Arrested by Iranian gunboats
LINDA Davies writes magical adventure stories for children – the newspaper Emirates Today goes so far as to call her Dubai’s Harry Potter – but her own life is as intriguing as the fiction she dreams up. Take the time she and her husband were held prisoner by Iran for 13 days as suspected spies, freed only after behind-the-scenes intervention by London. At one point they’d believed they were being expelled from Iran but instead found themselves forced to board a flight to Tehran. Having landed, they were taken away in a van. “I was sure we were being driven to our execution,” she admitted later. The incident had come in the autumn of 2005, less than a year after Linda, husband Rupert Wise and their children had moved to Dubai – part of the United Arab Emirates. The couple and a friend were sailing a catamaran in the Persian Gulf, near a military island, when they were halted by two gunboats and taken to Iran for the first of 40-odd interrogations in locations ranging from a dilapidated building to a five-star hotel. They sought to assure their questioners they were merely on a leisurely trip. After three days, Linda was allowed to phone the children – then aged seven, four and just one – “which was unspeakably painful”. Fortunately, their nanny realised something was very wrong and contacted the British embassy. They were freed after nearly a fortnight.
Linda wrote later that the experience left her looking over her shoulder in the months afterwards, while daughter Lara developed separation anxiety and didn‘t feel secure for a year or so. “I’ve been brought up to believe that through your own force of will and intellect you can chart your own path through life,” she explained. “When I was yanked so dramatically off this path, I became aware of how fine the line is between a comfortable life and a living hell.”
How does she reflect on it now, more than four years on? Does it give her nightmares?
“No, no it doesn’t. It seems quite unreal, actually – as if it happened to somebody else. If I spend too much time thinking about it, I can conjure up some of the horrible feelings I had then, but obviously I don’t want to do that. The lessons I learned are what I try to hang on to: which is not to worry about small, irrelevant idiocies and nonsense, and to remember what is important. Basically, that’s having my family healthy and happy and around me.”
Life hadn’t exactly been a mundane 9-5 existence in an English suburb before that. After graduating from Oxford in 1985 she spent seven years as an investment banker during some of the financial industry’s giddiest times.
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Rupert she met through a friend, finding herself sitting next to him at a dinner. “We got engaged within six weeks and then married six weeks later. And then moved to Peru – as one does . . .” A Cambridge graduate, he’d served in the army before joining the investment bank Robert Fleming & Co. He was dispatched to Peru to set up an arm of the bank there.
At one stage a gun battle erupted outside the couple’s house in Lima – Rupert grabbing a pistol and going outside with their bodyguard to see what was happening. All of which explains why Linda’s looking forward to her family settling in Suffolk when their globetrotting days come to an end in a couple of years.
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“We’re building a house just outside Southwold. We fell in love with East Anglia about 10 years ago. We wanted to have a holiday in the UK rather than brave airports with young children. I’d never heard of Southwold; then two friends mentioned it in the same week. So I found somewhere to rent. Off we went, and completely fell in love with it, going back every year.
“We always knew we were going to return to the UK at some stage, and Southwold seems just the most fabulous place to bring up children. We love the sea. We love swimming in cold water, believe it or not; and, with the skies, you don’t get the light pollution you get in the western corridor down in Wiltshire and so on.”
Linda, who says she rather cherishes the quiet life rather than her previous “excitements”, is also attracted to the peaceful nature of Suffolk.
“Also, I’m half Danish, so the landscape I’m sure is in my collective memory: my gene pool! My mother is Danish and we used to spend a lot of time in Denmark when I was a child. I love big skies, I love the sea, I love the really beautiful Constable landscapes. It’s very unspoilt. It doesn’t have the preciousness of some parts of the UK.
“It’s going to be, hopefully, where we spend the rest of our lives. We’re building our dream home – a home where our children, when they’re grown up, will want to come back to with their own families.”
The Southwold house will offer a view of the marshes and should boast a goodly number of green features, such as ground-sourced heating – “although I have no idea how it works, that heat exchange business that can heat a cold house and cool a hot one – and we’re going to have photo-voltaic or solar panels on the roof.
“My husband, I know, would like to have a couple of wind turbines – not great big ones, before anyone gets upset – but 6ft-high things. But I don’t think we will have those. There’s a grey water system, too, so water is reused. And we’ll have water-butts everywhere.”
The family returns annually to England for an extended summer holiday: usually a London visit first, followed by a trip to see Linda’s mother in Wales, and then a month or so in Suffolk before heading back to Dubai, where their villa home is close to the beach.
“We rent somewhere outside Aldeburgh. That’s what we did last year, and we’re doing it again this year. It’s such a good chill-out.
“I’ve got a routine where we all get up early, I drag all three of them into the sea – had to pay them a pound a time to go in, because, living in Dubai, it’s quite a contrast: especially when it’s 45C! I didn’t want them growing up soft and not going in the sea [in colder England], so I had to start paying them a pound! Now they love it. The trouble is, they won’t let me off the pound a time!”
Ah, that’s the legacy of a banking background and that bonus culture!
“I wouldn’t say it‘s bribing; it’s incentivising them!”
Is it a culture shock living in the UAE?
“You know, with some things, going back to the UK is a culture shock in a negative way. My boys get really appalled and embarrassed when they see all these top-shelf magazines in service stations. That’s all censored out here, which I think is a really good thing. You go back and see acres of flesh on show and think ‘Urgh . . .’ And people – sorry, this is sounding like a negative rant – drunk in the streets. That’s a culture shock.
“Going home, obviously, there are things that are fantastic about a liberal society, but there are other things that aren’t fantastic.”
