows on Binge Reading of all times, so we are delighted to have him back discussing his latest book, To Kill a Troubadour. It’s number 15 in the Bruno Perigord police chief series, highly popular all over the place, particularly in Germany.
When a musician’s new song hits a political nerve, he finds himself in the crosshairs of Spanish Nationalists’ ire, and it’s up to Bruno to track down the extremists who seem to be ready to take deadly measures.
Another delightful installment of the internationally acclaimed series featuring Bruno, Chief of Police.
But now, here’s Martin.
Jenny Wheeler: Welcome back, Martin. It’s so good to have you on the show again.
Martin Walker: It’s good to be back with you, Jenny.
Jenny Wheeler: We’re talking about To Kill a Troubador, which is number 15 in your Perigord Bruno the Police Chief series. I particularly loved this one because you have such an interesting mix of things going on in the story. It’s a combination of the French provincial life that’s so popular with your readers, but there is also that edge of both history and contemporary politics in it.
We’ve got Russian cyber-attacks, we’ve got some of the French medieval history coming into it, and I wondered with the cyber-attack part of it in particular, we know from your earlier podcast interview with us that you have had a very illustrious career as a diplomatic correspondent for top newspapers. Did those diplomatic contacts and the people you met over that period of your life help with your research on the cyber-attack aspects of this book?
Martin Walker: Yes, very much so. I have various old contacts who are with offices like GCHQ in Britain and the NSA in America. I even gave a lecture at the NSA at one point on international politics, and so I keep in touch with old chums. I try and keep in touch with my old friends in Moscow, some of whom have now left because of opposition to the war in Ukraine.
But yes, most of my life I was in journalism, and you meet an awful lot of interesting characters around the world through journalism. The other thing is the old Fleet Street motto holds good – expert knowledge is just a phone call away.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. The rise of right wing extremism is an inherent part of this story, but also there is the medieval aspect with the Occitan culture being promoted by various interest groups. One of the key characters in that right wing extremism is this woman, Africa, who appears right through the story, a mysterious figure.
We’ve had a little bit of a conversation off camera because the edition I read of your book didn’t have an author acknowledgement section, and I was very curious as to whether Africa was a real person or entirely made up. We have just had a little chat about that off air and you’ve explained that she is definitely a real person. Tell us about her role in the story and also what she actually achieved in real life.
Martin Walker: Well, there was a woman called África de las Heras who was a Spanish communist during the Spanish Civil War, born to quite a wealthy, prosperous family. At the end of the war when the Republican left wing side was defeated and Franco took over, she was steered back to Moscow by the NKVD figure there, which is the modern KGB, if you like.
She became a full-time KGB official and had an extraordinary career. She was used by the Red Army in World War II to coordinate partisan activity around the Blue Division, which was the Spanish division of volunteers that Franco sent to the Eastern front to fight on the side of the Nazis. She had a distinguished career with that. She got several medals for it.
She then went off to South America where she was the person who warned the Russians that the Bay of Pigs invasion was to be launched in 1961. She was told to marry the head of the KGB in South America, based in Argentina. He was a Yugoslav, and of course the Yugoslavs were starting to come under considerable suspicion.
Whether she actually killed him or arranged for him to be killed we’re not sure, but she went back to Moscow and she then became the head of the training division for Spanish speakers for the KGB. She had a daughter, also called Africa, and so for this novel I have her having a granddaughter as well.
I have been to the grave of this woman in Moscow. She died about the same time as Kim Philby, so I was really into graves at this point. I always thought she made a fascinating character, because she’s real and because she had this sort of Spanish connection as well as her Soviet loyalties.
We also know that the Russian cyber-attack units based in Khimki just outside Moscow were very much involved in trying to divide the French and the Spaniards over the whole Catalan business. When Catalan was trying to get its independence, there was a lot of support in France because there was a linguistic and cultural connection between the Catalans and this part of France where I am now, Occitanie, which is Southwestern France.
