Author inspired in latest novel by visits to Bexhill and Hastings

widows and orphans by michael arditti
widows and orphans by michael arditti

ONE of the biggest local news stories of recent years is the inspiration for a finely-observed new book.

Michael Arditti already has eight novels to his credit. Now with Widows and Orphans (Arcadia Books Ltd., £14.99) he skillfully weaves the destruction of a seaside pier and the struggles of an editor to save his family-owned weekly newspaper together with a complex web of inter-personal relationships.

Widows and Orphans may be fiction but the very title reveals an insight into the workings of newspapers (“widows” and “orphans” are print trade jargon for ill-placed type). The setting might be the fictional Sussex town of “Francombe” but, rather like E.F. Benson’s use of “Tilling” for Rye in the Mapp and Lucia stories, the inspiration is unmistakably Hastings, whose pier was wrecked by fire in 2010.

The author visited Bexhill and Hastings as part of his research and also picked the brains of Observer staff.

Duncan Neville is struggling against recession and technological change to keep afloat the Francombe and Salter Mercury, founded 150 years before by his great, great grandfather.

He is a principled traditionalist, a campaigning journalist but with a tangled love-life; an editor seeking to expose a ruthless developer whilst failing to engage an apathetic generation to become readers.

Michael Arditti has no background in journalism yet captures the atmosphere, the pressures, the disparate characters inherent in small provincial newspapers with an accuracy that will send a shiver up the spine of those like me who have spent a lifetime meeting weekly deadlines.

Here is the squalid chaos of a hard-pressed editorial office. Here also are the petty jealousies but also the dogged shared commitment to put the often-unpalatable truth before the public. There are revealing vignettes such as the golden wedding anniversary interviewee who gooses the reporter after giving her the quote: “Never looked at another woman...” Now, where have I heard that one before?

His diligence in research was not wasted. The bulk of this absorbing read lies in Duncan Neville’s tangled relationships as he confronts 21st Century society’s ills head-on.

His fellow share-holders are his autocratic widowed mother and his embittered sister. Nothing is simple. The new love of his life comes with “baggage” which includes a disgraced hospital consultant husband in prison for defrauding the NHS.

Keeping the “Mercury” afloat may be but the back-drop to all this but it is the stuff of reality which gives Widows and Orphans the “bite” which together with its wry humour makes it such a good read.