I'm off doing events in Manchester (tonight, 7:00), Glasgow (Thursday) and Belfast (Friday) this week, as tomorrow marks the official UK publication of my new novel, KILLER MOVE. The book is set in Florida, specifically in Sarasota and Longboat Key. This is an area I know pretty well from my childhood, albeit as a vacation destination — I grew up in the US until I was seven, mainly in Florida, and at some point started taking trips to Lido Key, the next island down from Longboat. This continued into my early and mid-teens, by which time we were living back in England.
We always stayed at a motel called the Lido Beach Inn, a classic of its kind: U-shaped, two storey, open to the beach at the end, a swimming pool between the arms. For somewhere that we can only have stayed for a few weeks in total during my life, it left me (and my sister, who by co-incidence is on vacation in Florida right now) with a number of very resonant memories.
I can remember going for banner meals at the Columbia Restaurant at St Armands Circle, a small and celebrated local chain that also has an outpost in St Augustine. I always had the black bean soup and the 1905 Salad, the dressing of which I painstakingly learned how to reproduce many years later. I can remember getting sunburned to a degree that would now have my mother handcuffed and hauled off in disgrace for crimes against juvenile skin — causing a fury of itching that turned more than one night into an endless wakeful purgatory — but that’s how we rolled, back then: sun lotion was for influencing the colour of your tan, not protection. I can remember being woken early each morning, too early, by my newshound father catching up on the early morning television news (a novelty to him, as England had no television before late afternoon in those days). I remember playing table tennis on the motel’s ramshackle table, a brief respite from the sun. I can remember turning a somersault in the pool and coming up to find my nose bleeding profusely — an indication that (a) it probably wasn’t such a hot idea to do that kind of thing when more-or-less straight off a plane and (b) I was already getting older. I remember long visits to the Ringling Museum, and getting burned to crap then, too. I can remember on later trips taking my very first and very early driving lessons in the parking lot, being allowed to reverse the car out of its space, turn it around and pull it up to the front of the motel. I remember encountering pineapple on a pizza, a typically ‘Floribbean’ culinary flourish that was strikingly controversial at the time.
I can remember walking endlessly along the beach, of course, looking for sand dollars, and what happened if you turned and headed left. This led you along an increasingly less developed stretch of the shore line, past a more upmarket hotel, and then eventually — when the tide was out, and you could get around the point — to the still-wild lower section of the island, a jungle place of scrabby trees and overgrown creek inlets that’s little-changed since early man first rocked up to that part of the North American continent, said “This place looks pretty chilled,” and then sat around inventing Margaritas and waiting for Jimmy Buffet to evolve.
For a long time these indelible mental postcards from the 1970s were all I had, but then, a couple of years ago, I went back. After a two-day stay in Disneyworld (during which my son was flamboyantly jetlagged and doggedly bad-tempered) we drove on down and stayed at a condo resort on Longboat Key. Two things struck me about the experience — which led, in large part, to my coming up with the story for KILLER MOVE.
The first is how things change, of course. St Armands Circle actually looks pretty much the same (including, thankfully, the Columbia Restaurant), but other things have vanished, or appeared. For years there was a large abandoned hotel not far from the Circle, whose looming form I always found wholly fascinating. There’s a new hotel there now. More shockingly, the Lido Beach Inn is gone, too. It’s hard to even locate its former site, but I eventually worked it out. There’s a small condo development on the spot, and even that doesn’t look sparkling new. Bill Moore, the main character in KILLER MOVE, goes through the same process of searching and recollection, seeing Lido Key through my eyes, or perhaps it’s vice versa. It’s very strange to stand on an emotionally-charged spot knowing that your younger self stood there too, with no inkling of the future passing of a later version of himself, one with a wife and a child and a grey hair or two, a man with deadlines and regrets and achievements, a man whose mother (she of the lackadaisical suntan regime, though to be fair it’s never easy to get kids to use the stuff, and she was unimprovable in every other way), is nearly ten years gone.
Strange, too, to stand on a street near a site that is so very charged in your recollection, and there be no sign of it, as if it had only ever been a dream. But it wasn’t a dream, or if it was, it’s still going on. There is still the heat, after all, and punishing humidity, and the air of cheerful dilapidation that’s characteristic of old Florida, especially on the coast. Pelicans still trace the waterline on their way home at the end of the day. The people are still relaxed and friendly and wearing deplorable shirts. The trees are still hung with Spanish Moss, like the ghostly remnants of some long-ago festivity. You can still buy bean dip and guacamole and tortilla chips, and eat them, your skin tingling, as you watch the sun go down.
You can go home again, in fact — and that’s because you are home. I can still visit the Lido Beach Inn if I want. It doesn’t have to exist. The world may change and erode and re-configure, but stored away in your emotional responses is every state of being that you have experienced, along with the facts about the world as they then stood. Within the museum of your mind, and your relationships to the people who really matter, is home.
The second thing that struck me is how these and other early experiences of America left me with a bond to the country — a connection which is leading this August, at the grand old age of forty six, to our family leaving London to spend a year in California. I’m aware, a little uncomfortably, that this adventure may have the same effect on my son as my childhood did on me, and that (many years from now, or perhaps only a few) he may wind up making the same journey across the Atlantic, looking for his memories.
When he does so I hope that he finds, amidst all the things that will have changed in the meantime, that some remain the same: that he is loved, and that he is happy, and I hope that should he happen to pass his younger self on the street one day, both are broadly content with what they have done.
I’d like to dedicate this post to my father, who’ll be seventy five in a week's time. I sincerely hope that when — and if — I get to that age, my son is as happy with the choices I’m making now as I am with the ones my dad made over forty years ago.