The languages of the old Occitan, which is what some of my neighbors still speak, and of Catalan, are very close together and the cultural connections are even closer. The way in which the Russians were trying to manipulate this with their little cyber operations was something that struck me as worthy of bringing into the novel.
Next Month On Encore – Jillian Cantor and Beautiful Little Fools, the re-telling of The Great Gatsbv
I had great fun doing this, but I had even more fun learning more and more about this whole Occitan tradition and the way in which most of the Renaissance that we had in Western Europe in the late 11th and 12th and 13 centuries came to us through Spain and largely from the Muslims, who of course were occupying much of Spain at this point.
One of the key figures in all of this was Duke William of Aquitaine, who was the first Troubadour. He was the grandfather of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most wonderful woman in history in my view, married to a king of France who she found pretty useless and a king of England who she thought was terrific until he put her in prison. She was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and Richard Lionheart used to write poetry in Occitan. Indeed, a few years ago Brian Ferry made a recording of Richard’s famous poem, Here I in Prison Lie, which he wrote in Occitan.
So I began this burst of research into the origins of Occitan and just how much we learned from the Moors who were occupying Spain at this time. It’s not just things like words, so for example, the French word for a shirt, chemise, comes from camisa which is the Moorish word for a shirt. But also the musical instruments we have, from the lute to the flute, came directly from the Spaniards. Much of the music that became of the Occitan/Troubador tradition and the verse forms came from the Arab tradition.
I plunged like a diver into this and began listening to Occitan music, getting to know people involved in the Occitan culture and so on, and I thought, why has nobody written about this before in a popular novel? I do have a whale of a time sometimes when I’m writing this stuff.
Jenny Wheeler: Did Eleanor and William speak Occitan?
Martin Walker: Yes. Eleanor was bilingual in Occitan but she also spoke very good Latin and she could get by in high French because she was living in Paris when she was married to the king. She never got to speak English but that didn’t matter because her husband King Henry II of England spoke Norman French and he could get by in Occitan too.
One of the great things about this combination of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband King Henry II of England was that they were the people who brought us the whole legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose initial stories of King Arthur were being read aloud at the court of Henry, were embellished by people like Chrétien de Troyes who was brought aboard by Eleanor, and people like Wace, who was a Bretton poet.
Many of the legends, for example, Tristan and Iseult and the round table, come into the King Arthur tales absolutely through Eleanor of Aquitaine. So what you have is this extraordinary combination, a part of this flowering of European culture. The music, the verse forms are coming from are coming from the Moors and through Spain. The story comes from Wales and England and it’s embellished and widened by Eleanor and Occitanie.
For example, Wagner would never have had his opera Parsifal had it not been for the way Eleanor brought the Parsifal legend and the holy grail legend into the Knights of the Round Table.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s amazing, and I gather that also it was partly because Duke William, her grandfather, was imprisoned at one stage during one of the crusades and became very familiar with the Islam culture during that experience in the crusades. Is that also one of the little parts of the jigsaw puzzle?
Martin Walker: Indeed. His granddaughter young Eleanor was brought up in a castle at Bordeaux where King William – by this time he had got himself out – had his own Moorish prisoners there who were waiting for ransom. So little Eleanor, this little girl, was listening to their music, listening to their poetry, listening to them talk.
The cross fertilization of cultures across the Pyrenees, between Aquitaine and Catalonia and Moorish Spain was extremely powerful.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Another very strong theme in your books, all of them, is food. In this one we get quite a lot of references to food. We get Bruno’s cooking, but – I thought this was great because I think I read it around about the time of the Platinum Jubilee – we get Queen Elizabeth’s wedding breakfast, a dish called Coronation Chicken.
I thought once again what a fantastic sense you have of being on the mark with some of these things. I had never realized that this dish existed until I read your book.
Martin Walker: Well, it’s true. My mom used to make Coronation Chicken. It’s a very nice kind of chicken salad dish with a little bit of curry in it, and I became very fond of it, as you always do with your mom’s cooking, so I thought I’d bring this one in.
