People used to tell Colin Bateman he had the perfect job. Well, what’s not to like about missing the English winters and being paid to watch sport around the world?
As a cricket correspondent for the Daily Express, he followed the team around places such as Australia, South Africa, India and the West Indies all expenses paid. Members of the Barmy Army, the band of fans who loyally support England through thick and thin, used to say to him: “Need someone to carry your bags?”
Then there were the trips across the Channel to report on the Tour de France – and the chance to sample some of the continent’s best food and wine. In 2011, Colin switched from cricket to become the Olympic correspondent at the Express to enjoy the excitement of London 2012 and the intrigue of the Winter Games in Sochi two years later. And yet something still nagged away.
No matter how much he enjoyed covering sports and the immediacy of the demands of producing copy for a daily national newspaper, he had always wanted the ultimate writing challenge of producing a novel.
“I guess every journalist thinks that deep down they have a novel somewhere inside them and I was no different.” he says. “Producing 800 words in 45 minutes was never a problem, so what could be so hard about producing 80,000 words over a year or so? I soon discovered exactly what.”
On his 60th birthday, Colin went to see his sports editor at the Daily Express and handed in his notice. He had had enough of travelling, working every weekend and the ever-increasing demands of modern journalism that required writing for the website as much as the newspaper. He wanted to spend more time at the family home in Cranbrook and tackle that long-awaited project of becoming an author of fiction.
“I had written two books previously, but both about sport. I wanted to write something that had nothing to do with sport and where I could let my imagination take charge. I loved reading modern fiction – the likes of Ian Rankin, William Boyd, David Lodge and Ian McEwan – and I wanted to have a crack at it.”
Three years later the result is “A Dreadful Trade”, a thriller set in Sussex and Kent that takes its evocative lead from the county’s history of smuggling, although this is very much a story of today.
Colin will be at The Rye Bookshop on Saturday April 28, 10am-3pm, to talk about his book and sign copies.
The story’s lead character Tom Kidd, who has just lost his job as a journalist and been kicked out of the matrimonial home, takes himself off to a holiday let on the coast to decide what to do next in his life only to find himself embroiled in in the mysterious death of a young artist and the sinister world of smuggling.
A body is washed up at a secretive scientific research site near Dover but the police do not seem interested. Kidd wonders why. The dead man’s girlfriend is also convinced there is more to it than accidental death by drowning. But when Kidd starts asking a few questions, the close-knit local community does not take too kindly to this outsider prying into their business.
While set predominantly around the Cinque Ports, the story also takes us into scientific work surrounding rare orchids at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, a link Colin has been careful to research thoroughly.
“I have good friends who are botanists in Edinburgh and the conservation work they do runs through the book. They also told me about the murky world of plant smuggling, which I never knew existed.”
Now finally published, Colin is discovering that much of the hard work of being an author is selling a novel, although local feedback has been very encouraging.
“A lot of people have told me they really enjoyed it, especially the local flavour to it. A few local book clubs have made it their book of the month, and I am always happy to go along and talk to them about it – and face their criticism if there are bits they don’t like.
“I learned so much – and made so many mistakes initially – writing this first book that I am keen to do another, and I think it would lend itself to a follow up. Simple things like getting geography and timing accurate is so important otherwise the narrative loses credibility.
“Then you have to invent believable characters to populate your story – but not too many otherwise it becomes confusing. You have to give your main characters depth too – and of course, have a bit of a romantic angle. I have done that with a bit of advice from my wife”.
A Dreadful Trade (Edgehill Books) is available in paperback at £9.95 from bookshops, Hartley Dyke Farmshop in Cranbrook or direct from Colin, who will do special reduced rates for book clubs.
Photo: Colin Bateman