Dubai’s religious culture is easy to live with if you’re respectful and sensible, she feels. “You wouldn’t do it anyway, but you’d be arrested if you went down the street swigging from a bottle. Dubai‘s a very, very civilised place. Moderate Islam is actually a very nice society to live in.
“Yes, we’re in the Middle East and we have the muezzin call to prayer, which is actually lovely. So you hear that instead of church bells. It’s part of us. We’ve been here five and a half years now.”
Linda has no regrets about leaving the world of high finance, which she says was always a means to an end. Money made would one day allow her to give up work and write.
“I love being my own boss. And I love writing. And I love being on my own . . . which you can’t really do as an investment banker. You can’t stretch your arms out. Swing them and you’ll hit someone! I need my four hours at my desk on my own in the morning. I love that.”
n Fire Djinn is published by Jerboa Books at �6.99. ISBN 978-9948435112. In the second story of the series Finn Kennedy, his cousin Georgina and their friend Fred are camping in the deserts of Dubai when an unseen voice reveals an horrific vision foretelling the end of the world. The children realise they must again step out of their normal lives and enter the terrifying kingdom of the Dark Fire Djinn.
How Alexander McCall Smith kept me sane
INSPIRATION . . . You can’t buy it. Instead, it usually pops up when you least expect it. Linda Davies hadn’t long moved to Dubai when she picked up a shell on a beach. The pattern inside looked like a map. “I thought ‘What if I were a young boy and saw this map to a hidden kingdom? What if my parents were kidnapped and taken to this kingdom? It could be an evil Djinn . . .’ It all started, like lots of good ideas, from that one little epiphany.”
She started writing a story for children and had finished a chapter, in which the parents of a key character were captured at sea, when art began to imitate life and she and her husband were arrested by Iranian forces! About a year later she returned to her tale. Sea Djinn was issued by a Dubai-based publisher in late 2007.
Djinn, says Linda, are creatures alluded to in both Islam and Christianity. They can be good or evil and can “shape-shift” – taking human or animal form, or appearing as an object.
After Sea Djinn have come Fire Djinn and Storm Djinn (the latter due out in the UK this autumn). She’s working on the second draft of King of the Djinn and next year will write War of the Djinn – the final story in the quintet.
She’d previously written a handful of books for adults, so why the switch to tales for youngsters?
Well, she says, she’d written as much as she could in the way of financial thrillers and had always wanted to write about magic.
“It’s a fantastic world where these children get involved in the ancient war between good and evil: all on a big scale with heroes and heroines, fighting and overcoming the odds. Children develop their magical powers. It’s a metaphor for growing up: a hymn of empowerment for children, if you like. They set the agenda: they steal the boats and set sail for the Dark Kingdom, to rescue the parents. They are the ones who can save the day, outwitting the adults and beating the Djinn.”
Husband Rupert might spend his working day in high finance – his business involves sourcing funds from the Middle East for private equity investment in the US and UK – but he’s happy to help road-test his wife’s creative outpourings.
He will read aloud the first and probably the fifth drafts of a new Djinn adventure to the couple’s children – Hugh, Tom and Lara, aged 11, nine and six respectively – while mum monitors reactions. “If they start to struggle, I’ll know I’m too wordy and the scenes too long! If they’re on the edges of their seats, and there are hysterical protests when he stops reading, then I’ll know I’m getting it right.”
Published in Dubai, her books have to be approved by the National Information Council of the UAE. Has there ever been any comeback?
“There was only one case. In the Qur’an, angels are described as being made from light. I think I once said air. We had to have lots of stickers made for the first addition, that were stuck on to correct it!”
The author herself read voraciously as a child. Favourites included the Famous Five and Secret Seven series, The Naughtiest Girl novels and the Silver Brumby stories. “With a book, you’re never bored and you’re never lonely, and you’ve got that permanent little friend you can put in a bag and take anywhere with you.
“When I was held captive, I had an Alexander McCall Smith book. I meant to write to him and say ‘Thank you for keeping me sane.’ I read it twice a day, every day, and it was wonderful because I could lose myself in middle-class Edinburgh.”
Born near Glasgow, Linda was raised in south Wales – her father a university professor. After the local comprehensive school she read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. From the mid 1980s she spent seven years as an investment banker, describing the training programme in New York as “a war of attrition”.
After working as an investment banker she had a spell on the trading floor, selling bonds. Vast profits could be made in minutes but, money aside, the job had little to offer.
Linda had tried unsuccessfully to write a novel – 40-odd potential first pages had been started and thrown away – before real inspiration came on a summer afternoon in 1991. Feeling angry with her boss, she was musing about how much damage could be done to a bank through insider trading on the foreign exchange market. Hmmh . . . a decent plot for a thriller . . .
Life took on a pattern of work, gym, eat and write – in longhand. After six months she realised the regime was taking its toll, could cause a calamitous error at work, and gave up her job to write full-time.
Nest of Vipers was published in 1994. Linda and Rupert married the following year and in 1996 Wilderness of Mirrors came out. It explores the relationships between security services, drug smugglers, arms dealers, the diamond industry and stock markets.
Into the Fire features a derivatives trader suspected of fraud who flees to Peru, only to find herself in greater danger.
Something Wild, published in 2001, is about Bowie bonds and the music industry. (Singer David Bowie received millions of dollars by foregoing a decade’s worth of royalties.) Then came Final Settlement, in which an American heiress is nearly killed in a car accident.
After completing the Djinn quartet, Linda has in mind another book for adults. Then, once settled in Southwold, she wants to develop an idea she’s harboured for years – “about something very specific in the area, which I can’t give away! Slightly magical and mystical . . .”