I also have great fun with Momu, one of the Arabs, who lives in St. Denis. He is a friend of Bruno’, he’s the math teacher at the local school and he is the master of the mechoui. Mechoui is when you roast a whole lamb and he has his own little array of spices and so on. Bruno is very much the loyal deputy, helping him put together the spices and to roast the lamb.
But I mean, that’s what we do at the local tennis club. We regularly have a mechoui when we do roast a whole lamb, and there is an Arab chap who comes along, whose son I know because he runs one of the local cafés and has played rugby very well for our local team. This is how he makes his roast lamb for us.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got an award-winning cookbook that has done very well in Germany. I’m not at all clear whether any of your cookbooks have yet been published in English, but you have also got a new one out called Bruno’s Garden Cookbook.
Martin Walker: That has also won a prize. It’s won the prize from Gourmand International. It’s a prize for the world’s best French cookbook. My French friends get very surprised and shocked when they hear that a bloody Brit has won this prize. It’s coming out in English in the US and the UK next year, so it will be coming out to Australia and New Zealand as well. What’s coming out is a composite of the two cookbooks.
But I have to say that I could not begin to do all that without my wife, Julia, who is a very good food writer. She wrote for the Washington Post, for the Sunday Times and Observer and the Mail on Sunday in Britain. She now writes a weekly food column on Substack. Julia Watson is her name and I recommend you to go to Substack.com and look up her food stuff.
I have to cook myself every recipe that you will find in a Bruno novel, but with Julia at my shoulder saying, not quite so much garlic, a bit more salt and so on, it’s really a family operation. Julia and I are doing the cookbooks.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. When it’s called the Garden Cookbook, does that mean you’re also growing quite a bit of produce at home as well?
Martin Walker: Absolutely. We live on our garden all summer long. We have the radishes coming in the springtime and then the first of the strawberries. Strawberries go on until just about now, they’re coming to an end. We’ve got lots of tomatoes of various kinds. We’ve got our onions, our garlic, our potatoes, our cucumbers, leeks. And of course we have our own chickens. We have our fruit trees.
One of the tragedies is that the peach tree got hit by the very hard frost that we had earlier this year and so my peach tree has sadly died, but I’m still getting apples and pears. The garden is just a delight because half of it is flowers and the other half is food and vegetables and fruit.
Jenny Wheeler: Gorgeous. We are coming to the end of our time because these are shorter little chats, but we talked last time in December 2019. We hardly had any pandemic at that point. I think it was just starting to come in. February 2020 we started to get aware of it, so we hardly knew that was on the horizon when we last talked.
You did have a very international life moving around, doing book tours in Germany and things. How have you managed over the last couple of years and how has it affected you?
Martin Walker: Well, I myself caught COVID very mildly after Christmas with our large family in London and so I had to delay my return. I was flying back to Florida where I also had a book tour. The lecture tour there went ahead, and then I came back to a France under complete lockdown. You had to sign a declaration if you were just going out to the shops or whatever.
I got an awful lot of extra work done. A collection of Bruno short stories has just come out. To Kill a Troubadour was written. Most of the book that will come out next year was written, and I’ve got a new book coming out called Bruno’s Périgord. It’s coming out in German but it’s about the history, the traditions, the culture and so on of the region. So for me, COVID meant I could do a lot of work.
Jenny Wheeler: So you were mainly based in France right through that time.
Martin Walker: I was. Two of my German book tours in May 2020 and May 2021 were canceled, but I did a May book tour this year and I did my October book tour last year. I also managed to get back to the States again earlier this year. It hasn’t been too bad in interrupting things. I had a very nice Christmas and Easter in London, and I’m now four times vaccinated with booster and super booster, so fingers crossed, but who knows where the monkeypox is going.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I listen to a really good Aussie podcast on COVID called Coronacast with a Scottish doctor, Norman Swan. They had a break for about a month and they’ve just come back and their cheerful news is that the vaccinations aren’t that effective against the new versions, particularly BA5 which is the one that’s circulating here now.
