Alan Whelan


The Improbability Field: Polish it till you can’t see it

My anti-hero Frank Harris has gone to the Grenadier, a London pub that used to be the officers’ mess for the Regimental Guards, and is now the off-duty hangout for many Grenadier Guards.

It’s July in 1880, but then as now you’re likely to find moderately famous people: Madonna, for example today, but Bertie, Prince of Wales in 1880. And his mistress du jour, Carolyn “La Belle” Otero.

For Maguffin reasons Harris needs to find out where and when a coming secret conference involving Queen Vic, the heads of the Army and Air Force, Prime Minister Gladstone, former PM Disraeli, and assorted other politicians will be held.

My set-up is that Bertie is drinking an absinthe cocktail, probably not his first of the day. La Belle Otero is flirting with Harris, not because she’s interested but to punish Bertie for inattention and make him jealous.

Harris and Bertie have a conversation that starts with the Prince making a show of being condescending, but things get increasingly barbed.

That’s “condescending” in its positive 19th century sense, where a rich or powerful or very famous person tries to make someone who isn’t rich, powerful or famous feel comfortable. Anyway he soon shifts to patronising, and then nasty.

Harris grew up in America, and comments that the Prince of Wales’s job is like a US Vice-President, useless unless the top job’s current incumbent dies.

Bertie says that’s not so. He’s in charge of royal duties when his mother’s away on other business.

Harris snorts. He bets that doesn’t happen very often.

That’s when and why Bertie says Mummy will be out of London in 12 days. And he says something about Britain relying on victory again, against France and Germany. (The British have been alarmed by sightings of French and German ambassadors and heads of state being too friendly by half, since the British rely on keeping Europe divided. That’s what the conference is about.)

So Harris has the date, and a powerful hint about where the conference will be held, though he hasn’t understood that hint yet.

Bertie leaves when La Belle Otero starts paying attention to him again. Harris is happy.

But three Grenadier Guards noticed him pumping the prince for information on the queen’s whereabouts, and try to arrest him as a spy. He has to fight unexpectedly dirty and make a run for it.

That’s the plan, and thanks for being my sounding board. Now I just have to paper over the cracks and general reek of absolute improbability as I write it.

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