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A Russian billionaire, a secret agent at Sizewell and the chills of a fresh cold war...

PUBLISHED: 19:05 27 December 2018

‘Peter Duck’, the former Arthur Ransome boat now owned by Julia Jones, coming back into the River Deben in the early 1960s when those masts at Bawdsey were still such a feature        Picture: COURTESY JULIA JONES

'Peter Duck', the former Arthur Ransome boat now owned by Julia Jones, coming back into the River Deben in the early 1960s when those masts at Bawdsey were still such a feature Picture: COURTESY JULIA JONES

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'Scary' military no-go areas such as Bawdsey and Orfordness really sparked the imagination of Julia Jones

Julia Jones at Woodbridge in 2009. With character Liam, she wanted to look at the children who can seem almost invisible within their families  Picture: Alex FairfullJulia Jones at Woodbridge in 2009. With character Liam, she wanted to look at the children who can seem almost invisible within their families Picture: Alex Fairfull

What’s that phrase about art imitating life? (Or is it the other way round?) Anyway, Julia Jones had nearly finished her latest Suffolk adventure story – featuring a Russian billionaire, a sinister secret agent at Sizewell and the winds of a fresh cold war – when the real-life ex-Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury. Crikey. Can she tell me this coming Saturday’s winning lottery numbers, by any chance?

The Essex-based author says hers is a made-up tale, but its timely fiction does consider the damage that can occur when nations play out their own struggles in a different country’s territory.

The story, Pebble, is the sixth and penultimate title in her nautical-flavoured Strong Winds series launched more than seven years ago with The Salt-Stained Book.

It’s set in the early summer of 2012, after Russian president Vladimir Putin is returned to power and before the London Olympics. The drama unfolds on the Suffolk coast – from Bawdsey, near Felixstowe, to Lowestoft.

It can be read at different levels, says Julia: as an unexpected reflection on current political tensions, and as an account of a child facing a devastating life-changing experience. It’s aimed at readers aged 12 up.

Central character Liam, whose home is a flat within Bawdsey Manor, has been more affected by brother Luke’s narrow escape than anyone realises. (That was in earlier book The Lion of Sole Bay). Almost 10, he’s lonely within his large family – a single “pebble” on a shingle beach. No-one has any idea why his school work is suffering, or why he’s stopping playing football. He meets an elderly man, with dementia, who lives in a care home, too.

Julia Jones (middle) with her mother and Claudia Myatt. Claudia has illustrated Julia’s new book, Pebble        Picture: COURTESY JULIA JONESJulia Jones (middle) with her mother and Claudia Myatt. Claudia has illustrated Julia’s new book, Pebble Picture: COURTESY JULIA JONES

Liam goes on a half-term trip up the coast in teenage friend Donny’s Chinese junk Strong Winds (Donny was in the first book of the series). They’re caught up in a complex plot involving the Russian billionaire and others. Liam struggles to protect his family from unseen threats as events bring both positive discoveries and “permanent collateral damage”.

Julia thinks the book has its roots deep within her childhood, “when Suffolk was full of forbidden places – Bawdsey, Orfordness… it’s a very Cold War coast – and that was quite a sinister and scary feeling, all those years ago.

“Also, little things like hours on the beach spent hunting for carnelians as a child. I truly love the area I’m writing about here.”

With Liam, she “wanted to look at the children who can seem almost invisible within their families and how relationships are always changing and being renegotiated. I love step-siblings and half-siblings and how they all manage to cope”.

Presumably that strand about the man in the care home comes from Julia’s experiences with her mother.

“Yes, you’re right about the dementia. Mum lives in a nursing home near me now… I thought it was a failure and disaster when I could no longer manage the panic-stricken dashes from Essex to Suffolk when mum’s illness was out of control, but since then I’ve become so very, very fond of the other old people in her locked dementia suite, and deeply grateful to the nurses and care-workers who look after them. I go there twice a day and I am honoured to be accepted as part of the team.

Julia Joness father, George, bought Peter Duck in 1957, when Julia was three years old     Picture: Alex FairfullJulia Joness father, George, bought Peter Duck in 1957, when Julia was three years old Picture: Alex Fairfull

“Pebble is dedicated to them, and some of the fleeting portraits do come from daily observation.”

Website Lovereading4kids called The Salt-Stained Book a “Swallows and Amazons for the 21st century but with a modern twist”, and Julia reckons her new offering has echoes of Arthur Ransome’s novel Peter Duck.

Apt, really, as the Woodbridge-born writer was three when she first sailed in one-time Suffolk resident Ransome’s yacht of the same name. Now she owns it. But that’s another story…

* Pebble is £8.99. www.golden-duck.co.uk

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