I’m super vaxed as well, but they’re saying you can’t take too much for granted, nevertheless. It’s all a whole new world, isn’t it?
Martin Walker: In some ways it’s back to the Middle Ages with the sense of plague and shock and surprise, just as we are back in the Cold War with Putin and Ukraine.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it’s amazing. Martin, it’s been so good to have you with us again tonight. I am really looking forward to the next Bruno.
Martin Walker: Well, we’re disputing the title at the moment. My original title for it was The Battle for Challes. Now we’re thinking about The Castle Under Siege or something like that. We will see how it goes.
Jenny Wheeler: Can you give any hint of what the theme is going to be?
Martin Walker: Yes. Near here at a place called Domme, it’s kind of an open secret in this region, is the main French electronic intelligence and surveillance headquarters. I’ve come across one or two people who are sort of involved in it.
We start off with a recreation of the battle to liberate the town of Challes in the year 1370, to liberate it from the English. They do a reenactment of the battle but at the end of it, the hero who’s meant to be playing the role of the French Marshall Bertrand du Guesclin is found lying apparently dead of a sword thrust in the middle of the old town square. It turns out he is one of the big cheeses at this super-secret electronic listening place. And off we go.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve got a great gift for putting together medieval history and up to date contemporary events. It’s really a great combination, so congratulations on that.
Martin Walker: Thank you very much indeed. I enjoy doing it.
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve got a dirty little secret which I haven’t talked about because it’s too funny, but I’m on Ancestry.com. I’ve done a bit of genealogy with my family. I’m not any sort of expert, but I got dragged into doing a 2016 family reunion which resulted in putting together this big family tree. Online, I have now been connected by DNA right back to Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is supposedly my great grandmother, 29 generations back.
Martin Walker: Do you know which daughter it went through?
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve got it all written down, but I haven’t looked at it for a while. I honestly have never had the time to check out how absolutely valid this is, but it’s what they call a gateway ancestor. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this concept. I never had, I just got approached by email from somebody in Perth saying I believe we are related, and would you like to know that we’re locked into the Plantagenet line?
I said, oh, yes, that sounds interesting. It’s a grandmother on my maternal side. My mother is English. She was born and raised in Oxford and she married a Kiwi after the war. That grandmother who is a 19th century grandmother, it’s through her. The whole line goes back directly through her in one kind of swathe.
I can’t remember quite how it goes, but the first about half a dozen generations are aristocrats and then they dwindle off into merchants and things, nobody famous for the next 300-400 years.
Martin Walker: They reckon more than half the population of the British Isles is descended in some way from King Edward III who really put himself about. Of course, Henry II, Eleanor’s husband, was even more of a lively lad. He was simply famous for he could never stop overnight at an inn without tumbling all the chamber maids. It was a bit like Henry IV of France, a real father of his people.
Jenny Wheeler: I have heard that half the world has got Plantagenet genes. I interviewed Blanche d’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s second wife. I don’t know if you know that she has done a historical five-book series on Henry II and that first generation – Henry II and the sons and Eleanor, but it finishes with that first generation. It doesn’t attempt to go any further.
She has been fascinated by the Plantagenets for a long time, and she was very interesting talking about Henry II’s achievements in basically getting the whole administrative system in Britain set up. Even today we are benefiting from things that Henry II did. She was quite interesting talking about that side of it.
Martin Walker: The Assizes Courts and so on. A lot of that he managed to get through Thomas a Beckett, whom he later had killed, of course.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Becket features very prominently in her stories.
Martin Walker: Just down the road from me, Jenny, literally within walking distance, is the 12th century chapel of St. Martin, which was a church the Pope required that King Henry build in penance for the murder of Archbishop Thomas a Becket. He had to build three churches, two in England and one on his lands in France, and it’s just down the road from me. It’s built on the site of an old Roman temple. I mean, the history here just goes rolling on and on.
Jenny Wheeler: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Martin.
Martin Walker: Good talking to you again. Keep well.
Jenny Wheeler: Thank you. Same to you. Bye.
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