It was, admittedly, a strange request to make, and it must have sounded very peculiar indeed over the phone, because initially the voice at the other end was suspicious.
‘What kind of research for a novel?’
I explained. ‘I need to know if a church organ can make any kind of sound after it’s been abandoned for about fifty years.’
‘Do you mean one of the characters jettisons a church organ somewhere?’
‘Oh, no. The church in the book – well, actually I’ve made it the entire village – has been abandoned after chemical warfare testing in the 1960s.’
‘Oh, I see. Like that place in Scotland – Anthrax Island. Or Sellafield.’
I thanked whatever gods might be appropriate for the sometimes-contentious, occasionally-mysterious Cold War research that has become uneasily etched onto the fabric of England’s folklore, and said that yes, this was exactly what I meant. A forsaken village – actually a poisoned village. And, this clarified, the suspicious gentleman – who held the daunting title of Music Director of something-or-other for several counties – was instantly intrigued and amazingly helpful.
Ten days later I went out to a fourteenth century church to meet him and someone from a firm of organ tuners and restorers.
It turned into quite a party. The organ-builders had come in a force of three, (grandfather, father and son), the Music Director came along to unlock the church, and a couple of grave-diggers, who were leaning on their spades outside the church exchanging epigrammatical wit like the last act of Hamlet, got involved as well. Inside the church it seemed some of the organ pipes had become clogged and needed cleaning. Something might have got into them, said the elder statesman of the trio. (At this point Hamlet seemed to have yielded place to an episode of Dad’s Army – the one where they hide the pigeons in the organ loft.)
I explained the problem again. I wanted a church organ, abandoned for half a century in a desolate and eerie old church, to emit recognisable sounds when the village was re-opened. The organ itself would most likely be half-rotting, but it had to be still capable of creating music.
This was greeted with silence, so I said, ‘I don’t mean a Bach fugue needs to be bashed out, just a few chords. Or,’ I said hopefully, as the silence lengthened, ‘a single note. Any note would do.’
By this time I was ready to abandon the plot, write a totally different book in the hope that my editor would have forgotten the original synopsis, and beat it out of the Saxon arch door.
But incredibly, stops were pulled out (literally and metaphorically), and the trio of organ-makers nodded solemnly, and said, yes, it could be done. A wooden organ-frame would rot, but metal wind pipes were indestructible. You might drop a set of metal organ pipes in the Atlantic ocean, if you were so minded, and leave them there for a hundred years. They would still be capable of producing sound. The trio proceeded to dismantle the organ there and then, cheerfully calling down to one another as they did so to mind your toes, silly beggar, the E-flat’s coming down.
They spread the metal wind pipes at my feet, and said I could have whatever sound I wanted. Thin reedy sounds from the small pipes, booming sonerous ones from the large ones. It was just a question of blowing into each pipe – two or three together if it could be managed. It was pretty much the same principle as a flute or a recorder.
They proceeded to demonstrate. The smallest pipe gave a happy tootle, which sounded like a 1930’s Mercedes. At the other end of the scale was a massive giant’s-drainpipe structure, which took all three men to lift it. That sounded like the QE2 coming in to dock.
The grave-diggers came in at this point and helped out by trying to play Three Blind Mice.
‘Try it for yourself,’ said the senior organ tuner to me, so I did. I tried them all, in turn, from falsetto to bass. It was a lot more fun than I had expected, and best of all, the sounds were exactly what I wanted. The musically-knowledgeable hero could very easily prowl through the shadowy desolation of the old church, and try to re-create a fragment of its plainchant history with several of the dispersed pipes. The villain, up to no good outside, could be very satisfactorily spooked by the sounds.
Research for psychological thrillers, has frequently taken me into some extremely dark places, but the morning I spent with three organ builders and tuners, a County Music Director, and two gravediggers, while researching for background to What Lies Beneath, was one of the very nicest and most entertaining pieces of field research I have ever carried out.